Jennifer Egan wants to save literary fiction from itself

A woman in a dark-colored shirt and skirt stands in a field with water in the background.
“To do something fully, you have to believe it will change everything,” says Jennifer Egan, whose new novel, “The Candy House,” continues to stretch the possibilities of fiction.
(Pieter M. van Hattem)

On the Shelf

'The Candy House'

By Jennifer Egan
Scribner: 352 pages, $28

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I’m supposed to note Jennifer Egan’s age and appearance (59, incredibly lovely). She’s warm and funny, deeply charming. We met on one of those March days that offered that first breath of spring. We had a tight window — she had to get home to her mom who had just flown in — and afterward I worried I’d asked none of the right profile questions. I had no idea how she felt about being the mother of young adult sons during the pandemic. I didn’t ask where she writes or what she eats when she does. Instead, we walked circles around Manhattan’s East Village, talking about what fiction might be worth.


In a moment of cultural wariness of the novel — evident in the proliferation of narrowly constructed autofiction and the supremacy of television — Egan remains a true believer. It’s the thing that struck me, rereading her work. Her books are filled with artifice, devices, doubles, spies and sinking ships. “I believe in novels very much,” she said. “I also really know that sadness, loving something whose cultural power is waning, but I’m not giving up.”

The rare writer for whom each book has been an entirely different gambit, Egan has continually worked to stretch what both the novel and the novelist are capable of. She’s written a coming-of-age and a gothic novel. She once described the image she held in her mind while writing her novel “Look at Me,” about a model, a teenager and a terrorist, as a figure eight. Manhattan Beach,” the 2017 historical novel that plays it straightest — her uncle loved it; “I have never heard from him about other books” — felt like a departure because it was so familiar. But for Egan, it was still a formal stretch and, she says, the toughest to write.

Yet it was her 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel-in-stories “A Visit From the Goon Squad” that catapulted an already very good career into the stratosphere. Perhaps best known (at least in circles of writers) for its chapter-as-PowerPoint presentation, it felt exciting not because slideshows were particularly new in 2010 but because the book was able to synthesize this oddity of life back into art. Critics and readers love to pronounce the death of the novel, but “Goon Squad” — with all its formal acrobatics and jumps in time and point of view, imbued so fully with our own yearnings — emphasized the form’s vitality.

The Candy House,” out this week, expands the world of “Goon Squad.” It’s part sequel and part prequel, but it’s not a return; Egan never left. An early chapter dates back to 2010, she told me: “Lulu the Spy” was published by the New Yorker as “Black Box” in 2012. And for a year and a half, she worked on “Manhattan Beach” and “Candy House” simultaneously — until “it became clear that ‘Manhattan Beach’ would require all of my time.”

While the idea of a sequel might feel surprising to those who associate Egan’s work with innovation, the fact that she wanted to dive deeper into the world that proved the most elastic makes a good amount of sense. Returning to the same people gave her room to stretch them too: “I’m really interested in the ways that we are such a mix of contradictory qualities; the very same person is heroic and terribly selfish.”

“Candy House” fleshes out characters we only got glimpses of in “Goon Squad,” but it also offered Egan the opportunity to write a spy chapter, invent a new technology and build stories via emails and tweets. It’s worth noting that — unlike recent books that have sought to replicate the very online experience — none of these read like tweets or emails: They read like story. This is the thrill of both “Goon Squad” and “Candy House”: They exploit this new and strange material, but their greatest pleasures feel particular to books.

"The Candy House," By Jennifer Egan


Another novel twist in the service of old-fashioned storytelling comes in “Candy House’s” sci-fi flourish. In “Goon Squad,” Bix Bouton was the Black boyfriend to Lizzie; evading her racist parents, he wandered the city and eventually met up with two much more prominent characters on a fateful day. In the new novel, Bix, now center stage, invents a panopticon, Own Your Unconscious, which allows one to enter other people’s memories. In Egan’s hands, it’s a red herring, proof that the dream of knowing all is a hollow illusion. It’s not dystopian exactly — it’s too fun and fleshy for that — but it is, in a way, a warning.

“I guess to do something fully, you have to believe it will change everything,” Egan said. “And I, for some reason, have a delusionary ability to think that about what I’m working on.” I asked how she deals with the disappointment of returning to a world unchanged by her work. “It’s just the feeling of getting it right.”

For Egan, getting it right has to do with fulfilling a reader’s craving — the word “craving” appears in the first line of “Candy House” and the last chapter of “Goon Squad” — for mystery and imagination, as opposed to the barrage of information, the much emptier imagistic titillations, that we find much easier to access.

Our walk led us to the East River, where construction forced us across a series of footbridges. Egan seemed to stifle a desire to pick up pieces of trash. We kept circling the same constellation of words: imagination, information, pleasure, authenticity. She told me about the “layers of readers” she uses to make sure she is offering the intended experience. “My goal is to give pleasure, honestly,” she said. “I love hearing that people miss subway stops” reading her work.

In addition to fiction, Egan believes in another slightly outmoded concept: the human imagination. “I think we can do anything,” she said. She was talking about story but also about vaccines and antibiotics. As one of those novelists who has not always had as much faith in fiction or in people, I pressed her to explain. Abashedly, I brought up a podcast I’d been listening to, about Ukraine. (Egan is not a big fan of podcasts; she listens mostly to 18th century novels.) I’d heard the historian Timothy Snyder talking about the particularity of this moment having less to do with impending catastrophe than with the feeling of being doomed to stagnation, unable to imagine what else might be possible.


Jennifer Egan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "A Visit From the Goon Squad," stands in a field with trees.
“One of the paradoxes that led me into the ‘Candy House’ is the fact that we seem to not be able to predict anything,” says Jennifer Egan.
(Pieter M. van Hattem)

“One of the paradoxes that led me into the ‘Candy House’ is the fact that we seem to not be able to predict anything,” she said. “Despite the amount of information we have, we didn’t know Trump was going to get elected. We didn’t know 9/11 was going to happen.” The paradox is the glut of information and the dearth of observation. “I think the media saturation … creates a distortion, which is you need to be the center of a universe. You need to create a universe that revolves around you. And if you don’t succeed at that, you are invisible and powerless.”

This felt connected to so much recent fiction focused on the “I,” but also to the self-torture of scrolling one’s phone in the middle of the night because what if one more tweet might somehow tell us how we might survive?

There’s a character in “Candy House” who yells randomly in public in an attempt to access authenticity, to force people to more fully inhabit the world. “His goal was to create a disruption so extreme that it jolted genuine responses,” Egan writes. This feels close to what she does in her work: not to mirror the world, but to harness the tremendous power of fiction, in all its guises, in order to force us to stop and look at it.

“One thing I really have felt as I get older is that, in the end, art is the thing that lasts,” she said, “because it ends up being the artifact. It’s the seashells that are left after everything is gone. I mean, how much do we know about the information of Hadrian’s reign in Rome? But the art is there.” It’s the feeling that remains.

Strong is a critic and the author, most recently, of the novel “Want.”