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'The Candy House' cautions: Be careful of things that at first appear inviting

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

If it were possible to relive your memories and the memories of others, would you? It's a moral dilemma that the characters face in Jennifer Egan's latest book, "The Candy House."

JENNIFER EGAN: In the world that I've created, never trust a candy house is an expression that people use.

FADEL: Meaning be careful of things that at first appear inviting.

EGAN: And later, the phrase comes up again in a more positive light, which is a kind of aging rocker who's hoping that his, you know, remixing of old songs by this band that was really popular in the '90s will be a kind of candy house to bring in a whole generation of younger listeners.

FADEL: "The Candy House" follows some of the same characters from Jennifer Egan's 2010 novel "A Visit From The Goon Squad." Their lives overlap. But she told me their backstories stand alone.

EGAN: When I was in one person's story, I didn't worry terribly about how they were connected to everyone else in that same way that our own sensibility - we are living our own lives and not necessarily thinking about the latticework of connection around us.

FADEL: Right.

EGAN: But I do think social media has made a lot of people more aware than they were before of the connections among us. This general sense of things being connected is something we live with more and more. And it really has kind of a technological origin.

FADEL: Right. And that's a huge theme in the book. Let's get into one of these - the characters that the novel opens with, Bix Bouton, now a successful tech entrepreneur who can barely go anywhere without being recognized. Tell us about him.

EGAN: Well, he appears very briefly in "A Visit From The Goon Squad," where he predicts the impact of social media.

FADEL: Right.

EGAN: And he talks about how everyone will be connected. So I knew when I wrote that - I had a feeling that he would go on to invent social media. And I wanted to revisit him after he had done that and achieved that sort of first-name tech-icon status. But the situation that I found myself exploring is Bix at 41, unable to come up with a new idea. I mean, he feels like his - everything he's done is nothing if he can't come up with something new. So he ends up disguising himself and going to a discussion group...

FADEL: Right.

EGAN: ...Hoping that somehow the conversation will spur an insight that will get him past this mental block. And it actually ends up working. So the machine that he ends up inventing allows people to externalize the entirety of their consciousnesses onto a cube for all kinds of practical reasons. They can use it if they have a brain injury. They can reinfuse healthy memory to solve that problem. They also have the option to upload all or part of their consciousnesses into a collective.

FADEL: Right. When I was reading this idea of like - you're putting your memories, your most personal thoughts into a box. And then you have the option to share them with the world. And people were doing it. And you're just asking yourself, why would you put your most personal thoughts out into the world like this with no control over them?

EGAN: Well, the urge to be known and be seen is so profound that I actually think people might do that along with a strong wish for authenticity that I think a lot of us feel in a highly mediated world. You know, there's this wish for something that feels raw, that feels real. And the media world tries to satisfy that wish, often with greater and greater feats of artificiality. The other thing is access - another really strong driver.

FADEL: Right.

EGAN: We have to give to get. That's how DNA information works. So I think those same forces that we see at work in our media world now are what I'm positing would move people to do this rather radical thing.

FADEL: Right. I mean, it did feel like looking slightly in the future world of the world we're living in right now. I mean, you mentioned DNA. I'm thinking of all these ancestry companies, where people are swabbing their cheeks, sending their information to a private company. But the curiosity of who you're connected to in the world overrode the concern about privacy for so many people, right?

EGAN: Absolutely. And I think that, as humans, and I feel this myself so much, we want the immediate gratification. And often that really overrides more long-term thoughts about consequences, especially when, in terms of, you know, privacy and data, what we were getting in the early days of social media was access. And that was really exciting...

FADEL: Yeah.

EGAN: ...Connection. We crave that. And who was even thinking about something like the attention economy? - that - the idea that we were paying with something other than money was just not something that I think a lot of people thought of early on. I certainly didn't.

FADEL: Yeah. I mean, I think for most people it was just a way to be like, oh, let me connect with an old middle school buddy, a high school buddy. And then it became something very different, which makes me think of Facebook, Meta, Mark Zuckerberg. I mean, Bix Bouton, to me, felt like a Mark Zuckerberg character. He invented this huge social media platform, first seen as freedom by creating access to information to everyone at their fingertips. But that type of freedom gave way to controversy - right? - about privacy issues and manipulations and surveillance.

EGAN: Exactly. And a movement arises in the course of the book called the Eluders.

FADEL: Right.

EGAN: And these are people who not only don't want to participate by sharing their consciousness or uploading it or anything, but people who don't want to inhabit the identities that they have in the internet. In other words, because of everyone else's memories and thoughts that have been uploaded, everyone ends up being represented, exactly as you say with Ancestry and those other DNA services. It doesn't matter if we've uploaded ours. There's - enough around us has been uploaded that we are represented.

FADEL: Throughout the book, the characters deal with a lot of struggles people deal with - trying to find their place in the world, make their mark in the world, falling to drug addictions, their stars rising and falling. And there's a lot around regret and redemption.

EGAN: I really believe that humans can change so enormously and can do so much. And I feel like the pandemic has really shown us that, although I wrote a lot of this before that. You know, we're such adaptable, strong and ingenious creatures when we're put to the test and can work together. And so I feel like when people say, oh, people don't change; they just...

FADEL: Right.

EGAN: ...Become more what they are when they're older - maybe that's true sometimes. I don't think that it has to be that way. And also, you know, during the pandemic, especially when I finished this book, I felt so much dread and worry that maybe it was just also what I needed in that moment, to remind myself that humans are powerful creatures, and we can do an awful lot when we put our minds to it.

FADEL: Award-winning author Jennifer Egan speaking to us about her latest novel, "The Candy House" - thank you so much for your time.

EGAN: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROEM'S "DEEP LIKE AIRLINE FAILURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.