Into ‘The Candy House’: Jennifer Egan on her timely new novel, ChatGPT and the demise of fiction

Author Jennifer Egan and the cover of her new novel, "The Candy House"
(Via Bookshop Santa Cruz)

Jennifer Egan comes to UC Santa Cruz’s Cowell Ranch Hay Barn on Wednesday riding the wave of “The Candy House,” which revisits the same universe her acclaimed “A Visit From the Goon Squad” inhabited, but this time with Big Tech in the bull’s-eye.

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A Q&A with author Jennifer Egan

Back in 2010, thanks mostly to a certain White House resident, “audacity” was the buzzy concept of the moment. And in the literary world at that time, nothing had the audacity of Jennifer Egan’s dizzying and rule-breaking “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” which occupied a space somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories while also deftly eluding genre conventions and expectations.

More than a decade later, Egan, who grew up in San Francisco, revisits the same universe with her new book, “The Candy House,” not exactly a sequel to nor even a continuation of “Goon Squad,” though many characters in the new book first surfaced in her previous book. Where “Goon Squad” revolved around the world of rock music, “Candy House” turns its eye to Big Tech, and both books expertly trace the contours of time, memory and consciousness.

“Candy House” tells a number of separate but intersecting stories in a world where a technology called Own Your Unconscious allows people to upload their life’s memories to a single data bank that anyone can then access.

Jennifer Egan will visit Santa Cruz and talk about “The Candy House” on Wednesday at the Cowell Ranch Hay Barn at UCSC. The event is presented by Bookshop Santa Cruz and UCSC’s Humanities Institute.

Egan graciously agreed to chat with Lookout about her new book, the challenges ahead for writers and the purpose of fiction.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Lookout: I want to begin by asking you about language and how it’s used in your new book. You have one character refer to stale language and idioms as “word casings,” as “give me the bullet and not the casing.” And you have another character [named Chris] who is always creating algebraic breakdowns of storytelling tropes. As a writer, all this fell on my ear as a challenge to writers, as if to say, “Hey people, let’s up our game here and push through this stale language.” When you sit down to write, is the quest for fresh ways to say things and the need to transcend boring tropes on your mind?

Jennifer Egan: My whole writing method is about trying to get away from my thinking brain, because I feel that there’s a kind of groupthink that we all participate in, where there’s a sort of surface level of thinking that we all share because of our cultural moment. And that’s where a lot of those tropes live. And so my entire goal as a fiction writer is to elude those tropes, to get away from them and beyond them into something that feels fresh and new. And so my writing method involves basically what I would call kind of a literary improvisation. I write my first drafts for fiction without an outline. And often without even a sense of exactly who will be in the book. I really start with kind of a sense of physical atmosphere. And then I try to write every day five to seven handwritten pages on a legal pad in which I just do what I guess improvisers always do in music or in theater, which is sort of find a line of action and just keep writing into it. I don’t pull back, I try to just hurdle forward. And I don’t read over what I’ve done at the end. I just read it over the next day to kind of reenter the flow and keep going.

It’s not so much a challenge to other writers to up their game — although I think that is what we all want to do, especially with ChatGPT, which is now going to be recreating things. It’s really funny because what I envisioned Chris doing in the book, I didn’t have any notion that something like ChatGPT was imminent. So I think we human creators are going to have to up our game and are going to have to lean into the ways in which we can transcend groupthink, or we will be easily matched by a machine.

Lookout: The tech Own Your Unconscious in your book brings me to mind of what I was thinking about while reading “The Candy House.” It felt a little bit like fiction staring at its own demise in a way, because fiction is the time-tested method in which we get into other people’s heads, right? And you have created this technology where you are actually getting into other people’s minds. It was almost as if it were superseding fiction’s traditional role. Does that make sense?

Egan: Yeah, totally. But remember that the machine doesn’t exist. So what are we left with? It’s fiction. Yes, it’s fiction contemplating its own demise, but then reminding the reader that, right now, it’s the only game in town to do this thing that the quote-unquote machine does in “The Candy House.” So I see it as very much of a recognition of the specificity of what fiction does, and the inability of any other narrative art form so far to supersede it.

Lookout: I want to ask you about timing in the culture, because I remember when “A Visit From the Goon Squad” came out, there was a whole lot of talk back then about the book disappearing, and “OK, the e-book is going to be the next thing.” And it seemed like “Goon Squad” came along and switched the conversation to “Well, the form of the book itself may or may not change, but the form of the novel is changing. And here is Jennifer Egan presenting something that’s not quite a novel, not quite a short story collection.” It just worked really well with the timing of people thinking about the future of literature. And I’m wondering if there’s a parallel of the timing of our cultural moment and “The Candy House” coming out, because we all of a sudden are getting wise about social media in a way that we were kind of naive about it before.

Egan: That’s an interesting question. One thing that’s really important to remember, or to know, is that the novel form was invented to be strange, and to use whatever modes of discourse existed in the culture to its own ends, whether that be letters, legal documents, graphic images, whatever. The earliest novels were doing all that. So I actually see myself as just recalling the strength and the swagger and the potential that the novel was invented to realize. I see myself as a traditionalist, I guess, is what I’m saying. And so, if we want the novel to remain relevant, we had better think about all the things we can use it to do. I mean, if we’re only using a little bit of its potential, then we’re not giving it its best shot at cultural relevance.

[As for social media,] I think it has some potentially serious consequences not only about privacy, but also about concentration and deep reading. I mean, reading deeply at this point is basically an act of resistance. You are resisting the most powerful corporations on Earth, hiring the smartest people in the world to keep you from concentrating in on anything, because if you do, they are not making money. So I think it’s really important to think about that. Now, I would never want fiction to send that message, because that is a judgment, that is advice, and for me fiction isn’t the realm for any of that. Fiction is the realm in which to have fun. But I think if some of the questions raised by “The Candy House” result in some reflection along the lines of what social media is, and how it affects our lives, I’m all for that. And if that makes the book feel relevant, so much the better. It shouldn’t be irrelevant.


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