When Jennifer Egan bought her house in Brooklyn 20 years ago, it had been on the market for eight months. The owners were an elderly couple, and the place was distressed. “There were holes in the floor and the walls were drab,” says Egan, sitting in the kitchen of what is now a beautifully renovated property, full of lovely art and restored period details. Remembering how it was fills the 59-year-old novelist with a peculiar and very specific dread. “What really made it gloomy – and I’m very conscious of this – was that the family who’d lived here, the child had grown up, the parents had gotten old, and I think they’d stopped seeing it. There are moments when I think: is that happening now?”
It’s the condition in which most of us live – after a while, we stop seeing our surroundings – and one against which Egan’s skill as a novelist is set. She is highly attuned to the falsifying effects of nostalgia, complacency, solipsism and ignorance of history, and to the delusions of uniqueness that dog every age. She is obsessed, for example, with the 1870s, “an amazing decade, because, except for the telegraph, almost none of the inventions we take for granted now – electricity, say – existed yet. And yet, 20 or 30 years later, there were cars. I think we underestimate the degree to which the change we experience is what it’s always been like for human beings.”
For Egan, finding patterns in those changes is part of a life’s work, and she has become one of the preeminent American writers of the last 30 years. Her novels, short stories and journalism are heavily decorated. In 2011, she won both a Pulitzer prize and a National Book Critics Circle award for her fourth novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, a freewheeling meditation on time and music which followed a collection of dropouts and survivors loosely orbiting ageing punk rocker turned record producer Bennie Salazar and his assistant Sasha. In 2018, she won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for her next book, Manhattan Beach. She is, at heart, a comic novelist, and while she writes across wildly different genres, a sense of the absurd is common to all her work, and the way she sees the world.
Particularly amusing to Egan at the moment is the propensity of people to consider the times in which we live, in particular the pace of technological change, as exceptional in human history. It’s one of the themes of The Candy House, her sixth novel, which loosely picks up where A Visit from the Goon Squad left off. It opens with Bix Bouton, a tech entrepreneur, suffering from a form of creative block: he can’t come up with the Next Big Thing, and it’s killing him. From there, a story unspools that ranges across the US and the rest of the world, forwards and backwards in time, across multiple perspectives and periods, to raise questions about memory, point of view, privacy and the extent of what is ever really knowable about another human being. If that summary sounds earnest, the novel itself is a riot: funny, wild, almost picaresque in tone, and as preoccupied with consciousness as any modernist novel. “Mysteries that are destroyed by measurement were never truly mysterious,” she writes, in relation to the supposed power of the algorithm; “only our ignorance made them seem so”.
Along with its other exhilarating effects, I tell Egan I found The Candy House terrifying – a lesson in how tech can reduce, not expand, the range of human possibilities. Egan, who talks fast, with great levity, and across a broad range of subjects, is puzzled by this response. The thing Bix Bouton ends up creating is a mechanism for externalising consciousness, a cube-shaped device into which memories can be uploaded, permitting any user to see an event – traumatic, partially remembered, ambiguous – from the many perspectives of those involved in it. In the novel, this technology has the power to unleash terrible truths, but it was not, says Egan, something she came up with as a cautionary tale. “I would never think: ‘Oh, here’s this invention, it’s terrible!’ I wouldn’t want to write about something that struck me that way. It was more of a wish fulfilment. I remember odd encounters over the years – who was that guy sitting on the stoop? What happened to him? As a fiction writer, I want to know. The reason that I am enamoured of this machine is not because it would help the world; but because it really helps me write the novel.” She bursts out laughing. “It was just such a fun narrative device to use.”
For Egan, who once dated Steve Jobs, it’s not that technology is interesting in itself. “I’m interested in how it interacts with our relationships, and our relationships to ourselves.” In this, perhaps, she has the advantage of distance. “I’m a baby boomer, technically,” she says, and points out that as a kid growing up first in Chicago, then in San Francisco, there weren’t even answering machines. She is so far from being a digital native that she writes her novels longhand, a habit that has its advantages. During the pandemic, to escape the chaos of a house in which her husband and two college-age sons were underfoot, she took to writing outside on the deck, even on the most bitterly cold days. “The bird life, last year, was so extraordinary, and I would sit on a deckchair with my binoculars and electric blanket – sometimes two electric blankets – hats and gloves. I looked like a nut. But it was incredibly quiet. I was the only one out there. It was this really deep state of concentration.”
Could she hold the pen with gloves? “I used fingerless with hand warmers in them. It seemed normal, and I thought at the time: ‘This is how I’m going to work from now on.”’ She suspects, she says, she got “a little addicted to fresh cold air. As soon as I woke up, I found myself thinking, ‘I just want to get out there.’” Her family, meanwhile, “thought it was hilarious. My husband would come out and take pictures of me.” And did she keep it up, post-lockdown? “No! Now I can’t even imagine doing that! I mean, why would I? Like so many things from the pandemic.”
Egan would produce five to seven handwritten pages a day. Prior to March 2020, she’d been neglecting her writing. She was teaching a literature course at the University of Pennsylvania, and was president of PEN America. She feels guilty saying it, not least because her husband, David Herskovits, works – as a theatre director – in the performing arts, “and that world has been so upended”, but the fact is, lockdown bought her much-needed time to write. She read a lot of those early Candy House pages to her writing group, some members of which have been in the group, along with Egan, since the early 1990s. It strikes me that her celebrity might interfere with the dynamic of sharing work, but, she says, “I don’t feel that anywhere in my life. And if I ever encounter it, it’s my job to immediately diffuse it.” There’s no deference. In fact, the previous day she read aloud to the group “some really chaotic pages from this book that I hope some day to write – set in 19th-century New York – and the only thing I really have going for me with it, is a voice that felt promising.” They liked it, as it turned out, which isn’t always the case. When she read out parts of Manhattan Beach at a similar stage, “it was not successful. It made them angry, oddly enough.”
These interactions with her writing group – private, authentic, unperformative – exist in opposition to the ethos of social media. Egan still feels guilty about not engaging with it more. “I’m trying to be on Instagram,” she says, looking depressed. “I have, like, one follower.” Her avoidance is “not out of rebellion, but boredom. I love newspapers. We get physical newspapers every day.” Twitter was briefly interesting, but it didn’t last. “It often doesn’t make me feel optimistic about human nature and the future. What I see, a lot, and this goes without saying almost, is a desire for attention and something that seems to edge into narcissism, and therefore a lot of disingenuousness. It feels like there’s a lot of saying one thing, but underneath really saying: ‘Look at me.’ That sounds judgmental, so I hesitate to say it. But it is how I feel, glancing over it.”
She also hates conflict, so social media really isn’t for her. “For me, it’s like watching weekend television where people yell at each other. I’m in misery, because I feel like I need to solve it. ‘Wait! We have to find common ground!’ As I get older, I’m wary of falling into those loops of what feels like discovery in the moment, but afterward immediately feels like a wasted hour.”
Egan’s parents, who were both from the midwest, divorced when she was two. Her mother, Kay, an art dealer, remarried, and when Egan was seven the family, with her new stepfather, Bill, moved to San Francisco leaving her father, a corporate lawyer, behind. By nature, she has said, she is both Californian – slightly hippyish and breezy in style – and a practical midwesterner, although as a setting for her fiction, New York has had the much greater influence. It’s an impressive fact about Egan’s writing career that the minute she has established an audience in one fictional genre, she promptly jumps to the next, to forestall her own boredom. New fans who came to her via Manhattan Beach, a conventionally told novel about a family in Brooklyn during the Great Depression, will, she suspects, be baffled by The Candy House. Her first novel, The Invisible Circus, was a mystery of sorts, followed by Look at Me, a satire of the fashion and media world. Her third novel, The Keep, was a gothic horror.
She knows no other way to write, she says, beyond “spontaneously” following the breadcrumb trail of whatever interests her at the time. The Candy House grew out of a short story written in 2011 and published under the title Black Box. It’s about a woman called Lulu, a “citizen agent” who belongs to a network of volunteer spies recruited by the American government. Egan thought it contained the spark of something bigger, but when she returned to the idea while writing The Candy House, she got completely stuck. The original story is written in short texts delivered via a chip implant in Lulu’s brain, which at the time bought Egan a lot of freedom. “The best feeling when I’m writing is: ‘Oh, I can really move around here; this is giving me some space, in a voice or approach.’” But when she tried, in The Candy House, to follow Lulu’s traumatic return to America, “I felt I couldn’t move. Even though I spewed out a lot of material, there was nowhere to go.”
Egan tried a range of approaches. “I tried to write the chapter from the point of view of a therapist who sees her. I thought I could write it up as therapeutic notes.” That didn’t work. She tried to write it as a monologue taking place entirely within Lulu’s own head, but “it was just gloomy and lugubrious”. Eventually, she started writing an email chain between Lulu and a bunch of eccentric other characters. “The minute I did that, I had this sense of flexibility and freedom.” The problem, she realised, was entirely tonal. She’d been shooting for something sombre and serious, when what was called for was “madcap” – an underrated tone, quite different from its dull cousin, jocularity. Egan calls it “silliness, on some level; wacky, house of cards, Cat in the Hat”.
She is moving in a different direction, lately: “I feel a heat around California. It’s a feeling more than a thought. A sense of real connection, and new curiosity about the history of it.” And she has been reading a lot of detective fiction, in particular Arthur Conan Doyle. “The Valley of Fear is a novel about Holmes and it’s one of the best detective stories I’ve ever read.” To her fascination, she discovered recently that “he was obsessed with America; the Ku Klux Klan, Mormonism and organised crime all come into his novels”. The week before we meet, she was in San Francisco, visiting her mother, and while on a long walk she noticed “this cool little house by a park, and it had a plaque that said Conan Doyle had lived there”. It’s the kind of serendipitous confluence of ideas out of which the spark of a new project might occur.
In the meantime, she hopes The Candy House isn’t mistaken for a novel about technology. The word she uses to describe the mood in which she wrote it is “glee”, and, in the best possible way, it shows. It amuses her that one possibility raised by a technology that externalises consciousness would be to render fiction obsolete. And while uploading thought, in some rudimentary form, will surely exist in the near future, there are, she believes, aspects of the human experience – humour, for example – that no algorithm can get to. “The secret heart of this book is that it’s such a homage to fiction.” She looks thoroughly delighted. “That’s the only machine that can do it.”
• Jennifer Egan will talk about The Candy House at a Guardian Live online event on 27 April. Book tickets here. The book is published by Corsair (£20) on 28 April.