Future Nostalgia, by Lauren Oyler

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
April 2022 Issue [Reviews]

Future Nostalgia

Jennifer Egan’s old-world internet novel

Illustration by Hsiao-Ron Cheng. Source photograph © Ulf Andersen/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

[Reviews]

Future Nostalgia

Jennifer Egan’s old-world internet novel
Adjust

Discussed in this essay:

The Candy House, by Jennifer Egan. Scribner. 352 pages. $28.

She put a PowerPoint presentation in a novel, and the world said: OMG. It was 2010, and PowerPoint had been around for twenty-three years, but that didn’t matter, because no one had put one in a novel before, or at least no one who had already written four relatively successful works of fiction. It wasn’t just about the PowerPoint, though; in retrospect the PowerPoint seems to have been given the right amount of attention, which is to say a moderate amount. You can’t not mention it, but there are other things to talk about. A Visit from the Goon Squad is a nineteenth-century novel, a modernist novel, a postmodern novel, and actually really enjoyable. A Visit from the Goon Squad is about rock and roll! A Visit from the Goon Squad is about America, which has been in decline for a while now. To this end, A Visit from the Goon Squad is full of gold things, including the long blond hair of several covetable girls and women. The book is structured like an album, sort of, for people who were starting to really miss albums: thirteen chapters or closely linked stories skipping around in time from the 1970s until the then future of 2020. These are divided into parts A and B, which may refer to the A-side and B-side of a record but also to an album in the text, A to B. The book begins with a story about a kleptomaniac who looks like Claire Danes in My So-Called Life, and a story about the A&R executive she works for, who is, in the fleeting present of his chapter, recently divorced, randomly beset by “shame memories,” and trying to reinvigorate his lost sex drive by taking his coffee with gold flakes. Like all the characters in this novel, they’re both incredibly sympathetic; in the album analogy, their stories are probably the singles. The PowerPoint is the weird interlude three quarters of the way through that is actually kind of groovy.

Praised for its formal experimentation and the affecting sweep of its narrative, A Visit from the Goon Squad won the National Book Critics Circle Award and then the Pulitzer Prize. I read the novel in college and remembered only the kleptomaniac, the record executive, and the PowerPoint presentation, though what the last was about I couldn’t say. Reading it again recently made me feel like an evil teenager in a viral TikTok mocking people for parting their hair on the side. “They thought this was new!” I’m shrieking into my phone camera. My eyes are slightly too wide, the rhythm of my speech makes me sound like I’m auditioning for a speaking role in a high school show choir, but my middle part is intimidatingly straight. “They thought this was experimental! They were SURPRISED when she wrote Manhattan Beach!!!” Manhattan Beach is Egan’s 2017 historical novel about a plucky Irish girl who works as a diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II. It received perplexed mixed reviews that nevertheless agreed it was “traditional,” “conventional,” and a departure from Goon Squad. Which had been so contemporary. With its A&R executives. LOL.

A Visit from the Goon Squad makes me feel, in other words, so young. You could call the novel dated—indeed, while I was discussing it with friends, who knew it by its PowerPoint, I may have called it “dated,” not just for its subject matter but also for its hopeful maximalism, full of clever characterization and scene setting. Fragmented novels look very different today. But the book is also an earnest record of an era, or a record of ideas from several eras; the “goon” here is time. (A Visit from the Goon Squad is not, as one critic claimed, “Proustian,” but it does begin with two epigraphs from In Search of Lost Time.) It also makes me wonder: Am I young? According to Egan, whose oeuvre includes at least two thirty-five-year-old women pretending to be twenty-eight, thirty-five is “not even young!” I am thirty-one. Unlike all her characters except the actual teenagers, I still think more about my future than my past, and the only nostalgia I feel is for eras that I didn’t experience, and couldn’t have. But at some point, I know the balance will shift. I will remember fondly some horrible thing from 2012, something I previously could not imagine remembering fondly, and I will be getting old. This is what the novel is about: Where is that point? Why can’t we anticipate it? Why is it that no matter how many warnings we’ve heeded—about regrets, about enjoying it while it lasts, about waste—we are shocked when time happens to people we know, and in denial that it will happen to us? We should have kept a journal! “How did you get so old?” one character thinks about a man from her past, whom she visits on his deathbed. “Was it all at once, in a day, or did you peter out bit by bit?”

Egan’s new novel, The Candy House, is a sequel to A Visit from the Goon Squad. In a 2017 New Yorker profile, Egan described the work-in-progress as a book that “uses the same structural ideas as Goon Squad, and some of the same characters, but has nothing in common with it.” In fact, the new work has turned out to be a straightforward continuation of the old, with the minor characters of Goon Squad getting the kind of focus that the major characters got in the previous work: generally, each central figure has her own chapter, or story, then appears and disappears throughout the text. The Candy House is also partitioned according to a musical metaphor, this time in four sections (Build, Break, Drop, Build) that correspond to . . . the structure of electronic dance music, which I look forward to hearing Egan discuss in interviews. Time has moved forward a bit; the latest sections of The Candy House take place in the 2030s, and the technology of Egan’s alternative present allows us to look back to the 1960s. The children we glimpsed in Goon Squad are now adults, approaching their parents with a more critical eye, and looking nervously over their shoulders for signs of their own fates. As in Goon Squad, Egan employs first, second, third, and technologically mediated narration, and the chronology is shuffled; we see characters from their own perspective and from other perspectives, the events of their lives expanding and contracting depending on where we are in time and consciousness. If you struggle to follow what one reviewer of Goon Squad called “a wild relay race” of viewpoints, Egan’s fondness for names straddling the border of the unusual—Sasha (the redheaded kleptomaniac), Bennie (the A&R guy), Lulu, Dolly, Mindy, Rolph, and so on—will offer some stability.

But first: Bix Bouton, whom everyone knows. “Big on predicting the future,” he first appears in Goon Squad as a graduate student in electrical engineering at NYU. This is 1992, and he assures his friends that “computer-message-sending is going to be huge—way beyond the telephone.” He is black, and dating Sasha’s friend Lizzie, a white woman whose mother is so racist that Bix is not allowed to sleep in their shared apartment while she’s in town. He is not the center of the Goon Squad story in which he appears, “Out of Body,” but Egan summarizes it at the beginning of The Candy House for those just tuning in:

After a night of partying, two of Lizzie’s closest friends went swimming in the East River, and one was carried away by a current and drowned. Lizzie’s parents had been visiting at the time, a circumstance that chanced to place Bix near the tragedy. He’d run into Rob and Drew in the wee hours in the East Village and done E with them, and the three of them had crossed the overpass to the river together, at sunrise.

The Candy House opens with Lizzie breastfeeding their fourth child in bed. (That child will later reflect that he “breastfed for so long that he actually remembered doing it.”) Like Bennie at the beginning of Goon Squad, Bix is now in his forties and thinking about the past, even as he feels responsible for predicting the future. Bix is the world-famous creator of Mandala, a social network based in part on theories in Patterns of Affinity, a 1995 anthropological study “that explained trust and influence among members of a Brazilian tribe.” When we encounter him in 2010, he’s asking his wife if they can have big-question stoner conversations like the ones they used to have with her friends in their apartment on East Seventh Street. But it’s not because he’s desperate to understand if evil exists. “He’d already had those conversations in high school and his first couple of years at Penn,” Egan writes.

His present nostalgia is for what he’d felt overhearing Lizzie and her friends from his perch at his SPARCstation computer linked by a modem to the Viola World Wide Web: a secret, ecstatic knowledge that the world these undergrads were so busy defining, in 1992, would soon be obsolete.

The novel doesn’t ask, exactly, What if Mark Zuckerberg were black and kind of cool? But it suggests you might, even though that’s thankfully not the point. Bix doesn’t want to grow old having had just one great idea: he’s pining (in purple prose we assume must be characteristic of billionaire startup founders) for the “vision” he’d had back on East Seventh Street, that moment when “life as they knew it would soon shatter and be swept away, at which point everyone would rise together into a new metaphysical sphere.” The story follows Bix’s search for inspiration, and the significance of each aspect of what will ultimately become his second paradigm-shifting idea is revealed over the course of the novel. We know he is successful because, in a somewhat didactic subsequent passage, we learn about “Own Your UnconsciousTM,” which debuts in 2016 and allows users to “track down a person we’ve glimpsed just once in our lives,” among other things.

To Egan’s credit, this semi-speculative technology isn’t exactly central to the novel; it doesn’t provide a totalizing structure through which a selling premise can be easily expressed. It’s part of the setting, both creating new connections between people and altering existing ones, like the social media we use today. Nevertheless, helping to link all the novel’s stories—the heroin addictions, suicide attempts, mean teenage girls, second marriages, unrequited loves, and harebrained quests for redemption—is a memory externalization app. We know it’s not essential to the book because Candy House’s extremely similar predecessor didn’t require this kind of device; part of Goon Squad’s achievement was the way it exposed and examined analog connections among the characters. Still, although the presence of a connection machine here doesn’t fundamentally alter the kinds of relationships Egan focuses on—among families, exes, co-workers, and drug dealers and their customers—it does make the book feel different, and probably worse, in a helpless and inevitable kind of way.

Technophobia thrives on nostalgia, or maybe it’s the reverse. Technology seems to speed time up, to accelerate and magnify our losses. What’s so cleverly recursive about Own Your Unconscious, equal parts Charlie Kaufman and Elon Musk, is that it allows users to see exactly whether and how things used to be different. Inspired by its creator’s struggle to recall certain elements of that traumatizing moment from graduate school, Own Your Unconscious was designed to give people remote access to the complete contents of their minds (early slogans were recover your memories and know your knowledge), and the benefits would be manifold. The technology could help solve crimes, provide a “hedge against dementia,” and, I imagine, aid couples squabbling about whether the tone he used just then was actually kind of aggressive. But over time it developed several “ancillary features.” The most popular quickly became the “Collective Consciousness,” which enables users who had anonymously uploaded their minds to a “Mandala Cube” to access the collective memories of other users—anonymized, of course—in exchange for uploading their own memories. I don’t really need to explain what might be made possible by the collation of the world’s individual minds. It’s a much better idea than the metaverse.

In 2012, Egan published a short story as a series of tweets, celebrated by headlines such as lets hope jennifer egans twitter story heralds the return of serial fiction. Called “Black Box” when it was printed in The New Yorker, the story appears, with some changes, in The Candy House as the even worse titled “Lulu the Spy, 2032.” In Goon Squad, Lulu is introduced as a serenely confident nine-year-old whose mother, a disgraced publicist, has accepted a job helping a dictator with his stateside image. That campaign culminates in Lulu accompanying her mother and a washed-up (twenty-eight-year-old) actress on a dangerous trip to the dictator’s unnamed nation, where they stage paparazzi photos that suggest the two wayward celebrities are in a relationship. In “Lulu the Spy, 2032,” Lulu is acting as an unpaid “Citizen Agent” on a mission in the Mediterranean, gathering intelligence for the government while posing as the girlfriend of a target. The technological advances of the near future have revolutionized espionage; everything takes place on one device, the spy’s body. Lulu has been equipped with the ability to record sound, take photographs, and, using a port installed between her toes, transfer large amounts of data. One of Lulu’s tasks is to record “Field Instructions,” transcribed directly from her thoughts, formatted “aphoristically in the second person.” These are the tweets that make up the story.

Does this “work”? On Twitter, it didn’t. The platform allows users to piece together information, even a narrative, over time, but Egan’s aphorisms appeared at specific intervals, allowing the reader eager for the next dispatch to watch their feed like television. In print, the story reads a bit like the airy fragmented novels that have become popular today, except that there’s a lot of action in Egan’s story, and the fragmented novels published by authors like Jenny Offill consist more of observation than plot. The writing, too, is not in a voice honed for Twitter, which tends to abandon excessive description and abstraction. It reads like a short story someone chopped up and put online.

Indeed, this is how Egan’s other formal experiments tend to go: she steers every car back toward the literary, the narrative, the novel. The PowerPoint presentation in Goon Squad is not really a PowerPoint presentation like those you might encounter at an office job. Written by Alison, Sasha’s twelve-year-old daughter, the presentation is ostensibly about “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” an obsession of Alison’s “slightly autistic” brother, Lincoln. (In The Candy House, he will grow up to become a “counter,” or “senior empiricist and metrics expert,” for Mandala.) Some slides deal with the quantification of pauses in rock music, but most are about Alison’s family, narrating backstory and present-day tensions. (One slide reads, simply, dad is working.) The many charts and graphs Alison comes up with don’t convey relationships among bits of information, and there’s no elegant synthesis of rock and roll pauses and the family narrative within the PowerPoint itself. It works in the novel because a twelve-year-old doesn’t need to follow the conventions of the PowerPoint form. She’s just messing around on the computer—members of my generation might feel a sad twinge of recognition.

Elsewhere, Egan’s relentless genre bending threatens the narrative immersion that is her greatest strength. The second story in The Candy House is “Case Study”; part of a graduate student’s sociology dissertation on “Authenticity as problematized by digital experience,” it contains descriptions like:

By age nine, Alfred’s intolerance of fakery had jumped the life/art barrier and entered his everyday world. He’d looked behind the curtain and seen the ways people played themselves, or—more insidiously—versions of themselves they’d cribbed from TV: Harried Mom. Sheepish Dad. Stern Teacher. Encouraging Coach.

Egan’s tendency to explain, at least twice, the clever moves she makes is similarly deflating, and she always has to add an extra adjective, so you know the description you’re reading is not a normal description—it’s a description in a novel. (“A slim, catlike man may still snore,” Lulu the Spy warns the Citizen Agents who come after her.) Her attempts at mimicry are most successful in Goon Squad’s “Forty-Minute Lunch: Kitty Jackson Opens Up About Love, Fame, and Nixon!” a celebrity profile written by Jules Jones. It works because Jules can be understood as an imitator of David Foster Wallace, complete with footnotes and dialectically aggrandizing and debilitating self-awareness, though lacking the verve that made him a star.

But Egan doesn’t engage in fancy prose style—what a writing professor, erotic essayist, and seducer of students in The Candy House calls:

words that are still alive, that have a pulse. Hot words, people! Give me the bullet, not the casing—fire it right in my chest. I’ll die gladly for some fresh language.

Some examples of hot words the students come up with to describe books: coiled, obsidian, and hegemonic for positive attributes; waxen, kerneled, and coffee grounds for negative ones. The professor’s publications—the erotic essay collection Gush, and the best-selling post-academic-job-dismissal collection Flout—beg to be satirized just a little more hegemonically. That the late-breastfeeding child of a tech billionaire, Gregory Bouton, grows up to be an MFA student at NYU is also a detail that might have warranted a little more heat. (Unfortunately, he doesn’t overlap with Sally Rooney’s Connell.)

The problem is that Egan is not a murderer—she wants her characters to live, though she knows “no one stayed lucky forever.” Although her books are studded with death, they are also full of near misses; she is aware that life is not entirely about loss, that “the narrative power of redemption stories” will still hook readers even if they’re conveyed with light irony. Since publishing her first novel, The Invisible Circus, in 1994, Egan has been interested in nostalgia and the way collective history and individual pasts mix, and her characters have been anxious, afraid, and regretful about the passage of time, and, it follows, dying. The Candy House is somewhat unique in that it also features futurists. But their proximity to possible technological solutions to human problems does not eliminate, or even fundamentally alter, these human problems; it only helps us see them in a new way.

In her review of Manhattan Beach, Anne Diebel noted Egan’s “dearth of analysis” and complained that it was “difficult to figure out what Egan is trying to say here about the war or its relation to the present.” If this is a problem, then The Candy House has it, too, but in a more unusual way. Surely a ubiquitous social network called Own Your Unconscious, which allows users to upload their entire memories to the cloud to be anonymously perused by anyone willing to exchange the contents of their own mind for access, will be revealed to be very bad. Perhaps through traditional modes of badness-acknowledgment available to the novelist, such as narrative comeuppance, hard lessons learned by protagonists, harsh lyrical descriptions, having particularly relatable characters explicitly discuss what is bad, and, if all else fails, obvious apocalypse? Surely it’s a foreboding parable about the way we live now?

Certain elements of the story suggest this may be the case. “Eluders” drop out of society and can’t be traced online, a pain in the ass for counters; a shadowy nonprofit, Mondrian, helps broker “proxies” for this Generation X: “vacant online identities maintained by a third party in order to conceal the fact that their human occupants have eluded.” But although the bargain offered by Own Your Unconscious is described as “Faustian” by two different characters, even brain-sharing technology does not necessarily doom us all. Some characters—including Lulu, naturally—suffer from extreme paranoia, but the American government in this novel is always an open exploiter of its citizens (Lulu volunteered!), and otherwise kind of pleasant in its email correspondence. Other characters have a more optimistic view of their digitized reality, and the technology is never shown to create disastrous consequences. I have a good reason to mention now the awesome gossip that, in college, Egan dated Steve Jobs for about a year. Though she ultimately turned down his marriage proposal, she told The New Yorker in 2017, “whether in the end he did us harm or good is an open question, from my point of view.”

This is another somewhat retro perspective Egan’s work offers: that a novel might simply attempt to represent the world, not seek to compose a thesis statement about it or change it. Novels aren’t like this anymore; they often have a message, and a regular reader of book reviews will notice critics wondering (usually frustratedly) what they were “supposed to think” about a character’s ambiguous or ambivalent behavior, or even complaining that a novelist outlines social problems but doesn’t “propose solutions.”

Whether Egan’s sympathy with techno-utopians arises from having had what sounds like a really cute relationship with Steve Jobs or from a genuine belief in the possibilities of technology, we can’t know. But some of us can write a novel about just this sort of question. The easy intrigue, or easy dismissability, contained in the new term “internet novel” comes from the implicit tension between the two elements, from the old-fashioned idea that the sustained attention and thought required to read and write fiction is at odds with the temptations of life online, a proxy for the idea of opposition between man and machine. When Bix thinks to himself that his vision of the web is going to shatter the world that humanities undergrads are discussing, he is expressing the supposed battle between the book you hold in your hands and the social-media network where you likely heard about it. That he has kept a battered copy of Ulysses since reading it “with the explicit aim of acquiring literary depth” only indicates how the internet might consume fiction—by transforming it into another metric by which one can optimize. Toward the end of The Candy House, Bennie’s son, Chris, has graduated from Stanford, and following a “pandemic Zoom interview,” gets a job “algebraizing” “every possible stock element” in movies and TV shows for a nebulous entertainment company called SweetSpot Networks. Again the dystopia alarm sounds—or would if we weren’t already living it.

At times it can seem like the only future for culture is Netflix—enter the late-suckling Gregory Bouton’s belief that his father’s technology “posed an existential threat to fiction”—but Egan doesn’t think so. It’s true that being on the internet is a huge waste of time that could be spent reading and writing, plus there’s what it does to language—the way it manufactures clichés through the repetition and imitation it encourages. Yet the desire to waste time is ultimately a human one; it allows us to pretend we have an unlimited supply. Fiction is also, famously, mimetic. The Mondrian professionals who operate eluders’ fake accounts are “usually fiction writers,” a detail that might offer a quiet path forward for the author who has read everything about GPT-3 and fears the robots will come for our jobs soon enough. It’s Lincoln, the senior empiricist and metrics expert, who is able to see the fallacy of that belief immediately:

There is nothing original about human behavior. Any idea I have is likely occurring to scores of others in my demographic categories. We live in similar ways, think similar thoughts. What the eluders want to restore, I suspect, is the uniqueness they felt before counting like ours revealed that they were an awful lot like everyone else. But where the eluders have it wrong is that quantifiability doesn’t make human life any less remarkable, or even (this is counterintuitive, I know) less mysterious—any more than identifying the rhyme scheme in a poem devalues the poem itself. The opposite!

It takes “typicals” like Gregory Bouton a little while longer to realize that life online might actually fuel fiction—that “his father’s parting gift” is “a galaxy of human lives hurtling toward his curiosity. From a distance they faded into uniformity, but they were moving, each propelled by a singular force that was inexhaustible. The collective.” It’s unfortunate that Gregory has inherited his father’s hokey optimism, though I suspect his dad’s purple prose will serve him well on Goodreads. Things may change, but not that much. Still, it turns out Egan’s novel does have a message: novelists have always been spies, and we’re watching you.