BOOK REVIEW: THE CANDY HOUSE by Jennifer Egan; SEA OF TRANQUILITY by Emily St. John Mandel – August 2022

Reviewed by Jane Tompkins

Both of these books, published in 2022 and written by successful novelists, are classifiable as science fiction, and both contain stories in which technology has created new kinds of mental experience that model strange and somewhat terrifying ways of conceiving human existence. In the world of The Candy House, it’s possible not only to externalize one’s unconscious so that it becomes open to perusal by oneself and others, but also to make all of one’s conscious experience universally available as well by contributing it to something called the Collective Consciousness. The crux of the matter is whether one wants to be a part of this universal mind-sharing (think social media on steroids) or prefers to live privately, unknown to the general public. The latter option, chosen by only a small minority referred to as “eluders,” is considered retrograde and anti-social.

In Emily St. John’s fictive world—where time-travel is secretly possible to a very few, rapid space travel is available to everyone, and holographic simulation of bodies makes virtual teleportation possible—the question is whether, given the culture’s limitless capacity for technical simulation, what we consider our first-person real-time experience is indeed real, or simply another form of machine-based activity. That is, you and I may not be who we think we are, but mere simulations created by someone or something else. Both novels feature extensions of current technology that become dangerous—and titillating—to the degree that they render human experience as we presently know it unrecognizable. And both offer the reader a taste of an alternative reality that provokes one to reflect on the directions in which our culture is now headed.

Both novels also share a common problem: a fragmentation of the story-line that causes the reader confusion. In The Candy House the narrative jumps from one time frame to another, one character or set of characters to another, and from one place to another, disconnects so frequent that after a while the reader no longer knows who is who, nor what their relationships to each other or to the story’s main threads are. Whereas in Mandel’s novel the narrative disconnects stem from a structural element of the novel’s world—the existence of time travel justifies some temporal back and froths—in Egan’s they seem to be there by choice. Nor is this the only way in which The Candy House departs from a traditional narrative format: One chapter consists of a very long series of emails passing between and among a group of a characters who know each other, and another consists of an equally interminable set of rules memorized by females trained to seduce important men in order to extract information from them. How this obliquely transmitted information fits into the rest of the novel is unclear. Egan has used these kinds of techniques before successfully—e.g., in her Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad (2017)—and she is on record as saying that, for her, time is more lateral than sequential. But here the experimentation seems heavy-handed and produces bewilderment instead of mind-opening experience.

Less burdened by too many temporal leaps and oddball formats, Sea of Tranquility is a more satisfying read. It opens with a wonderfully realized account of the third son of a noble Scottish family travelling to the United States to make his fortune, or, as may be, to live off the stipends he receives as his part of the family inheritance. Along with others of his type, known as “remittance men,” he ends up on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, where, in an inexplicable event that takes place in the virgin forest, he undergoes an experience in which—as we later learn—moments from two discrete time periods overlap. Likened to file corruption by experts who study time and time travel, it is this occurrence that raises the possibility that what we think of as “real” or “original” events are only another form of virtual reality. In another less mind-bending twist, an incidence of time travel demonstrates how history can be changed by a time-traveler’s interference: a female novelist who was destined to die in a pandemic is saved by a person from the future who knows what will happen unless she can quarantine herself and her family right away. He warns her, she acts, and—back to the future—the time traveler is prosecuted and punished for interfering with what is called the “Time Line.”

In both novels, the author’s creative imagination makes the work compelling, as does the likelihood that what their scenarios project may be just around the corner. Egan’s stylistic genius  is not on display in The Candy House as it is in earlier works such as Look at Me (2001) where it reaches stratospheric heights, but anyone who follows her will want to read this further critique of electronic media’s influence on our lives. And Emily St. John Mandel’s writerly charm and sympathetic character portrayals, recognizable from earlier works like Station Eleven, make Sea of Tranquility an enjoyable ride.~