Review 2066: The Candy House

The Candy House is billed as a follow-up to A Visit from the Goon Squad, but at first, aside from its structure as linked short stories, I wasn’t sure why. Bix, a wealthy high-tech entrepreneur, is not one of the characters from the original novel, I don’t think, nor is Alfred Nollander, whose quest for authenticity leads him to scream in public just so he can see the expressions on people’s faces. (Although later I realized he was a child in the first book.)

However, as I continued reading, I encountered familiar names and realized I was dealing mostly with descendants and connections of the original characters. A lot of the novel deals with social media run amok, a world where it is common for people to upload their unconsciousness to the internet using the software provided by Bix’s company, Mandala, and the opposition to this and other such practices by the company formed by Chris Salazar, the son of Benny of the previous book.

The novel doesn’t seem as experimental in form as the original, although there is a chapter constructed in Instant Messages and another of a recorded manual, but that’s really because Egan’s approach, which was unusual when the previous novel was published, is more common now. Set from the 1990s to roughly the 2030s, the novel is more futuristic.

Although I wasn’t blown away by this book as I was by its predecessor, I was happy to revisit the lives of its characters, all of whom eventually reappear, even those from the ridiculous tale that parodied the P. R. field. Another good one for Egan.

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Day 581: Reread! A Visit from the Goon Squad

Cover for A Visit from the Goon SquadWhen I first read this quirky book last year, I said I wanted to reread it so that I could pay better attention to the minor characters in each story. I intended this because Egan’s clever technique to tie these stories together is to make a minor character in one story be the primary character in another.

So, this is my second review of this collection, which is really great. If you didn’t run right out and get it after my last review, I urge you to do so now. The stories are hip, aware, funny, and terrifically smart, centering around the music and public relations industries.

The stories in the first half of the book all touch on two characters—Benny Salazar, who is a music business executive when we first encounter him, and Lou, his mentor. The stories move backward and forward in time, so Benny is first at the height of his career but beginning to realize his taste is falling out of fashion. In a later story he is a teenager in a punk band called the Flaming Dildoes. He has several more appearances before making a comeback in his 60’s with a sensational concert starring his old friend Scotty from that first high school band.

Lou is at the height of his powers in one of the earlier stories, when he seduces one of the girls from the Dildoes, Jocelyn. Her friend Rhea watches their behavior in dismay. Later a dying old man, Lou is delighted to receive a visit from Rhea and Jocelyn, together again after years. But Jocelyn fights an urge to push him into the swimming pool as she considers her 30 years of wasted life as a drug addict, started on her way by Lou when she was 17.

The funniest stories skewer the public relations field. Dolly, once the premier public relations agent in New York (and the boss of Benny Salazar’s wife), has given up her career after a disastrous party she planned. Her brilliant idea to suspend translucent pans of colored oil from the ceiling near spotlights so that the oil would move as it heated was ruined when the plastic pans melted, sending hot oil down to burn all the celebrities. She sees an opportunity to revive her career in a job rehabilitating the reputation of a brutal third-world general. Even though this job almost ends in a murder, when her strategy actually works, she is contacted by a slew of dictators and assorted thugs wanting to hire her.

The has-been starlet Dolly used as the general’s “girlfriend” is the focus in her early career of a hilarious vituperative mock PR piece by the journalist who physically attacked her during an interview (Benny Salazar’s troubled brother-in-law). And finally, a short time in the future, Benny Salazar brings together his smash concert by appealing to the tastes of babies (“pointers,” as they are termed by the marketeers) and using the equivalent of likes on Facebook.

I understood a few things better on rereading the book. In an interview, Jennifer Egan said the stories were about pauses. One of them, a delightful Powerpoint presentation written by a preteen girl (the daughter of Benny Salazar’s ex-assistant Sasha, whose story is the first one in the book), talks about her little brother’s fascination with the pauses in rock music. In the book, we revisit the characters at different times in their lives, after pauses when we don’t see them. This approach leads us to consider the events of their life that we don’t see. Finally, there is the title, explained by the remark of a character. “Time is a goon.”


Day 339: A Visit from the Goon Squad

Cover for A Visit from the Goon SquadBest Book of the Week!

Describing this delightful and quirky novel is going to be difficult, so I hope curious readers will try it even if I am unable to convey a sense of it.

First, I call it a novel, but it can be just as accurately described as linked short stories. Each chapter is written from the point of view of a different character who knows one or more of the other characters. The chapters all center around the subjects of music and public relations.

The book begins in New York with Sasha, who is the assistant to Bennie, a music executive, sometime after 9/11. She is on a desultory date with Alex, but she also has a problem with kleptomania. While in the bathroom, she steals a woman’s wallet and then has to watch while Alex gets involved in helping the woman.

Next is a middle-aged Bennie, who torments himself with feelings of shame about past experiences. He takes his son to visit a sister act in order to fire them for not producing an album in the specified amount of time. He realizes he is beginning to see his legendary taste diverge from that of his younger coworkers.

Then we jump back thirty years to Rhea, a teenager in San Francisco who is a member of a punk rock band called the Flaming Dildoes with her friends Bennie (yes, the same Bennie), Scott, Alison, and Jocelyn. Rhea observes Jocelyn’s budding relationship with a middle-aged record executive named Lou, who will become Bennie’s mentor. Rhea is dismayed as Lou gives Jocelyn drugs and gets her to perform sexual acts in public.

These are just the first of the vignettes, which range forward and backward in time over 40 years and extend in structure to a touching PowerPoint presentation and a parody of a celebrity interview. They make stops in Arizona, Italy, and South America but somehow center on New York. Fans of Egan will already be familiar with a certain type of hip, aware New Yorker that appears in her fiction.

By turns funny, touching, and sharp as a razor, Egan’s observations are always entertaining and her intelligence apparent. An obvious theme of this work is the effect of time on characters but another one is how technology seems to have sped time up, the book ending in a futuristic world where public relations is centered on the tastes of babies. The PowerPoint chapter shows us that another theme is pauses, in music and in life.

One of the things I wanted to do when I finished reading A Visit from the Goon Squad was to read it again so that I could know what I was looking for from the beginning and fully understand all the connections. And that is what I plan to do, having inserted the book into my pile of future reading to enjoy again.