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.

Related Posts

A Visit from the Goon Squad

Look at Me

The Keep

Day 1134: Manhattan Beach

Cover for Manhattan BeachI have enjoyed everything that Jennifer Egan has written and thought that A Visit from the Goon Squad was one of the best books I read that year. So, when Netgalley offered Manhattan Beach, I was pleased. Egan’s other work has been, in one way or another, experimental, but Manhattan Beach is a straightforward historical novel, to my surprise.

Anna Kerrigan is a young girl at the start of the novel in 1930’s New York. Her father, Eddie, works as a bagman for the longshoreman’s union and takes her with him on his rounds. But shortly after the start of the novel, he begins leaving her home. He does this after he takes a new job working for a gangster, Mr. Styles. Although Anna interprets this as rejection, it is to keep her safe.

Eddie does not enjoy his home life. Although he loves his wife, they have a second daughter, Lydia, who is severely handicapped. Her presence makes him feel uncomfortable, and Agnes is always trying to force him to show affection to Lydia.

Then Eddie disappears without a trace. Anna begins working to help support the family. Eventually, the story splits into two. In one, Anna becomes involved with Mr. Styles, whom she remembers visiting as a child with Eddie, and works her way into the man’s world of marine diving as part of the war effort. In the other story, we find out what happened to Eddie.

For most of this novel, I wondered where it was going. Much of it centers around Anna, Eddie, and Mr. Styles. But first it seems to wander in focus from the New York underworld to the war effort and diving to Eddie’s experiences during World War II. Although the bulk of the novel is set during the war, there is very little feeling for the period.

link to NetgalleyOverall, I was a little disappointed in Manhattan Beach. It was well written, but Egan’s previous novels sparkled with originality. Egan makes it clear in the acknowledgements that she wanted to write about New York during the period, but the period feel is just not there. She is interested in the Naval Yard, where Anna works, but I didn’t really get an idea of what it was like.

Related Posts

A Visit from the Goon Squad

Look at Me

The Keep

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.

Day 316: The Keep

Cover for The KeepI only recently discovered the pleasures of reading Jennifer Egan when I read Look At Me last year. The Keep is another of her very interesting novels. Her most well-known novel, which I have on my list to read, is A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Danny is an aging hipster who has long occupied the edges of power looking for a way to get some for himself. He is on his way to Europe to take up an invitation extended by his cousin Howard to help develop an ancient castle into a hotel.

Danny is anxious about accepting this position because of his guilt and paranoia over a horrible childhood event, when his older cousin talked Danny into abandoning Howard in a deep cave. However, Howard’s invitation comes at a time when Danny urgently needs to get out of New York, so he goes.

After an unsettling arrival at the half-renovated castle, which contains opulence and filth within rooms of each other, Danny meets an almost unrecognizable Howard, his wife Ann and their two young children, his second-in-command and best friend Mick, and other assorted workers. Living in the keep of the castle is a mysterious old baroness who thinks she still owns the castle. A creepy feature of the property is a dark, reeking pool that may be haunted by two twins who drowned in it.

Back in the states, Ray, a prison inmate, is taking a writing class and begins reading aloud his story about a guy named Danny who journeys to Europe to help his cousin develop a castle into a hotel. Discovering the connection between the two stories, and a third one involving the writing class teacher, is part of the pleasure of reading this deeply involving novel. Egan moves the narrative back and forth in time to tell these two parallel stories, keeping the reader’s interest with consummate skill.

Day 31: Look at Me

Cover for Look at MeIn Look at Me, Jennifer Egan explores the meaning of identity in the modern world, where new identities can easily be created with a few clicks of a mouse. This academic beginning to my review should not dissuade you from reading this absorbing book.

Charlotte Swenson is a fashion model just recovering from surgery after a horrific car accident that smashed every bone in her face. The accident happened near her home town of Rockport, Illinios, which she has not visited in years. She is vague about what happened and what she was doing there: it is hard to tell at the beginning whether she can’t remember or doesn’t want to tell. When she returns to her home in New York, she finds that not even her closest friends recognize her new face. She has become invisible.

Before she leaves for New York, Charlotte meets Charlotte Hauser, the plain sixteen-year-old daughter of her best friend from high school, whom Charlotte has also not seen in years. The younger Charlotte has met a man on a river bank who looks like he has been in an accident.

In New York Charlotte Swenson is futilely trying to resurrect her career when she hears from a private detective who is looking for a mysterious man she met a few times named Z.

In the meantime, Charlotte Hauser has begun studying with her uncle Moose, whose life was changed when he had a revelation about light and history as a young man. Moose has been trying to find a student who can take up his ideas and thinks that Charlotte may be that person. He has struggled with mental problems and was forced to leave a prestigious job in academia to teach part time at a local community college.

Because she made a “timing error” in her first sexual explorations, Charlotte has been ostracized from her high school crowd and has decided to change schools to the rougher one across the river. She is also having an affair with the man she met along the river bank.

Charlotte Swenson has always looked for a way into the “mirrored room” of fame and fortune. Now, without her famous face, she is depressed and struggling to pay the rent until an internet intrepreneur comes to her with a tempting proposal.

Egan skillfully weaves these characters’ stories into an engrossing, thought-provoking novel. Some critics felt the novel suffered from the focus on the empty life of the glitterati that fascinates Charlotte, and truthfully, sometimes you sincerely dislike her. But you also like her pluck and self-truthfulness, and the focus is necessary to the novel’s themes.