In a sense the house of sweets an advert. Because of the dangers of our great and rather unquestioned faith in technology. For giving our thoughts and attention to technology companies, who monetize that. As he says halfway through the novel, nothing is free. “Never trust a candy house!” But Jennifer Egan – “Jenny”, she says when she shows up in an Amsterdam hotel lobby – puts on a warning face when it comes to warning. Actually, she doesn’t like the literature she wants to warn at all, she says. Dystopian tales of technology: meh, uninteresting.
Weren’t you thinking about the Internet when you started writing? the house of sweets† “Well, it’s hard not to think about the Internet, isn’t it? But I’m sure you want to know if I wanted to build some kind of metaphor for the Internet in the novel.”
It refers to the ‘Mandala Consciousness Cube’ (during the interview, Egan simply speaks of “the machine”), a device into which the user can upload their consciousness. He can conveniently store his thoughts and feelings, reveal them to others, and connect to a network of other devices, the Collective Consciousness, where he too can search the anonymous memories of others. The machine is a constant in Egan’s spectacularly multiform novel, a kind of “explosive fragmentation,” she says. With each chapter, the story changes shape again, with a new narrative form and (partially) different characters. You could call the machine the connecting element between all the stories.
The new book is more or less the result of Goon Squad Visit, the novel with which Jennifer Egan broke through internationally in 2011 and for which she received the Pulitzer Prize, among others. That too was a mosaic story, full of experiments in form (the chapter told as a PowerPoint presentation is typical), the house of sweets deals with the characters themselves, or their children, and takes the form of a jumble of emails or tweet-sized instructions for an espionage mission.
Egan was already working on the book in 2010, so before his groundbreaking book was published, out of curiosity, he says. “Curiosity is my driving force. I wanted to know more about the characters, imagine more of their lives. She wanted to see Lou Kline before he became a music producer, she wanted to see Lulu in her thirties, living a life as a spy. And at the same time I had a list of storytelling forms that I still wanted to try.”
You describe how the machine is presented as a solution. Solve crimes, detect child pornography: everything is possible, because the truth is found in those accumulated ‘consciences’. So he still looks innocent.
“In general, inventors and developers in the tech industry think they’re doing something good, and it’s basically not about greed and self-interest. It can also take time for unintended consequences to show up. The inventors of the internal combustion engine did not really think: let’s destroy the planet. They thought: we give freedom to the people! And the Napster developers didn’t think: let’s commit a massive robbery and flush the musicians’ revenue model down the drain. That music is not free is still annoying to explain to my children. Then they roll their eyes, yes, we know. Yeah, sorry, this is actually boring boomer talk.”
That goes for a lot of tech warnings: It’s true and chewed up.
“And that’s a big problem, especially because of the climate crisis. It is difficult to adapt that speech, because the problem is unsolved, and remains the same. So we don’t know what to do: stop talking about it? Because it’s boring? We can not do that.”
Why do the dangers of technology bother you?
“As a person, as a citizen, it worries me: phones and the internet amplify human behaviors that do not help us, such as narcissism. Social networks tempt us to package and sell ourselves as attractive products, attracting attention that generates profits. That doesn’t help civilization at all, or the earth. We live in a time where we have to selflessly work together, but technology is taking us in exactly the opposite direction. That’s a big concern, yes.”
But as a writer you don’t find that inspiring?
“You’re welcome! I’m not interested in dystopian stories. They feel boring. For a fiction writer, a story of technological doom is a closed door: there’s no new story to tell in that genre. As a writer, I’m driven by curiosity.” , not the desire to warn. Technology inspires me when it makes me curious, when I think: wow, what will this development mean for us?”
How did the idea for the machine come about?
“No, not really, because I’m not really interested in a device like the machine. I’m the type that only buys a new phone when the old one breaks. It was the other way around: in my novel, the machine was the solution to a series of desires and problems that I encountered. I wanted one of my characters to be able to track someone with nothing more than a fleeting memory of that person; seemed like an interesting idea. And I wanted to make it possible for a child to see through the eyes of a parent. And it was set in the future, so it all made sense on the machine.”
That makes the machine a metaphor for the Internet, doesn’t it?
“Yeah, that’s where we can do those things, to an extent. With a question like one of the characters asks: what happened to that person I once knew? – we usually go to the internet. Then we need some identifying information for that, a name, a place of residence, but it’s not entirely unimaginable that it could be done with less.”
What is quite unimaginable is that the memories and thoughts in the novel are prefabricated things. As if our brains are some kind of video library that we can navigate to find the right video.
Egan starts to laugh out loud. “Yes, of course that is unimaginable! Our thoughts are not videos! It’s wonderful, right? It is a kind of caricature, an extension, a simplification. We don’t understand enough about our brains to build such a machine, and if my intention had been to design a machine that could actually exist, I would have chosen the wrong profession. I think it’s ridiculous on a deeper level. Therefore, machines are not the place I go for rescue and answers, those are books. Literature is the God I serve, not technology.”
So we really shouldn’t take that machine seriously?
“Well, serious enough. A big part of the art of writing is finding a tone that makes the reader take her story seriously enough. But ultimately this is the machine that I believe in, this is the place where you can put yourself in another person’s consciousness,” and he points to a book on the table.
“If there is a message in the book, it is that. And I’m not a big fan of groceries, but I’m laying my cards on the table in this book. This book is full of hope. At least: I have learned through this book that I am much more optimistic than I thought.
Also read the review of Jennifer Egan’s novel manhattan beach† Immersed in the underworld
Did you think you were pessimistic?
“Well, I feel all kinds of fear about the fate of the world, but I also believe in human ingenuity. In collective thought, where there is so much power. I have a lot of faith in humans.”
How did this book teach you that?
“It’s going to end pretty well for the characters, don’t you think?”
maybe? Mainly I see a lot of open endings, which is a bit inherent to that fragmented structure…
“Perhaps the atmosphere of the book in particular feels upbeat? There is a certain optimism in the opening, in the sense of possibility. Reality is full of surprises, on that we can agree. Not always pleasant surprises. Trump’s election: surprise. 9/11: big surprise. In a way, it’s crazy that we can still allow ourselves to be surprised. We know a lot, but we’ve never been very good at predicting; that’s what I was thinking when I wrote this book. There are so many mysteries in human life! I love surprises, even when they are miserable surprises, because they remind me that anything is possible.”
That is a wonderful thought. See the unpredictable and unexpected, even the uncertain, as hopeful.
“Yeah, gosh, I don’t know if I’ve said it that way before, but I definitely mean it. Surprises are inherently hopeful. Perhaps therein also lies my aversion to dystopias: there I feel no room for surprises. I need a more open feeling when writing, the feeling that more is possible. It’s not like nothing is possible anymore.”
The unexpected is precisely what tech companies aren’t looking for, right? For them it is precisely about control, vision and overview, solutions.
“Exactly, that’s why that machine is so absurd, because as far as we know our memory is a mess. The idea of the machine is to access more than we can reach in our conscious memory, and in a way that’s what my whole writing process is about. If I consciously make up a story, it becomes useless. My writing process is about unlocking what I can’t think of when I’m in full consciousness, so I do. auto write, I keep writing blindly, as if improvising, and I try to get into a flow. Thinking serves to be critical, but not to be creative. And writing is about creativity. To find something new.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of June 10, 2022