As Jennifer Egan arrives at our table, I am losing a battle with technology. The writer is known for her searing, often prescient, imaginings of how the digital realm shapes humanity, and her new novel features characters uploading their consciousness into a slick cube and sharing their memories with the public collective. I, meanwhile, am struggling to press record on my new phone.
Egan is immediately sympathetic. She wrote The Candy House outside in her Brooklyn garden during the rigours of a New York pandemic winter, until “my computer froze literally . . . It was never the same.” The book is a sequel of sorts to A Visit from the Goon Squad, the 2011 Pulitzer-winning bestseller, which catapulted her from widely respected novelist to the suddenly-everyone-is-reading-her-on-the-train variety.
Goon Squad was feted for its adventurous yet compellingly plausible take on where the digital age might lead us, as well as for its experimental style — one chapter took the form of what must be the best-written PowerPoint presentation to date. The Candy House shares the same bold structure — chapters whirl in from multiple perspectives yet still unite in a provocative whole.
This no-holds-barred approach extends to Egan’s lunch order. We meet at Fischer’s on London’s Marylebone High Street: a Viennese restaurant whose dark wood, glossy tiles and oil paintings feel a century removed from the sunny pavements and lunchtime shoppers outside.
“I might get the chopped liver. Why not?” she says, with an instinct for culinary location befitting the author of richly detailed historical fiction. My own spinach and balsamic tart seems embarrassingly London 2022 in comparison, so to compensate I suggest we order some wine. “If you drink, I will, but I’m not going to do it on my own,” she says. Two glasses of Sancerre promptly arrive.
There is never a good moment to ask a Lunch companion where they stand on whether they have predictive powers, so I decide we might as well dive right in. Egan’s fiction has often tracked our lives with somewhat eerie synchronicity, from her early invention of devices and social media platforms to a terrorist in her 2001 novel Look at Me who plots an attack on America, something she says she felt strangely complicit about.
“I think it’s just that I’m interested in certain strains of information that sometimes end up seeming relevant in retrospect,” she muses, saying that she had been immersed in research conversations with the FBI at the time. “We’re drowning in data but in certain ways it doesn’t serve us well at all. Its predictive powers are really weak.” Instead it is how we interpret it — or how we tell a story — that counts.
Some of her own interpretations have certainly been spot on: Goon Squad, for example, depicts bored children being babysat by “Starfish” — an iPad-like device. “Who knew that the touchscreen would become so omnipresent?” she sighs. “If I thought they were going to happen, I wouldn’t want to write them . . . It’s hard to write satire in America.”
Egan’s family hails from Chicago, where she was born in 1962, though her parents divorced when she was young and she moved with her mother, an art dealer, and stepfather to California. In 1970s San Francisco she was, by her own admission, “a wild teen”, despite wanting to be an archaeologist, and spent time modelling (she still has the effortless poise of someone who can hold a photograph).
In the sort of encounter that might occur in one of her novels, she met and started dating an emerging tech star while she was at the University of Pennsylvania. She had no idea who he was but it turned out to be Steve Jobs. He gave her one of the early Macs that he was developing at Apple.
“Whether in the end he did us harm or good is an open question, from my point of view,” Egan once told the New Yorker. She believes that most inventors start with a utopian vision that doesn’t always survive the collision with our commercial reality. “I think it would be so much easier if they were just villains, like the movies,” she tells me. Certainly, this clash haunts Bix, the tech genius in Goon Squad and The Candy House who leaves money in his will to an organisation that helps people escape from his creation.
“When you think about what the internet promised us, which was truth above all — access to truth, ability to connect and respond to that truth and gauge our actions accordingly,” Egan says, “the idea that it’s actually serving exactly the opposite function in so many lives is really upsetting.”
In need of a break, I ask about the food. The chopped liver has gone down well — “Oh, my God, I’m getting a protein infusion here” — and my tart makes up for in taste what it lacks in blood cell-boosting powers. I fortify myself with some wine as we return to the subject of technology and the travails of America.
“What worries me more than anything is the mass psychosis,” says Egan of the divisions currently roiling her country. She has a precise way of speaking — and is not one to use a medical term loosely. This is something she knows about. Her brother had schizophrenia and struggled with the illness for years before his death in 2016.
“Voices talked to him in his head and that’s very hard data to ignore. It’s very hard to believe it’s not real because it is real,” she says slowly. “So when I see people on a mass scale believing all kinds of things that are not true but being reinforced by data that is real . . . it feels really analogous to the kind of psychosis I saw eat away at him and destroy his productivity and his hopes of living a happy life. I feel like, what’s the endgame here?”
The other difficulty, Egan says, is that the longer you believe in a false reality, the harder it becomes to admit to your family that you were wrong. She gives the example of the seductive power of QAnon, the US conspiracy theory group that has fuelled a political movement, drawing people into a community which they then find increasingly difficult to leave.
But America’s divisions are broader than one particular movement. “It’s pretty scary . . . That is one of those things when, when I imagine forward, my mind goes blank. I can’t see where it goes,” she says. “How do we, as a country, extricate ourselves from a third of our population that thinks the election was stolen?”
In Egan’s novels, those attracted by technology are often disappointed by it: they ultimately crave authenticity and real connection. In The Candy House, grown children pore over uploaded memories of their parents, looking for moments that might give them a better insight into relationships they’ve never properly understood. Others contrive to disappear from the grid, becoming “eluders — that invisible army of data defiers”.
“I think of the internet as very neutral,” says Egan. But social media platforms are something else. They offer connection — the ability to find like-minded people — but “they benefit from engagement, and anger is the best route to engagement . . . So they’re not neutral,” she says. “I think what I’m speaking to in the novel is more the way that they’ve given us an expectation of being able to know everything, which is completely unrealistic because, in fact, we remain totally unknowable to each other.”
50 Marylebone High Street, London W1U 5HN
Chopped liver £10.50
Spinach tart £10.75
Superfood salad £20
Dover sole £39.75
Creamed spinach £5.50
Glass Sancerre x2 £30.50
Sparkling water £4.50
Schwarzer coffee £5.50
Earl Grey tea £5
Total (inc tax and service) £151.80
At this point, our main courses arrive: a Dover sole off the bone for Egan with creamed spinach — “I’m really going for it” — and a delicious but not at all coffee-house-of-Vienna superfood salad for me.
Egan’s own technology addictions seem firmly under control. She writes first drafts of her novels in longhand and talks about how much she loathes watching television with someone who’s also on their phone (I agree, while flinching inwardly).
Despite her concerns, she seems much more optimistic than I am about our relationship with screens. “I wouldn’t want my children to be as off the grid [as I was]. I’m glad there’s a grid . . . because I feel connected to them even when I’m not with them.” I was given a mobile phone for my 18th birthday. Egan was even older. The next generation, we agree, will surely be more resourceful than we have been at dealing with the distraction, partly because they’ll have to be.
At this point, for the first time in the meal, Egan pulls out her phone to show me the 405 lists that she keeps there as “wonderful artefacts of daily life”. A scroll through provides a fascinating glimpse inside the Egan brain: a list of course titles for the university classes she teaches; another of questions for the paediatrician who looks after her two sons; a shopping plan for a dinner party (“five fillets not less than 4.5 pounds”); notes for her talks when she was PEN America’s president; an entry mysteriously entitled “What goes up must come down”.
“What on earth? Why did I write that?” she laughs.
The collection also hints at the breadth of Egan’s career and the hinterland that propels it. In addition to her novels, Egan is a journalist, writing long features on largely social issues. “What I love about journalism is that I’m always ignorant and incompetent and I have to figure it all out,” she says. With fiction, she’s generating worlds. With journalism, she’s understanding them.
In 2003, she wrote a story for the New York Times about what was then a relatively new concept: online dating. A 40-year-old married mother of two at the time, she somewhat naively put her (real) data on her profile in order to find sources — “And then I couldn’t figure out why the only people who reached out to me wanted threesomes.”
But the story introduced her early on to the concept of our personal data being ultimately the most valuable commodity for companies. “We decide what’s worth paying for, but it’s more to understand that you should know what you’re paying,” she says. “We are succumbing to manipulation created by the smartest people in the world to figure out how to get us to do exactly what we’re doing. As long as everyone keeps that in mind, great, but sometimes I think if people kept it more firmly in mind, they might resist a little.”
We’ve finished our plates — the superfood salad has the right amount of virtuous crunch to it but it can’t compare with Egan’s fish review: “There’s nothing like a Dover sole in England. It’s just better.” A long afternoon of book signings lies ahead for her and, eager to delay my own trip back on the sweaty, virus-laden Tube, I suggest some caffeine and a light return to the future of fiction.
One of the most noticeable characteristics of Egan’s work is the confidence with which it tackles the range of human experience. Her latest novel includes chapters from the perspective of an African-American tech founder, an autistic young man and a drug addict in search of her past. Egan clearly loves inhabiting minds and personalities that are not her own, a sentiment that is increasingly controversial in literature.
“If I’m only allowed to write about white 59-year-olds who grew up in California and the Midwest and live in New York and have two kids, I’m out,” she says firmly. “Fiction has been a greedy grab bag from minute one,” she continues. “Any form of discourse that existed, the novel inhaled it . . . so if we decide that people are only allowed to do certain things in a form that already is imperilled . . . what are you trying to do, just kill it?”
This does not mean that writers should not do due diligence on anything that falls outside their own frame of reference, she stresses. Her own attention to detail veers to the extreme: when writing the historical novel Manhattan Beach, she became obsessed with diving manuals from the 1930s.
Listening to Egan talk about literature, you feel the enthusiasm of the practitioner. Lunch is drawing to an end and I’m scribbling down book recommendations, which just keep coming. Her tastes are broad but also canonical: George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Trollope, Dickens — “They’re like my life’s blood.” In many ways, The Candy House is a love letter to fiction, which she believes can provide the most authentic insight into the human condition.
But Egan worries about the threats posed to novels by the distractions that surround us. “We’ve become an ever more visually obsessed culture,” she says. “I think people mistake the transient flabbiness of finding reading hard for a dislike of reading.” Laughing, she recounts her horror at going to book-world gatherings and hearing people talk about what they’re watching on television. Her fear is that all the literary DNA is being attracted to that well-paid genre. “I do believe that it’s not easy to go back and do top-quality fiction if you’ve written for television,” she says. “There is a danger you return touched by the other medium.”
This, combined with the plethora of high-quality on-screen offerings laying claim to the eyeballs of readers, is the thing that most worries her. “Fiction starts to become debased. If the best people aren’t doing it, people are less likely to read it . . . I see the potential for a vicious cycle.”
But for now, Egan firmly believes, literature is safe. “So far,” she says, “nothing else does what fiction does . . . I want to have it infused all the time.” And then she’s off, leaving me to gather up my technological devices.
Alice Fishburn is the FT’s opinion and analysis editor
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