“Goon Squad” employed a number of narrative fripperies. One chapter, for example, was told in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. In this novel, one chapter is a series of text exchanges. Lulu’s secret-agent adventure — I was entirely riveted — is related as a series of short, terse directives, as if from headquarters.
These begin earnestly (“Your goal is to become part of his atmosphere”) and grow increasingly dire: “Homes of the violent rich have excellent first-aid cabinets.” Egan doesn’t need these toys, but she is comfortable with them.
I’ve left a lot out: There’s an academic who studies authenticity and cliché; an elite Chicago lawyer brought low by drugs, sliding downward as if on a corkscrew’s spiral, then given a second chance; a man so intolerant of fakery and hungry for real responses that he screams aloud, on public transport, just to gauge reaction; girls whose cryptic mother left them to perform the field work in Brazil that led to the cube. If one of Egan’s characters leaves through a window, she will return through the door.
All this is wound together; nearly everyone is somehow connected. It’s all too much, except that it isn’t.
Egan has a zonking sense of control; she knows where she’s going and the polyphonic effects she wants to achieve, and she achieves them, as if she were writing on a type of MacBook that won’t exist for another decade.
“The Candy House” and “Goon Squad” are touchstone New York City and technology (literary trivia: Egan once dated Steve Jobs) novels of our time; they’ll be printed in one volume someday, I suspect, by the Library of America.
I could argue, I suppose, that this novel’s corners are too sharp, that it lacks a certain heft and drift. The implications of the cube on sex habits, online and off, are oddly omitted. And the ending is tapioca soft.
Always check for your wallet when a writer goes all in, as Egan does here, on the power of storytelling and of fiction. “The Candy House” makes that case simply by existing.