Jennifer Egan: ‘I also like miserable surprises because they remind me that anything is possible’

In a sense The candy house a warning. For the dangers of our great and rather unconditional belief in technology. For having surrendered our thoughts and attention to technology companies that make money on it. As it says halfway through the novel, nothing is free. “Never trust a candy house!” But Jennifer Egan – “Jenny”, she says as she introduces herself in a hotel lobby in Amsterdam – makes her face when it comes to warning. She actually does not like literature at all that will warn, she says. Dystopian tales of technology: meh, uninteresting.

She did not think about the Internet when she started writing The candy house† ”Well, it’s hard not to think about the internet, is it? But I’m sure you want to know if I would build some kind of metaphor for the Internet in the novel? ”

She refers to the ‘Mandala Consciousness Cube’ (during the interview, Egan simply talks about the “machine”), a device to which the user can upload his consciousness. You can easily store your thoughts and feelings, reveal them to others and connect to a network of other entities, the collective consciousness, where you can also search the anonymized memories of others. The Machine is a constant in Egan’s spectacular multiform novel, a kind of “explosive fragmentation,” she says. For each chapter, the story changes form again, with a new narrative form and (partly) different characters. You can call the machine the connecting element between all the story lines.

The new book is more or less the result of Visit by the bully team, the novel that Jennifer Egan broke through internationally with in 2011, for which she received the Pulitzer Prize, among other things. It was also a mosaic story, full of form experiments (the chapter told as a PowerPoint presentation is typical), The candy house deals with the same characters or their children and takes the form of a jumble of emails or tweet-length instructions for a spy mission.

Egan was already working on the book in 2010, so before her breakthrough book came out – out of curiosity, she says. “Curiosity is my driving force. I wanted to know more about the characters, imagine more of their lives. I wanted to see Lou Kline before he became a music producer, I wanted to see Lulu in his thirties, with a life as a spy. And at the same time, I had a list of narrative forms that I still wanted to try. ”

You describe how the machine is introduced as a solution. Solving crimes, discovering child pornography: anything is possible because the truth can be found in the collected ‘consciousnesses’. Then it still seems innocent.

“In general, inventors and developers in the tech industry think they are doing something good, and it’s basically not about greed and self-interest. It can also take time for the unwanted consequences to show up. The inventors of the internal combustion engine really did not think: let’s destroy the planet. They thought: we give the people freedom! And the developers of Napster did not think: Let’s commit massive theft and flush the musicians’ revenue model down the drain. That music is not free is still annoying to explain to my kids. Then they roll their eyes, yes, we know that. Yeah Al that sounds pretty crap to me, Looks like BT aint for me either. “

This is true of many technological warnings: it is true and chewed out.

“And that’s a big problem, especially for the climate crisis. It is difficult to adapt that discourse because the problem is unresolved and still the same. So we do not know what to do: stop talking about it? Because it’s boring? We can not.”

Because the dangers of technology bother you?

“As a citizen, I’m concerned: Phones and the Internet amplify human behavior that does not help us, such as narcissism. Social media tempts us to pack and sell ourselves as enticing products that attract attention that yields profits. It does not help civilization or the earth at all. We live in a time where we have to work selflessly together, but technology steers us in exactly the opposite direction. That is a big concern, yes. “

But as a writer, do not you find it inspiring?

“Not at all! Dystopian stories do not interest me. They feel boring. For a fiction writer, a tech dome story is a closed door: there is no new story to tell in that genre. As a writer, I am aroused by curiosity, not by the desire to 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 such a gadget as the machine. I belong to the type that only buys a new phone when the previous 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 wish one of my characters was able to track down someone with nothing but a fleeting memory of that person – it seemed like an interesting idea. And I wanted to allow a child to see through a parent’s eyes. And it was set in the future, so in the machine it all made sense. “

That makes the machine a metaphor for the Internet, right?

“Yes, that’s where we can do those things to a certain degree. With a question that one of the characters asks him – what happened to the one person I once met? – we usually go on the internet. We will then need some identification information for that, a name, a place of residence, but it is not entirely inconceivable that it can be done with less. ”

The completely unthinkable thing is that memories and thoughts in the novel are finished things. As if our brains are a kind of video library that we can flip through to find the right video.

Egan starts laughing out loud. “Yes, of course it’s unthinkable! Our thoughts are not videos! It’s wonderful, not true: this is a kind of cartoon, an expansion, a simplification. We do not understand near enough of our brains to actually 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 just think it’s ridiculous on a deeper level. Machines are therefore not the place I turn to for rescue and answer, it’s books. Literature is the God I serve, not technology. “

So we really should not take that machine seriously?

“Well, just seriously enough. A big part of the art of writing is to find a tone that makes the reader take your story just seriously enough. But in the end, it’s the machine I believe in, it’s the place where you can put yourself in someone else’s consciousness ”- and she points to a book on the table.

“If there’s a message in the book, it’s it. And I’m not a big fan of groceries, but I’m putting my cards on the table in this book. This book is full of hope. At least: I have through this book learned that I am much more optimistic than I thought. ”

Also read the review of Jennifer Egan’s novel Manhattan BeachImmersed in the underworld

Did you think you were pessimistic?

“Well, I feel all kinds of fears for the fate of the world, but I also believe in human ingenuity. In the collective thinking where there is so much power. I have great faith in people. ”

How did this book teach you that?

“It’s going to end pretty well for the characters, don’t you think?”

uh, maybe? I mostly see a lot of open endings, which is a bit inherent in the fragmented structure …

“Maybe the mood in the book in particular feels optimistic? There is a certain optimism in openness, in the sense of opportunity. Reality is full of surprises, we can agree on that. Not always pleasant surprises. Trump’s election: surprise. 9/11: big surprise. In a way, it’s crazy that we can still be surprised. We know so much, 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’s a wonderful thought. To see the unpredictable and the unexpected, even the uncertain, as something hopeful.

“Yeah Al that sounds pretty crap to me, Looks like BT aint for me either. there. I need a more open feeling in writing, the feeling that more is possible. Not that nothing is possible anymore. “

The unexpected is exactly what tech companies are not striving for, right? For them, it is precisely about control, insight and overview, solutions.

‘Exactly why that machine is so junk, 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 that’s in a way what my whole writing process is all about. If I deliberately invent a story, it becomes worthless. My writing process is about unlocking what I can not think of when I am fully conscious – so I do automatic writing, I continue to write blindly, as with improvisation, and try to get into a flow. Thinking is useful for being critical, but not for being creative. And writing is about creativity. Finding something new. “

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