I have just reread Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House, which came out last year. The first time I read it I was much dazzled. But the first time it’s really hard for the reader to precisely connect the characters in the individual chapters to characters in another chapter. This does not detract at all from the reading experience: you hold the individual chapters together as you read but you can’t quite make all their tendrils connect. But you have confidence that they do connect. When you read through the second time, more of the connections do connect and the reading experience is even richer.
I was convinced that Egan had incorporated into The Candy House one of Edouard Levé’s ideas from Works:
“11. The friend of an artist selects descriptions of artworks from press reviews of exhibitions. The accompanying photograph is cut out and the text sent to the artist to draw the work based on its description. The final work is a triptych composed of the drawing, the description of the work, and the photograph accompanying the article. There are four authors, direct or indirect, voluntary of involuntary: the artist who created the referenced work, the writer of the article, the friend who chose it, and the artist who drew it.”
I knew that the Levé instructions had a similarity to Robin Kelsey’s exercise in The Photographer’s Playbook (Aperture):
1. One student makes four photographs of different subjects.
2. A second student, knowing nothing of the four photographs, makes four captions.
3. A third student matches each of the four captions to each of the four photographs.
4. A fourth student designates one photograph/caption pair a successful work of art and one pair a failure.
5. The students meet and discuss."
I was convinced that Egan had written something similar, but apparently I was wrong. I couldn’t find it.
Possibly I had been thinking about a passage early in Egan’s book in which a character has written a book Van Gogh, Painter of Sound, “which found correlations between Van Gogh’s types of brushstrokes and the proximity of noisemaking creatures like cicadas, bees, crickets, and woodpeckers, whose microscopic traces had been detected in the paint itself.”
This may have resonated with an article I had read about how Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” sheds light on the concept of turbulent flow in fluid dynamics. Basically, scientists figured out how the concept of luminance gives the impression of motion, the swirling effect of Van Gogh’s stars, for example. The scientists digitized, in other words quantified, the painting to undertake the examination.
This is very much one of Egan’s big thoughts in The Candy House: the quantification of all natural phenomena, particularly human beings.
Read about Van Gogh in Maria Popov’s article here:
Another thing I discovered about The Candy House was that I stole a couple of its sentences.
My wife has a habit of remedying her insomnia by having her telephone tell her a story, such as a TED talk, a fiction from the New Yorker, or a book on audible.com. Usually I am not awakened by this practice as the volume is very low and comes to me as a quiet indecipherable murmuring.
One night I woke to a couple of haunting sentences speaking to me out of the void and I wrote them down, in the dark, in my already illegible handwriting.
Days later I would discover the sentences, but could not locate their source, knew only that I had written them down in the night when mostly asleep.
The sentences resonated with me because of an enigmatic (even to me) character I was writing in a story and I wrote them into her dialogue.
This is one of them (in my words): “My work is to be forgotten, but still present.”
Later still I was reading The Candy House and I realized that these sentences were from one of the strangest chapters in the book, “Lulu the Spy, 2032.” This chapter is written in brief aphoristic statements and is unlike any other chapters.
I would have mentioned this indebtedness in the Acknowledgements of my book, had I known who to acknowledge. I’m mentioning it now.
My favorite chapter in The Candy House is called “The Perimeter: After” and it is narrated by Molly, as a child, and it serves as the introduction of Lulu and their very sweet afternoon with Chris Salazar, an important character, and his friend Colin (who dies young). The voice is amazing and sweet. This is very much a polyvocal (is that even a word?) work with lots of different speakers.
I add (only because I noted it) that Egan uses the word judder (or a form of it) three times. That seemed like a lot to me, in a 342 page book. Note to self: use the word judder.
Note to you: read The Candy House.
 The story is “High Heaven: A Kind of Love Story,” in the book Points of Astonishment: Alpine Stories.