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Jennifer Egan takes on artificial intelligence

The Candy House by Jennifer Egan. 322 pages, Scribner.

These days, all I ever hear about are algorithms. They’re taking our jobs. They’re guiding the decisions of medical professionals. They’re fine-tuning our taste in music. They’re automating all our tiny human problems out of existence. They’re still taking our jobs! I’ve been particularly worried about this since I found out about GPT-3, a “language generator” created by the artificial intelligence company OpenAI. It was introduced in mid-2020 and has been described as the most sophisticated technology of its kind; the Guardian once ran an article it wrote (“I taught myself everything I know just by reading the internet, and now I can write this column.”) How it works is that you give it some text as a prompt, and it expands on it using the patterns of language—the 175 billion “parameters” that it has learned. For example, I fed it (though I think the technical term is seeded) the words consciousness, technology, memory, and A Visit from the Goon Squad, and it came back to me with a completed manuscript for a novel called The Candy House.

It’s not a fair joke, really. One, it sounds dismissive of Jennifer Egan’s latest novel, which in reality isn’t that bad. Two, you have to give GPT-3 at least a sentence or two, since it only understands the relations between words rather than their meaning, so giving it a few in isolation would presumably achieve very little. And three, the literary style for which Egan is primarily known—at least since The Candy House’s massively successful “sibling novel” (publisher’s term) A Visit from the Goon Squad—is, at least, distinctive enough that an algorithm would at present have a hard time learning to reproduce it accurately: no notable imitators, not enough evidence of repetition on a larger scale. Both novels are, stylistically, a kind of compressed realism (despite The Candy House’s twitches of science fiction) that weaves together several semi-connected plots, plus sporadic attempts to inhabit at least one form offered by digital technology. In Goon Squad, we got a chapter formatted like a PowerPoint presentation. The Candy House has some written as emails and as character-limited messages; one first appeared as a series of tweets from the account of The New Yorker in 2012. Egan trades neither in prelapsarian realism nor pure experimentalism, but an oddly seamless mix of the two. An ultimately straightforward equation, at least for many critics: realism plus experimentation equals hybrid form liable to get described as “postmodern” (no), “Victorian” (no), and “post-postmodern” (kind of, but no). Fluidly written third-person narrative rubs up against showy formal tricks without either seeming out of place—mostly, they’re separated neatly by chapter.

If the purpose of fiction really does risk being rendered inert and useless by new technologies of recording human history, then what’s left?

We begin The Candy House by meeting Bix Bouton, an early internet evangelist who has monetized his “utopian fantasy” of the online world as a space of pure freedom (and racial equality) into the social network Mandala, and whose realization that this now “looked comically naive” hasn’t stopped him from looking for his next big idea. After infiltrating a graduate seminar on the theories of the anthropologist who inspired Mandala in the first place and overhearing an animal scientist’s findings on the externalization of consciousness, he finds it: Own Your Unconscious, a cloud-based software program to which people can upload their entire memories, free for other users to view. Formally, virtually nothing actually comes of this conceit, at which point it becomes necessary to note the lack of technological sophistication that Egan’s novel possesses, its strangely old-timey feel. None of the prophetic sharpness, however short-lived, of actual genre sci-fi; none of the jaded dead-tech glamour of a DeLillo or a late Pynchon. It kind of worked in Goon Squad: the jarring way in which, for example, texting was rendered seemed appropriate for a novel entirely about being out of step with the present, the future slipping away into the past. But here it starts to raise questions. How adept is Egan, really, at understanding this stuff? It’s an issue, that, in the end, she ducks. The Candy House is interested in shared memory and data harvesting merely on the level of content, not form.

Instead, once the stage is set, we get the ensemble cast. The TV-poisoned Alfred tries to shock people into “real” behavior by endlessly screaming in public, and is interviewed by a student for their PhD on the quaint subject of “authenticity in the digital era.” We meet Lincoln, a “counter”—or “senior empiricist and metrics expert”—at Mandala, whose job it is to collect data on users and track their patterns of behavior. Sasha, the problem child of Goon Squad, grows up into a renowned land artist who uses discarded plastic to create “rambling, colorful sculptures stretched out across the California desert.” A PR professional tries to launder her own image after working for an unnamed foreign dictator. Various other Goon Squad offspring turn up for their turn in the spotlight, and again, for all its interest in the technological dimension of the “collective unconscious,” the uncanny connections between characters that tie the novel together are often unrelated to it. The past’s tap on the shoulder comes not from the ghostly hand of the internet but from timeless, analog nostalgia.

Saying that The Candy House reads like it was algorithmically generated may not have been quite right, but it does get at something the novel itself wants us to consider—one of its dreaded “themes.” Midway through the novel, we encounter Chris Salazar, an English graduate who now works for an entertainment start-up; his job is to identify prominent narratives across culture before “cataloging and converting them into one algebraic system,” helping his firm to understand how stories are produced with the ultimate goal of making art themselves. Meanwhile, Bix Bouton’s own son, the book-loving, disillusioned would-be novelist Gregory, is “convinced that Own Your Unconscious posed an existential threat to fiction.” This, ultimately, is the novel’s highest-concept strand; though she’s too subtle to come right out and say it, Egan is coyly suggesting that fiction can be analogized through big data, an idea she is well-placed to explore. The weaving together of people’s lives, the writing of memories and shared narratives, demonstrations of the infinite possible connections between people—these are all concerns of Egan’s fiction, and they’re all, self-evidently and in her telling, functions of the internet. The Candy House initially promises (or threatens) to read as the chronicle of its own redundancy.

But if the purpose of fiction really does risk being rendered inert and useless by new technologies of recording human history, then what’s left? Why should we bother reading Egan’s novel? Luckily, she has an answer. Chris eventually leaves his job to set up Mondrian, a kind of counter-Mandala which operates “proxies”—convincing but fake online identities—to help people escape digital surveillance. Mondrian’s staff, we are told, consists of “usually fiction writers.” Gregory, for his part, has a sudden realization about Own Your Unconscious once its inventor, his father, has died:

Here was his father’s parting gift: a galaxy of human lives hurtling toward his curiosity. From a distance they faded into uniformity, but they were moving, each propelled by a singular force that was inexhaustible. The collective. He was feeling the collective without any machinery at all. And its stories, infinite and particular, would be his to tell.

Fiction is first redeemed, assigned a vaguely defined capacity for liberation: Mondrian with its nonconformist impulse, or the novel’s ultimate judgment that “only Gregory Bouton’s machine—this one, fiction—lets us roam with absolute freedom through the human collective.” But then Gregory’s epiphany is both more specific and less oppositional on the issue of fiction’s purpose. His is a vision of literature and Big Tech working hand in hand, the latter supplying the raw material for the former to shape. It’s a convenient solution to the problem Bix is troubled by, “the same one had by everyone who gathers information: What to do with it? How to sort and shape and use it? How to keep from drowning in it?” Egan seems not, in the end, to have abandoned the futile tech-positivity with which she opened the novel. (Elsewhere, Own Your Unconscious is credited with “a global rise in empathy that accompanied a drastic decline in purist orthodoxies—which, people now knew, having roamed the odd, twisting corridors of one another’s minds, had always been hypocritical.”) One of The Candy House’s epigraphs is from an Emily Dickinson poem:

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—

For—put them side by side—

The one the other will contain

With ease—and You—beside—

The novel, Egan says, can basically take whatever is thrown at it; even the endless possibilities of algorithmic generation can be absorbed into its elastic, undefeated formal logic. Forget surveillance capitalism, it was novelists who invented the omniscient narrator! But if this is her point, then it’s one made ultimately in the spirit of compromise, not combat.

Egan, as you’d expect, isn’t the only contemporary novelist interested in the position of writing in the era of data. Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island is about a “corporate ethnographer,” referred to only as U., tasked by his boss with writing “the Great Report” summarizing the present era. U. is obsessed with data, in thrall to a vision he has:

a giant über-server, housed somewhere in Finland or Nevada or Uzbekistan: stacks of memory banks, satellite dishes sprouting all around them, pumping out information non-stop, more of it than any single person would need in their lifetime, pumping it all my way in an endless, unconditional and grace-conferring act of generosity.

Like Egan, McCarthy invokes the data industry as a backdrop to novel-writing—and like Egan, this analogy is sewn together via the discipline of anthropology: “Bronisław Malinowski, the father of modern anthropology, said: Write Everything Down.” But if Egan raised the prospect of data overtaking literature only to disavow it, McCarthy tends more toward the gleeful embrace of that possibility. His is a recognizably edgier, more theory-informed take: Everything is already writing. Literature is a technology of memory. Artificial intelligence was first developed (or written) at the same time as poststructuralism. McCarthy adds to his citations of figures like Joyce and de Certeau a strange sheen of fascination with modern corporate culture; in an essay from the same year as Satin Island, he predicted that “if there is an individual alive in 2015 with the genius and vision of James Joyce, they’re probably working for Google.” But Satin Island, like The Candy House, tracks perhaps inadvertently the process by which this supposed formal parallel between the novel and the work of corporations can only be realized at the level of content. If we’re making comparisons with canonical modernists, then perhaps McCarthy should have said that if Joseph Conrad were writing his modernist novels of imperial exile and the flows of international capital today, he’d write melancholy epics about middle managers leaving their hometowns to “head up the Dubai office.” Ultimately Satin Island is concerned with the impossibility of the novel as we know it in a world where its work is being carried out algorithmically. U.’s Great Report is never written (not even by McCarthy); the end of the novel sees him stuck in a ferry terminal, inert with doubt, unable to decipher the signs.

Now that we have the technology that really can generate narratives automatically, fiction seems to have gone backward; rather than dissolving the borders of meaning, a novel like The Candy House wants to make them structured and logical.

With his line about Joyce and Google, McCarthy meant that would-be novelists would be working for corporations instead of writing—but these days, everyone has a side hustle. In 2020, a recognizably McCarthy-approved novel appeared from Emily Segal, a writer who balances art with “trend forecasting” and brand consultancy. Mercury Retrograde likewise features a writer named Emily Segal who starts working for eXe, a start-up run by post-Silicon Valley frat boys with the “somewhat literary” aim of creating a kind of living encyclopedia of the internet, a “meta-layer of language all over the web.” In her spurious creative role, Emily creates campaigns understood as both art and marketing, a position whose contradictions remain productively unresolved throughout. Where Egan tries to reinstate the boundary between art and corporatized technology, McCarthy and Segal seem more interested in the implications of its dissolution. There is, obviously, a point to be made here about the literal devaluation of art—who could blame the fictional Segal for taking the job? Besides, Mercury Retrograde is great, a sharp but enervated novel that’s actually about the disintegration of the tech/art parallel dream and the melancholy of branding. Still, it’s not hard to imagine a novel of the future, only ambiguously subversive in its relation to tech culture, which so internalizes its language that it speaks blankly of cluster analysis, scale-ups, and “seeding.” Surely nobody, not even McCarthy, would want to read that.

One of the high points of The Candy House comes in a description of Sasha’s art. As her cousin takes an early-morning hot-air balloon ride in order to see it from above, “a skein of brilliant color snapped into view: Sasha’s sculpture. From the ground, it had seemed a hodgepodge, but from my new height, it acquired structure and logic, like random scribbles aligning into prose.” A beautiful image, though the phrase “structure and logic” is telling, and, at least to my mind, somewhat ominous. Egan, of course, is describing an invented artwork as a guide for how she wants her own to be received, or at least to put forward a vision of what writing should be. And by framing it in these terms, the novel comes into view as the restraining force that gives shape and definition to what would otherwise be an endless cascade of unrealized meaning; offering us narratives to which we can all relate, showing us the hidden ties that unite us.

Only, is this what it should really be aiming for? A century ago, André Breton proposed “psychic automatism” as the future of writing, a liberation of art achieved by short-circuiting the conventions of conscious meaning (owning one’s unconscious would, to him, have seemed completely beside the point). Now that we have the technology that really can generate narratives automatically, fiction seems to have gone backward; rather than dissolving the borders of meaning, a novel like The Candy House wants to make them structured and logical. It feels significant that Egan’s resistance movement, her novel’s haven for fiction writers, is called Mondrian, after an artist who was an avatar of rationality: all straight lines and primary colors, painting as an exercise in pure, scripted control. Contrast this with another, real-life, AI program (one which, incidentally uses a version of the GPT-3 model), an image generator capable of producing whatever dreamlike combination of forms you ask it to—named DALL·E, after Salvador.

At one point in The Candy House, Lincoln, the “counter,” confesses to a moment of uncertainty in his occupation: “There are occasions where I’m obliged, in my professional capacity, to search the psyches of strangers. It’s an eerie sensation—like walking through an unfamiliar home and being surrounded by objects that radiate significance I can’t decipher.” It’s a great line, the novel’s best, and another moment where Egan seems to be leaning on the tech industry to express the purpose of fiction, asking us to think of both of these as ways to explore the minds of strangers. But we don’t need to imagine other people’s lives to unsettle our perception when, as the Surrealists knew, our own are capable of producing enough ambient, incomplete significance to fuel infinite works of art. Should literature really look towards the tech industry to articulate its self-conceptions? Maybe writers shouldn’t be focusing so much on our unseen similarities and connections with others, performing their equivalent of assessing data for statistical significance, but on the fault lines of our own experiences, the moments where our patterns of connection and understanding begin to fray. Despite Egan’s prolonged grappling with the fiction vs. technology debate that has structured her novel from the outset, we’re left with no clear image of her idea of what the kind of writing that Gregory will produce—writing that will supposedly triumph over the tech industry’s invasion of the traditional domain of fiction even as it makes good on its insights—will actually look like (and I don’t think it’s The Candy House). This anticlimax feels fitting for a novel which, in the end, has come to seem like something of a lost cause. If we can accept a category like the “big data novel,” then perhaps that’s all it ever was: a brief spark of information on the map of modern literature, a set of signals in time, archived but rarely revisited, whose importance now is lost in the machine.