The author's first novel in five years is a wild and woolly follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad.
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It's hard to recall a more unlikely literary smash than Jennifer Egan's slim 2010 opus A Visit From the Goon Squad, a dense, dazzling hybrid of fun-size character studies and PowerPointed metafiction that became a nightstand fixture and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. And singularities, pretty much by definition, don't tend to get sequels, at least outside the realm of paperback Hobbits and boy wizards.

But within a few pages The Candy House (out now) brings it all back, its teeming tapestry of strivers, dropouts, and dreamers as insistently alive as they were 12 years ago — and as bent as ever on pursuing some elusive essential truth, beginning with Bix Bouton (one of many supporting players in Goon Squad who return for their close-up). A punk rock kid turned social media visionary, Bix fears that at 41 his only great idea is behind him; a chance encounter changes that in a moment, and sets Candy's Rube Goldberg plot machinery in motion.

'The Candy House,' by Jennifer Egan
'The Candy House,' by Jennifer Egan
| Credit: Scribner

His invention — a small, glowing cube capable of downloading an entire human consciousness — allows for some of the novel's more fantastical themes, though calling it science fiction sounds far too chilly and grim for the winding metaphysical mystery that follows. Sections are told entirely via email, or as an increasingly unhinged handbook for prospective female spies; another pours out in the breathless confessional rush of a teenage girl with one finger on the caps lock key. Here again are extravagant characters — the Malibu music moguls, murderous dictators, and flailing actresses of Goon Squad, but also suburban tennis moms, late-blooming anthropologists, and agitated tech workers whose inner worlds are no less rich and strange.

It's hardly surprising that Egan has become more consumed with the long-tail effects of endless, empty connectivity in a too-online world; like the rest of us, she's had the past decade to marinate in that. But Candy, for all its dips and spins and cul-de-sacs, its brain-weevil gadgets and future shocks, does what only the best and rarest books can: peel back the thin membrane of ordinary life, and find transcendence on the other side. Grade: A-

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