Book Notes: Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House

There’s supposed to be some vaguely sci-fi component of Shoshana-Zuboff-ish inspiration to this novel but it’s only a pretext for Egan to do what she really wants, which is write loosely connected short stories about life, love, family and loss. There’s some very (VERY) mild experimentation with narrative forms but the book remains extremely readable and engrossing.

Like all literature in English published in the past 20 years (and I mean serious literature only), this novel pretends that the world is inhabited exclusively by very rich people. Everybody in the novel is very rich and experiences the typical problems of very rich people. I’m guessing these very rich people come across drivers, nannies, cooks, mowers, and waiters in their lives but all that is absent from the novel. Nobody who isn’t seriously wealthy makes an appearance. It gets really funny at times. For instance, one of the characters visits his old abuela who’s an immigrant from Honduras.

“Ah, finally a regular person!” you think with a sense of relief.

Then two sentences later it comes out that the Honduran abuela made a fortune investing in Bitcoin and her biggest problem is how to prevent anybody from stealing her Mondrian painting. Although I have no idea who’d want to engage in theft in this world of very rich people.

Another problem is that Egan peppers the book (especially in the first couple of chapters) with nods of obeisance to wokeness, having her very rich characters think things like “as a straight white male I have experienced numerous advantages in life.”

You’d assume after this description that the novel sucks. But that’s not true. It’s an excellent novel. Egan is talented. I wish she took a trip somewhere where normal people lived and spent some time with them. Then she could write about something more worthwhile. But that’s every writer in English. Even Richard Russo hasn’t written about people who struggle to pay bills and worry about credit card debt in decades.

What’s very interesting to me is that in spite of the obligatory woke prattle thrown in here and there, Egan is a writer of clearly conservative sensibilities. Whether she is conscious of that or not, I have no idea. But it’s very much there in the novel.

Egan won a Pulitzer for a previous novel. I haven’t read that one yet but after reading The Candy House, I’m sure it was well-deserved. This is a person of great literary skill and considerable talent. That we have no place in our culture for her to write about normal people is our shared problem.

Spices

Burlap & Barrel‘s wild mountain cumin from Afghanistan is so good, I’m starting to think they grow it right next to their poppy fields. The cumin is so fresh and fragrant, it’s downright addictive.

Their pimentón (smoked Spanish paprika) is also superb. There is no such thing as medium-quality paprika. It’s either horrid (which is most of the time) or sensational.

Real Introvert

We are going to Florida for two weeks, and Klara has already stipulated with me the number of days she’ll forego the beach and stay in her room alone, playing and listening to her books. I have a feeling that in spite of her shockingly good people’s skills she’s an introvert. You’ve got to be an introvert to prepare for a long-awaited family vacation with a large family group and think about how you will need alone days so well in advance, right?

I wonder if introversion and extraversion are genetic. People skills clearly aren’t as evidenced by the fact that N and I produced an extremely popular, friendly child. N and I weren’t popular in our school years to the extent that is almost comical. When I ask N, “so what were your friends like in high school?”, he asks “Friends?”” with the same sincerest dazed look as if I asked about the name of his pet crocodile.

Old Age

The woman at the Indian restaurant said, “I so love your bright, matching outfit. I used to dress all pretty, too, when I was your age. But now I’m old and it doesn’t matter how I look.”

Then we started talking and she said her mother is 63. Which means she can’t possibly be older than me. But she sees me with a 6-year-old daughter and probably assumes I’m much younger with a weather-beaten face or something.

Union vs Austerity

On the positive side, the union has immediately mobilized to stand up to the austerity measures introduced by our new chief administrator whom I will from now on call Dr Neoliberal.

The paradox is that the union people aren’t seeing that it’s precisely their efforts to keep as many of us as possible off campus during COVID that made all this possible. There can’t be academic self-governance if you aren’t there to govern.

And by the way, just so that everybody appreciates the depths of my tolerance and my incapacity to hold a grudge, I will share that I was the first person (and one of only two people so far) publicly to thank our union leader for standing up to Dr Neoliberal. This is the same union boss who two years ago publicly accused me of being willing to “cause deaths of many people for your personal convenience.” He was wrong, and it was very upsetting. He also censored me on our discussion board to the point where I had to threaten to go to the local newspapers if this ban on my free expression wasn’t removed. But I’m now risking the displeasure of the administration to show my solidarity with this same union boss.

Skill Isn’t Virtue

I was talking about the new chief administrator to a friend and she said, “wait, I thought you really liked him. Didn’t you say he was a great public speaker?”

People often mistake praise for a specific skill or a trait a person has for a blanket approval of everything that individual will ever do from now on into the eternity.

Sadly, gifts aren’t bestowed on people as a reward for outstanding virtue. There’s actually no connection between gifts and virtue at all. One can admire the talent of an athlete or a musician and derive great pleasure from their performance without considering their private life, for instance, remotely admirable.

A Tired Cassandra

Our new neoliberal chief administrator is a hoot. He informed us that from now on hiring anybody for any position be it faculty, graduate assistant or staff will require us to fill out an online form he’ll personally have to approve. In the form we have to explain “what is the potential return on investment based on filling this position.” I copy-pasted this exactly as is.

I did my Cassandra bit back when he was getting interviewed and I ran around screeching, “he’s a neoliberal! There will be austerity! Budget cuts! Hiring freezes!” And people told me I had to be wrong because the candidate was from California, so it had to be all right. I have no idea what that was supposed to mean other than people seem not to understand that being a raging leftist makes one more, not less, likely to be a neoliberal.

Since then I have accepted that we can’t avoid this neoliberal fellow doing a number on us but the less attentive colleagues are now waking up to the horror we have inflicted upon ourselves.

To think that instead of this “potential return on investment” corporate drone we could have had a candidate who actually went to school here and talked to us about his family, his church and his work on behalf of Down’s Syndrome children.

At this point in my rant, people invariably interrupt me to say, “yeah, but the candidate they chose is black!” Which drives me nuts because they were all black. But one was neoliberal and another human. It’s really weird that people were right here, saw all the candidates and still haven’t caught on.

IDPH

The Illinois Department of Public Health has now started to harass me via text message to get vaccinated for COVID because their “records show” I’m unvaccinated.

My husband is actually unvaccinated but he claims not to have received any such text messages.

We are in a severe budget crisis, yet this is what public money is being spent on.