It only makes sense for a reporter to be nervous about a chat with author Jennifer Egan, given her credentials as a Pulitzer Prize winner for her 2010 novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, the president of lit-forward nonprofit PEN America and an all-around intellectual titan. But Egan’s conversational approach was as clever and thoughtful as her writing suggests. Egan’s latest novel The Candy House hinges on a technology called “Own Your Unconscious,” which allows characters to revisit any of their own memories, and to make them accessible to others in exchange for access to the collective. Egan will be in conversation with Alex Parsons at the Santa Fe International Literary Festival (9:15 am Saturday, May 20. $15-$50, Santa Fe Community Convention Center, 201 W Marcy St., sfinternationallitfest.org; see more on page 31). This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read more from Egan in our festival preview here.
How would ‘Own Your Unconscious’ change the role of story, if at all?
That’s an interesting question. [The character] Bix’s son Gregory, who wants to be a writer, is appalled by this technology because he feels it will eliminate the space for books. The way the technology plays out is often with a sense of great disappointment, because it turns out we may not actually want to know what it’s like to be inside someone else’s consciousness, or even to review our own memories as they ‘actually were.’ So, in the world as imagined, what would be the role of books? I guess what we would learn is that the curation of information is actually essential to making the experience meaningful. I’m very interested in the relationship between data and storytelling because we’re so data-obsessed as a culture, and yet the limitations of data are so manifest. I discovered in writing about all this that in the end it’s the interpretation that gives meaning to data, and it may be that art is what gives meaning to this spectatorship of other consciousnesses.
There are technologies and ideas in the book that you imagined as fiction, but have since become reality. What’s that like?
That has happened to me a lot. Not as much with this book as with some, but when I was working on it, it felt a little out of step with reality. Now it feels so in step that in the end, it’s going to feel like it was just verisimilitude. For instance, I imagined a guy whose job was to create a mathematical system that could encompass any sort of plot. He believes he’s working for an entertainment company, but he doesn’t know what the product is and neither do we. As soon as ChatGPT came along, I suddenly realized that’s the product. He’s participating in a program that synthesizes groupthink into entertainment. So, the book is going to feel like a reflection on ChatGPT—who cares that I published it nine months before that was released. I know nothing about technology. But it’s no surprise my imaginings would parallel those of people who really do know technology and can make things happen. The way I see art generally, and fiction specifically, is as a distillation of the cultural moment that we occupy. Our job is to create artifacts that articulate the dream life of the culture collectively. So it makes sense there’s a tandem between art and reality in which sometimes the artistic expression gets slightly ahead, because we’re all drawing on the same experience, the same forces.
How did you come to think about art that way?
When I was working on my novel Manhattan Beach, which is a noir-ish historical thriller, I needed to know everything about what life was like during the war years in New York. I originally thought that would mean knowing what people drove, what they smoked and what they wore. But I realized as soon as I tried to write that that’s nothing. What you need to really understand is what people were thinking about, what they were remembering, what they were nostalgic for, the cultural touchstones. History books can’t exactly tell us that, but fiction can. That experience got me thinking, What is fiction, really? And what I came to feel is that it’s sort of like the way we dream, and those dreams take the everyday stuff of our lives and transform it into symbolic works of art. To my mind, artists perform exactly the same function collectively for the culture that contains us.