Sam Franzini / Daily Nexus

A novelist’s imagination is multifaceted; not only can it go to different places, but different times as well. In the future, how will new technologies shape our lives, our thinking and ourselves? With a malfunctioning robot, a memory innovation and a happiness index, three writers attempt to peek into our future.

“The Candy House” by Jennifer Egan (Scribner)

Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

Twelve years ago, Jennifer Egan’s novel “A Visit from the Goon Squadsmashed apart literary expectations for what a novel can be or accomplish — and was rewarded heavily. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book was a collection of short stories with the same characters across space or time, reflecting on the passage of time. “The Candy House,” its follow-up, is structured the same way, despite a time shift to the future. The writing is sharper, and the characters and stories more defined, though; it’s as if the characters needed time to mature.

“The Candy House” is about memory, and what happens when an invention called “Own Your Unconscious” makes your consciousness — and everyone else’s who agrees to participate — available to the public. Through “gray grabs,” people can relive memories traumatic and beautiful, and the world is consequently divided into those who support the new tech (“counters”) and those who don’t (“eluders”).

The book is more than a debate over the new tech, though; it’s a character-driven story at heart. It opens with Bix Bouton, who goes on to create the technology, but the novel’s cast of people involve children who sell their mother’s equations (which become the backbone of algorithmically derived content), a worker mathematically obsessed with a coworker, and a man so annoyed by the fake masks we use to conceal our identities that he resorts to screaming in public to dissipate the veneer.

On her ability to masterfully create such interlocking narratives, Egan said that what interests her most are abstract ideas and times and places she wants to explore. “The abstract ideas often include genres and forms I’d like to try to use, as well as concepts that feel rich for exploration. For example, in ‘The Candy House,’ the ways in which digital experience has changed our relationship to physical space,” she said. “The entry point for me to any work, of any length, is time and place — in other words, atmosphere. I begin writing from there, quite improvisationally in my first drafts, and see who shows up and what they do.”

Reading “Goon Squad” beforehand isn’t mandatory, but it is helpful, as some characters, no matter how small, return in this book. Lulu, a girl accompanying her mother to revitalize a dictator’s public image in “Goon Squad,” returns here as a spy receiving instructions from body-implanted tech. Egan again makes up new structures that a novel can take; there’s a chapter entirely in email dialogue, similar to the PowerPoint section in “Goon Squad.”

Each story and each sentence glimmers with possibility; Egan’s imagination and wit makes it impossible to detect where the story will turn next. The characters are fun and dynamic; as we watch them grapple with this new technology, it’s hard not to think about how we’re not too far away from them.

“This Thing Between Us” by Gus Moreno (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Courtesy of Amazon

Gus Moreno’s psychological thriller and cosmic horror genre-bending debut novel begins with the narrator’s admission to his recently passed wife, Vera: “Your parents wouldn’t let me bury you in a tree pod. Mostly your mom.”

This thread of humor runs through the entire book, despite its subject matter running from creepy at its most benign and heavy at its darkest. Thiago is struggling with the recent death of his wife, and the book is addressed to her as he figures out how his life goes on. “There was nothing I wanted to know anymore, except whether killing myself would bring me to you,” he says in one of the book’s darker moments.

Vera’s death was caused (in Thiago’s eyes) by their brand-new Itza, an Alexa-type machine that plays music, produces random cold spots in the couple’s new condo and whose alarm function turned off one morning, causing Vera’s death in a freak accident at her train station. Before her death, Thiago was becoming increasingly suspicious of Itza — it randomly activating, purchasing random objects, saying creepy phrases and seemingly causing the terror he’s facing in his own home — to the point where he smashes it. “All I did was follow [the] premise of a possessed smart speaker and the destruction pretty much happened on its own,” Moreno said of Itza’s creation. After Vera’s death, he moves to Colorado in an attempt to rid himself of Itza’s grip on his life.

Thiago struggles with keeping his sanity in check at his new cabin in the woods — the events of his past life seem to come back tenfold: He believes Vera is talking to him through books; his new guard dog, Brimley, is acting bizarre; and a random encounter with a diner clerk leaves him scarred. He has random dreams, where reality is blurred — but again, humor is never lost; he pisses on Vera’s grave during one — involving characters from his past. “I’m really interested in Jungian imagery and symbolism, lucid dreaming, all that stuff. Dreams have played an important role in my life in general,” Moreno said. “So it only seemed natural to me that Thiago and the entity haunting him would interact in this liminal space of consciousness that’s maybe between dreaming and a wakeful state.”

In between the novel’s more bone-chilling moments, Moreno possesses a keen eye and smart meditations on life, grief, loss and continuing to live. With Thiago’s life descending into chaos, he writes, “I don’t want it to be that what I believe is what matters most. I want the truth, without a brain to skew it, without eyes to filter it.” You might not always understand what’s happening, but this book will hold onto your psyche long after you put it down.

“Happy For You” by Claire Stanford (Viking Books)

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

In the near future, might we be able to quantify happiness — the emotion our lives revolve around? Is there a way to definitively place our feelings on a spectrum, subject to alterations? 

Claire Stanford’s debut novel attempts to find out — her narrator, Evelyn, is employed at the third-largest internet company due to her expertise in philosophy. Her boss, Dr. Luce, is hell-bent on JOYFULL, her company’s app that measures happiness and suggests fixes. Evelyn is skeptical though, and at a happiness conference where she’s presenting on a panel, she says that the philosopher Montaigne argued that “There was such a diversity of humans in the world … that there must also be a diversity of happiness. That happiness was, in other words, subjective, not objective.” Stanford wanted to write about happiness, she said, because “it’s such a mystery, and it’s so individual. And I thought: of course, someone, someday, is going to try to monetize it.”

Dr. Luce sees this as going against the company mission, of course, and makes sure that in the future, Evelyn fully believes in the product. She reassures Dr. Luce in order to keep her job, but quietly toils at the idea of JOYFULL — everything in her philosophy background goes against it. The app even produces some internal turmoil — her first “happiness score” was a 7.1. “Was I unhappy? I didn’t think so, but JOYFULL said I was. I hardly thought a computer knew more about me then I did, but it was unnerving all the same.” 

Evelyn struggles not only with this invasive technology, but also her place in the world — as a half-Asian, half-Jewish woman, she feels like an outsider especially in the company (at the happiness conference, a speaker asks if she knows anything about Buddhism). Stanford, who shares the same identity as Evelyn, “wanted to write about a character and an experience that I’ve almost never seen in literature.” It goes deeper though, as JOYFULL’s (and the company’s) mission to quantify and categorize is at odds with Evelyn’s feeling of displacement. “JOYFULL’s probing amplifies doubts for Evelyn about her racial identity and fitting in,” Stanford said, “but also about all aspects of her life: marriage, motherhood, just being a person in the world.”


Sam Franzini
Sam Franzini is a fourth year student and a fan of dogs, music, tennis, stationery, and Survivor. He grew up in Florida and all of the stories about it are true.