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New novel imagines how memories can be accessed and reviewed by ourselves and others


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: A new novel imagines a world in which our memories can be accessed and reviewed by ourselves and by others.

Jeffrey Brown talks to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan at her home in Brooklyn about her latest work of fiction.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Imagine a beautiful cube in which you can store all your memories, allowing access to them whenever you want. Call it own your unconscious. But there is a tradeoff. Others can access it, or, in a sense, you.

Novelist Jennifer Egan has dreamed up this so far nonexistent technology. She may still write by hand in the office of her Brooklyn home. but, like most of us, she finds much of her own life bound up in the digital world.

Jennifer Egan, Author, "The Candy House": I feel like that's the great story I have witnessed in my lifetime.

You know, the speed of change in the telecommunication realm, the media realm is so fast that I feel like I continually revisit the question of how that affects us internally.

Jeffrey Brown: And why does that interest you as a novelist?

Jennifer Egan: Because the novel is the instrument to examine inside people's minds. I mean, that's -- as far as I can see, that's the unique thing that novels do that nothing else can do.

Jeffrey Brown: Egan's new novel, "The Candy House," looks into her characters' minds and also plays with literary forms, something she has done in six previous works, each different from the last.

The new one draws on characters and storylines from her 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Visit from the Goon Squad." And each chapter is written in a different voice or perspective and uses different styles, including an e-mail exchange and a futuristic spy story.

Jennifer Egan: In a way, what the book does is simulate this experience of being in a collective consciousness and moving in and out of world's and people's minds.


Jeffrey Brown: A fragmented world, yes.

Jennifer Egan: Right, or a fragmented experience, which is very much what online experience often is.

Imagine trying to tell that story conventionally. My last novel was a historical novel. I told it in a very straightforward way. It couldn't have lived in a form like this. But one way to keep things fresh and to keep myself doing things I haven't done before is to try to use new ways of doing them, because that will require that I tell a story I have never told.

I just love being near the water.

Jeffrey Brown: On one of her favorite walks along the East River, she said that, while ideas get her going, it's the characters who take over, beginning in this case with Bix, a world-famous social media entrepreneur, dreaming up the next big thing.

Chapter by chapter, we meet others embracing or alienated by this new world.

Are you a techie yourself? I mean, is this your world?

Jennifer Egan: No.


Jeffrey Brown: No?

Jennifer Egan: I'm a late and incompetent adopter.


Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Jennifer Egan: I'm...

Jeffrey Brown: But, somehow, that made you want to explore it in a way?

Jennifer Egan: Well, I'm interested in it because it interests other people.

You know, anything that impacts the way people live and think is so fascinating to me, and especially something new, because I'm interested in change. I mean, in a way, that's what fiction is all about, sort of watching things change over some unit of time.

Jeffrey Brown: George Orwell's "1984," she thinks, got it half right. Screens are everywhere in our lives, but we invite them in.

Are you afraid that we're losing our sense of privacy and our sense of authenticity?

Jennifer Egan: You know, I have various thoughts about it as a civilian. But what I feel, as a fiction writer, is just total curiosity. I don't know what -- really what the implications of all of this are.

And I think any thought I have has to be put in the context of my age and my generation. My children will tell you I'm anti-screen and deprive them of important cultural experiences by not letting them play enough video games.


Jennifer Egan: But the truth is, I don't know.

I feel a kind of dread as a human that I hope doesn't seep too much into my fiction, because, in a way, it's inappropriate. And, as a fiction writer, my job is to transcend that and just enter the realm of human experience without judgments.

For me, fiction is where I ask questions and where I go to ask questions as a reader.

Jeffrey Brown: I can't help think that all these things we're talking about, the themes you're addressing, the experimentation with form, they're all kind of tied to larger questions of literary fiction today.

Like, what's it for, right? How relevant is it? Who's it for?

Jennifer Egan: To me, the reason fiction still exists is that it is still relevant, because we do have a curiosity to be inside the minds of other people, one of the things that we can never actually do in real life. It won't happen.

Jeffrey Brown: So far.


Jennifer Egan: Because I made up the machine.


Jennifer Egan: We don't understand the brain well enough to actually do it.

But there is one slight problem, which is that we are so image-fixated as a culture now, and the screens reinforce that every moment. And we are so used to skidding around and not focusing that long on any one thing, that the muscles that are required to actually read a book can feel a little flabby.

I just want to keep people -- keep people's imaginations strong and nimble enough to have those experiences.

Jeffrey Brown: So you're worried a bit, but you're a true believer in fiction's power.

Jennifer Egan: I'm a true believer in fiction's ability to offer something in the form of entertainment that nothing else is quite doing.

So, yes, I think it is still relevant. And I hope people will keep reading it.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, the book is "The Candy House."

Jennifer Egan, thank you very much.

Jennifer Egan: Thank you.

Judy Woodruff: Got to keep up those reading muscles.

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