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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

Counters and Typicals—Thoughts From The Candy House

I'm midway through reading a book whose publication date I noted on social media the day it was announced. I never do that. Even with books I know will be right up my alley, I'll delay a year, buy for $1.99 on a Book Bub special, and then wait two more years to read. Too many books, not enough life.

Still, when Jennifer Egan's The Candy House was announced, it felt like nearly two decades ago with my kids and a new Harry Potter book. Rowling's more recent bigotry can't erase the memory of being up at midnight dressed as Voldemort (with my two kids dressed as Hermione and Dobby, in costumes I'd helped them create) because my children were excited about getting to read a book. Sure, I got wrapped up in my kids' excitement, but that was a parenting thing, not a me-thing.

Until I found Egan had written a sequel to A Visit from the Goon Squad. Her earlier novel was literary fiction exactly as I like it, popping between POVs and eras, with the main character a punk rock star in the 70s and an aging music company executive in the 90s, with the book leaning into post-modernism to such an extent that one of the chapters was a PowerPoint. How could I pass up a chance to re-visit the minor characters in the earlier novel, transmogrified into major ones, and meet their associates and families, the narrative hopping collage-style with no discernible plot (at least for the first half of the book that I've read) but fashioning a deep world with rich characters?

And why do I like her characters so much? All are thinkers: the highly educated, the accomplished, even when they are train wrecks of various sorts. Egan seems fascinated with the diverse ways educated folks think. So am I.

Which made me stop and reflect on why I also loved another book I've read recently: There, There, by Tommy Orange. His book is also many, many POVs, also vignettes with characters whose lives intersect each other, also purposely plot-less (one character is doing a documentary where he lets the subjects just talk and expects to make sense of it later, and that's the entire book, writ small), but also unified. Where Egan unifies via ideas, Orange unifies via place and event: every character is a Native American living in Oakland, California, heading to the big annual pow-wow. Orange's characters are not intellectuals. One suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome; others are barely getting by; others are drug dealers. But what unifies the two books in my mind is the creation of a world via a kaleidoscopic juxtaposition of deep-dive vignettes. And the idea of shared history—in Orange's case, his narrative rests in contemporary Native American history and his perspective on the urban Indian.

In other words, literary fiction that is idea-driven as much as it is character-driven or prose-driven. But wait, isn't that the stuff of science fiction?

Yep. And Egan rides the wave of literary authors jumping into science fiction by focusing her new book around an invented technology: memory externalization. One straps on the scalp electrodes and outloads memories much like in a lot of science fiction. And one can mine those memories—that's been done in SF, too. But trading access for access—a 23-and-me of memory—there's novel science fiction. Egan took tropes guaranteed to appeal to me, jazzed them up with a new idea, embodied them with characters similarly guaranteed to captivate me, and propelled the story forward with masterful prose.

So, readers of my blog, you may hear more from me on this book when I finish it. For the moment, I'll dwell on one character, painted as autistic, but a particular flavor of autistic. This character calls himself a counter—he enumerates and measures everything—and it serves him well in his data science job. He contrasts himself with associates who come to conclusions more intuitively; they, he feels, are typical.

I buy into this character as plausible, but it certainly doesn't describe every autistic person I've met. I have not seen a single, characteristic autistic way of thinking, although I can often sense when a person is on the spectrum well before they tell me. As such, I'm not accepting this division as universal. Indeed, I'd class myself as neither. Back in my science days, my big advantage that brought me to insights others couldn't reach was my ability to carry details of an entire field in my head and make comparisons of disparate data types before computers had advanced to the point where this sort of thing could be automated. (Indeed, I paired off with some of the world's top computer scientists on grants where we proposed automating this sort of thinking, but we could never get funded. Damn those typicals who sat on all the grant panels!)

As I was reading Egan, I paused to reflect that I can get along very well with others who are this type of thinker—systematizers, if I want to give it a name à la Egan—even when they are vastly different from me in their conclusions. This type of thinker does not mind when their assumptions are enumerated. Several friends are convinced the world is only 6000 or so years old—Biblical creationists—but proceed in a systematizer fashion from that assumption. Others have been libertarians. One considers himself a "tenth amendment absolutist." But in Aristotle's sense of having an educated mind as the ability to consider a proposition without necessarily accepting it, I can discuss with all these folks based on their assumptions or based on mine. Nobody gets angry, and each enjoys the discussion. Even if I abhor all of their politics.

On the other hand, I have a hard time relating to those happy with an "unexamined life." (I'm stealing from Socrates here—he said an unexamined life isn't worth living. Yeah, I'd be all over Socrates' Facebook page were he living today, giving him lots of "likes.") With the extreme cases—those who, for example, routinely ascribe to God what is clearly within the range of statistical expectation or attributable to genetics and geology—the best I can manage is politeness. But there are more subtle examples. I've participated for about a year, over Zoom, in a short story discussion group with numerous excellent writers and editors. What hit me hardest was how differently everyone thought about the stories. The group tends to choose stories where writers are from marginalized groupings of one sort or another. A recent story was written by a South Asian writer. It drew on music I had indeed experienced and enjoyed when it was big in California and on a non-Western story structure. My reading of the story involved reminding myself of everything I knew about that story structure once I recognized the story as non-Western and then trying to understand what the writer was trying to say with her use of this music and this type of storytelling. By contrast, many of the other writers were happy to be lost in imagery they found immersive and beautiful.

Just a matter of a science fiction type outnumbered by fantasy types? Or a systematizer among intuitives?

Regardless, the idea that patterns of thinking (rather than topics, conclusions, or quality of thinking) can serve as a criterion for affinity between people is a core Egan idea. She's got an anthropologist as one of the POV characters who works on affinities. She has social media company execs who apply those ideas. The book is about connections as well as the modern danger of living in a world without privacy/autonomy. Big ideas. Well worth examining.

Hey, Zuckerberg. (Actually, I'm speaking to the Platonic form of Zuckerbergness, as I clearly don't have enough readers of my blog to expect him to be one of them, but I digress.) I dare you to type my readers well enough to market their amalgamation around this blog as data to drive advertising. You can't tell me they are all the same!

Except that my readers probably will like Egan's novel. I'm betting its ads will show up in some of their feeds.

Damn you, Zuckerberg!

After I post notification of this blog post on his social media site, I'm diving back in to finish reading the novel. Not sounding very systematizer-like there, am I? Or am I purposely acting against type?

Or perhaps, ways of thinking are more typical to the task at hand than to the individual? There's good evidence from the education field supporting that view. Most of it was aimed at debunking the auditory/visual/tactile-kinesthetic learner division as bogus and harmful.

Transcendent coherence is too much to expect from a late-night blog post.

Read Egan's book. You'll thank me for the recommendation.

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