Jennifer Egan: “Black Box”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box” was originally published in the June 4 & 11, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

If you didn’t know, The New Yorker has made a few headlines because they’ve been tweeting this story, sentence by sentence, each evening at 8:00 p.m. EST.  I believe it is currently around the halfway point.

I have been tuning in each night, and the results have been pretty dismal for me.  It just hasn’t worked.  Egan has crafted a story that can seem like a series of short tweets coming in real-time, but the sentences in “Black Box” still lack the immediacy of Twitter.  Consequently, for me it came across as very choppy and, perhaps since it was Twitter, almost like a series of independent aphorisms rather than a developing story.  Here, for example, are the first six tweets, which probably took me five minutes to read the first time.  If you’d like to simulate the Twitter experience, read the first one, go away for a minute, the come back to read the next, and proceed accordingly:

People rarely look the way you expect them to, even when you’ve seen pictures.

The first thirty seconds in a person’s presence are the most important.

If you’re having trouble perceiving and projecting, focus on projecting.

Necessary ingredients for a successful projection: giggles; bare legs; shyness.

The goal is to be both irresistible and invisible.

When you succeed, a certain sharpness will go out of his eyes.

Now that it’s all laid out in front of me, I can see it: this is actually a pretty good beginning to this strange and satisfying story.  But on Twitter, where every night the illusion of a continuous Twitter story is killed at 9:00 (not to mention the fact that other tweets are popping up to interrupt the flow constantly, even after day three I still didn’t particularly know or care what was going on, and I really doubted my ability to dedicate ten hours to following this story in its intended form.  So I, for one, was glad to have the chance to read the story in the magazine, without distraction.

In the print form, the story is still formatted as a series of sentences, but they flow better, especially once the narrative begins to emerge.  The setting is the future.  A thirty-three-year-old, American woman has volunteered for the American government.  Her job is to use her body to take advantage of common perspectives of women, all the while collecting valuable data about the men who possess her.  She is to be their “beauty,” a future term that means exactly what we today think it might.

This nameless “hero” has been sent to the south of France to surveille her “Designated Mate,” a powerful enemy to America.

So what about this strange form?  And can Egan, who in her most recent novel wrote a long chapter in PowerPoint, pull it off?  I think she pulled off her PowerPoint chapter, and I think she pulls of this form (though not on Twitter).  We are soon aware that the single sentences are almost like a series of real-time instructions this field agent is receiving.  For example, as the story begins, she is receiving tips as she begins to infiltrate this criminal’s life, to become “a part of his atmosphere: a source of comfort and ease.”  They are swimming in the sea, and the instructions help her maintain her role as a simple, non-threatening “beauty”:

Eagerness and pliability can be expressed even in the way you climb from the sea onto chalky yellow rocks.

“You’re a fast swimmer,” uttered by a man who is still submerged, may not be intended as praise.  

Giggling is sometimes better than answering.

Soon, the agent is receiving real-time help utilizing the Dissociation Technique, which “is like a parachute — you must pull the cord at the correct time.”  At this point, the choppy burst of single sentences works incredibly well:

You will be tempted to pull the cord when he surrounds you with arms whose bulky strength reminds you, fleetingly, of your husband’s.

You will be tempted to pull it when you feel him start to move against you from below.

You will be tempted to pull it when his smell envelops you: metallic, like a warm hand clutching pennies.

The directive “Relax” suggests that your discomfort is palpable.

“No one can see us” suggests that your discomfort has been understood as fear of physical exposure.

“Relax, relax,” uttered in rhythmic, throaty tones, suggests that your discomfort is not unwelcome.

These real-time instructions are not meant just for this particular agent.  They take into consideration what is happening in order to log data that may be helpful for other agents.  Once this agent has returned, her log will be downloaded for others.

One aspect of this that I found confusing at first, or at least problematic, was the personal nature of some of the “instructions.”  For example, “Mirror your Designated Mate’s attitudes, interests, desires, and tastes” is a straight-forward instruction; “Cold fish is unappealing, even when served in a good lemon sauce” is not.  Just when I was getting used to the idea that I was looking at a real-time log of instructions, a sentence about, say, cold fish would arise and take me out of that.  Thankfully, Egan has reconciled this, finding an ingenious solution that allows us to follow the instructions and, to a limited extent, the agent’s own feelings and fears.  This log is not coming from some external source; it is implanted in the agent and, as it responds to the external world to give aid it also includes “stray or personal” thoughts, which may be deleted later.

And it is in this area that I found most to enjoy: here is a female who is playing the role of the submissive sex object who actually has already submitted to the government.  All over her body recording and downloading devices have been implanted, as if she were a robot whose sole purpose was to bring back information in her physical body, whether she is still alive or not.

“Black Box” was an exciting read, because of its formal inventiveness, its increasing tension, and the ideas of a woman being, in a few difference senses, a black box.  I hope people who were turned off as it was tweeted (and I know there were many) give it a shot in its printed form — here it shines.

4 thoughts on “Jennifer Egan: “Black Box””

  1. jerry says:

    At first I thought well this format is just stupid but as you keep reading it gets hold of you. Totally unlike anything by Egan I have ever read. I applaud her for branching out in subject matter and of course stylistically.

  2. Aaron says:

    I agree completely; I didn’t try to read this in serial tweet format (I hate the serial novel, as a rule, and if you’re curious, I believe the New York Times magazine is currently doing a summer story in paragraph form), but it absolutely works on the page. And while I don’t feel the gimmick is really connected to the log (as instructions), I do think that Egan pulls off the feat by writing a thrilling story, using the staccato rhythm and mantra-like repetitions to drive the stakes of this future spy home. (It’s also a terrific use of the second-person.)

    Moreover, for someone restricted pretty much to single sentences, Egan manages to make the most of them: her observations, particularly of the true meaning of terse dialogue, are crushing, and the situations and objects are well-described, polished as they are to fine poetry. She even has a deeper theme going, this idea of identity: i.e., we can be whatever we need to be, and this will change us.

    In any case, more thoughts here (bit.ly/LtS4it). Also, I know that we’ve been complaining about the fiction in the New Yorker lately, and how static they seem to get, unable to move beyond their “roster” of writers, even when they’re dealing with a genre already filled with dedicated, talented authors (no Nova/Hugo winners, really?). But this issue sort of represents a case-study of their writing on the whole: 25% of it ends up being good, 25% of it is an excerpt (Diaz’s story), 25% of it is a (perhaps) thought-provoking sketch (Lethem’s), and 25% of it is published based on name only (Lipsyte’s).

  3. Ken says:

    I quite liked this. I don’t have Twitter and I can’t imagine reading it in little bursts. In a magazine, though, it was riveting. What I like is how the story mixes an experimental style (short sentences, second person) with a narrative not dissimilar to that in a James Bond novel and then sets it in the future. The envisioning of the future-a sort of benign totalitarian state-is perhaps not too original-it reminded me of the world of the film Starship Troopers where everyone who wants to be a “citizen” has to join the military for a year. The observations about how women perform their gender are acute, though, and when mixed in with the thriller/sci-fi plot and done so stylishly, the result is quite good.

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