Jennifer Egan’s Black Box

Posted by @ 12:00 pm on June 6th, 2012

The New Yorker recently tweeted, for an hour each night, for ten nights, Jennifer Egan’s new short story/prose poem Black Box. Here, I attempt to review the story and the effort in the same medium in which it was disseminated: through sentences that contain 140 characters or less.

 

1

Virginia Woolf freed the literary critic from the fetters of the artist.

She simply pointed out that literary criticism uses the same tools as the writer.

We do not paint a criticism of a Matisse.

We do write a review of Tolstoy.

This accidental overlap allows the reviewer to vie for power with the author;

To somehow win a war of words where mimicry transforms into mastery.

2

New technology inevitably changes the way we write.

Artists, we hope, explore the borders of a medium for its treasures, land mines, and unexpected bounty.

Our ambitious writers do not fear new technology. They post stories as Facebook albums or use Powerpoint in their novels.

Ben Lerner’s use of Gchat conversations in his Leaving the Atocha Station represents one of these best efforts to date.

Jennifer Egan’s new short story, Black Box, disseminated through the New Yorker’s Fiction Twitter feed, signifies an attempt to stretch the artistic potential of social media.

That the New Yorker and Egan embrace the possibilities of new mediums signifies a refreshing change from the slew of artists speaking out against the evils of technology.

We tend to think of Jonathan Franzen as the Luddite Crank, but many other authors, specifically of the literary type, fight against the march of technology, carving out a space for an unfettered identity.

Think of Zadie Smith’s anti-Facebook tirade as a prime example.

 

3

Egan tells the story of an unnamed beautiful female US citizen who attempts to infiltrate the life of an unnamed shady, violent, perhaps important person. All in the name of national security, of course.

Genre: Part Sci-Fi, part spy thriller in the style of a prose poem.

Heavily relies on the tropes of the spy genre: directives, self sacrifice, code names, and danger followed by a daring escape. All to moderate success.

Heavily meditative on the nature of persona and identity, on the precarious balance between individualism and collectivism.

Even in the future we will continue to speak in isms, apparently.

The story, internally, doubles as a general protocol for navigating the life of a spy, which in the larger scheme doubles as a sort of 1950s themed guide as to how navigate the terrain of a patriarchal world in which men still wear women as jewelry.

We generally judge stories with numerous layers as more artistic, intelligent, and dense.

Like all biases, this can’t always be true.

 

4

Egan’s decision to use the 2nd person narrative both strengthens and weakens her story.

It allows the story to transcend its genre, but it creates a distance that erodes our sympathy for the unnamed Beauty.

In her reach for the universal, Egan falls into the amorphous.

A danger inherent within 2nd person narratives.

She forgets that transcendence flows through immanence, through concrete details not through easy ambiguity.

See David Foster Wallace’s ForeverOverhead and Junot Diaz’s HowToDateABrownGirl (blackgirl, whitegirl, orhalfie)as examples of masterful 2nd person narratives.

 

5

Told mostly in one minute intervals between tweets, the sentences emerge like messages from a telegraph, or a c.b. radio.

This feels eerily atavistic and futuristic at the same time.

This style fosters suspense where none is inherent, like the first notes of ominous soundtrack music.

Writing with declarative sentences can create a reality in which you sound more wise, authoritative and confident than in real life:

“Knowing that you are one of hundreds shouldn’t feel belittling.

In the new heroism, the goal is to merge with something larger than yourself.

In the new heroism, the goal is to throw off generations of self-involvement.

In the new heroism, the goal is to renounce the American fixation with been seen and recognized.

In the new heroism, the goal is to dig beneath your shiny persona.

You’ll be surprised by what lies under it: a rich, deep crawl space of possibilities.”

Notice the use of anaphora, an oft used tool in sermons, most easily recognized in Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech, “I have a Dream.”

 

6

The need to fit a sentence into 140 characters makes each sentence read like a Zen koan;

Or like a pastiche of self help guidelines:

“Fear and excitement are sometimes indistinguishable,”

“Locate your personal calming source and use it.”

“The sea is audible against the rocks well before you see it.”

“Avoid excessive self-reflection; your job is to look out, not in.”

Conversely, this style provides much too much prominence to sentences like, “everyone should brush their teeth before dinner.”

Which, taken out of context sounds downright silly.

Ultimately, the story itself embraces the idea of attention, of what to think about, what to view, what to choose, and how to perceive life.

In many ways, Egan’s story is less about a nebulous women spying on a nebulous man that it is about general musings on perception, projection, persona and controlling the images we make, create and intake.

Show, don’t tell.

 

7

Twitter offers a promise for the creation of a different type of reading experience, hearkening back to stories told through grainy radio reception.

This style of dissemination places a new emphasis on the reception of the story.

Instead of sitting around fireplaces, in that classic archetype of a family, we now all separately stare at our smartphones, Ipads, or computers waiting to receive the next sentence.

We solve the problems of loneliness that technology engenders with more technology.

This sounds like the definition of addiction. Or not.

 

8

The manner of dissemination shortens the time lag between the individual reception of, and the collective reaction, to the story.

Think of how Radiohead released In Rainbows.

Downsides, though, do emerge.

A retweet surgically removes a sentence from its context and immediately ossifies it into a quote: clean, neat, and framed behind glass, kept for preservation.

We generally do this while reading, but we rarely do it with such immediacy, with such violence.

Yet, we also actively participate: retweet, favorite, and even comment, which, for many intents and purposes, allows us to become partners in creation.

I use creation in the most liberal sense.

 

9

So much of the initial, and still pervasive easy criticism of social media lies in its ostensible fostering of narcissism.

“Technology,” provides, as Egan notes, “ordinary people a chance to glow in the cosmos of human achievement.”

In a way, this describes the appeal of Twitter and Facebook.

It’s hard to take this seriously when received as a tweet.

Egan, though, in using the supposed narcissistic medium to highlight a desire to grow past it, redeems the potential of this medium.

Installment five serves as Egan’s as the purest meditative aphoristic components of her story.

One of the better sentences in this part, “now our notorious narcissism is our camouflage,” perfectly captures our ambivalence towards these new mediums.

We realize their power and strength, but given their relative infancy, we usually focus on the obvious kinks of the system.

Egan begins this process of redeeming Twitter by morphing it into a tool for meditative thought.

The extent to which she succeeds in this endeavor need not undermine the importance of the effort.

 

10

Egan and the New Yorker’s effort, perhaps not the apotheosis of the literary potentials of this medium still signifies a redemptive and ambitious first step away from the literati as the conservatives, obsessed with returning us to a world in which we used to read books, where attention spans could hold past 140 characters. Instead of lamenting the situation Egan and Co. attempt to work within the new system to create new possibilities. Salud.

***

Joe Winkler is a freelance writer living in the Upper West Side. When not ingesting all things cultural, he attends classes for a Masters in English Literature at City College. To support this extravagant lifestyle, Joe teaches, tutors and babysits, unabashedly. He started writing with a personal blog – noconversationleftbehind.blogspot.com, which allows him to indulge the ramblings of his mind. He began his writing career after he quit a Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology because he realized that he likes people more in the abstract than in reality.

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