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Black Box, By Jennifer Egan
The spy story with 140 characters
Sunday 02 September 2012
Black Box propels a character from Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad into the 2030s and a world of citizen espionage.
The narrator, Lulu (although she is unnamed here), is a "beauty", a volunteer spy. Her job is to extract information from a "powerful … violent and ruthless" terrorist using a combination of the traditional techniques of seduction and submission, and an array of recording and communications technologies implanted in her body. She is the black box of the title, and this novel is, in part at least, about the ways women are objectified.
Egan wrote the story of Lulu's mission (each "beauty" undertakes only one) by hand, in a notebook with eight, black-outlined rectangle-spaces on each page, and spent a year honing the work. That shows: Black Box reads beautifully in the limited-edition proof copy that the publisher sent reviewers. Egan's craft breathes through the tale's elegant precision and – in the way she's given us the lessons Lulu draws from events, rather than the events themselves – the abundant space left between the lines. On the page, Black Box works as an evocative and aphoristic prose poem: its cadences enticing us into Lulu's world as much as the content does. It's the sort of thing that cries out for – and deserves – high-quality print publication.
But Black Box is only available as an ebook, and it was first disseminated, by The New Yorker, on Twitter. The tweets ran one a minute for an hour each evening, over ten days, starting on 24 May. And while the constraints of the 140-character form have gifted the piece its haiku-esque pithiness, I wouldn't have wanted to read it in that medium.
It's not only that its subtleties are likely to have drowned in, and its momentum been disrupted by, Twitter's cacophony. It's also that the modes of publication and writing don't suit. Why, for instance, didn't The New Yorker tweet as Lulu herself, rather than as @NYerFiction? Why was the pattern of tweeting so ordered, rather than sporadic and irregularly paced, as if emerging directly from Lulu's story-world? Also, while a traditional book is fully crafted before it becomes an object, one of the joys of serialisation – particularly in a social media context – is the way that it offers the writer opportunities to react to external influences, be they real world events or reader responses.
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