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So, it’s time for our first discussion. The story – Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box” – is available to read here at the New Yorker website, if you haven’t yet seen it. For the rest of this post, I’m going to round up some of the comment there’s already been on the story. There has been rather a lot, so I won’t pretend to have captured it all here.
Perhaps inevitably, a good number of the responses focus on Egan’s story in its Twitter form. Dan Holmes found that the Twitter form influenced his reading: “Many of the sentences have an aphoristic power that can be appreciated when taken alone, independent of the larger text.” (Holmes goes on to explore how the tweeting of Egan’s story could be seen as performance art).
Bruce Stone’s essay at Numéro Cinq (well worth reading in full) reflects on literature in digital media, and finds “Black Box” pertinent to that subject:
Egan’s work speaks most powerfully and palpably to…the vexed core of the media wars: tensions between the old and new; the technological and the organic; the self and the other; the word, the body and the data processor…the tale’s cool, lyrical irony reveals a deep skepticism for the very technological apparatus that it presumes to embrace and exploit.
Joe Winkler reviewed “Black Box” in sentences of 140 characters or fewer:
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.
Sara Walker’s response was more negative:
Women are not disposable, and I’m not enamoured with a world where they would be treated as such. I’m sure this was a choice to add social commentary to the science fiction, but it devalued the story for me. Likewise the theme that beauty and brains are mutually exclusive.
For Martin Ott, the story brought to mind instructional poetry. Trevor from The Mookse and the Gripes found “Black Box” stronger in print form. Further positive write-ups come from Paul Debraski; Rosabel Tan; Aaron Riccio; J Chance; and Catie Disabato.
A couple of this blog’s regular readers have also posted their thoughts. Alan Bowden liked the story very much:
The narrative drive Egan attains in each sentence, often by allusion alone, is wonderful and is combined with unexpectedly poetic moments, all of which are deployed in the instrumental manner of the training manual.
Maureen Kincaid Speller (in another extended response, again recommended in its entirety) was less complimentary:
The brevity of the format naturally eschews detailed explanation of setting and motivation, although Egan seems able to include it when she feels like it. However, this leaves the reader having to try to figure out what is going on while providing an escape clause for the author if things don’t quite make sense. There is a difference between the narrator not making sense and the story not making sense; my own feeling here is that the story in and of itself somehow lacks clarity, in part because Egan is too taken up with the format and transmission of the story to fully consider its implications.
I’ll also point out a New Yorker interview with Egan about the story (to which Maureen refers).
With that, it’s over to you. What did you make of “Black Box”?