TagJennifer Egan

Sunday Story Society: “Black Box”

To keep up to date with the Sunday Story Society: view our schedule; follow @SundayStorySoc on Twitter; or like us on Facebook.

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 DebraskiRosabel TanAaron RiccioJ 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”?

Sunday Story Society Reminder: Black Box

The time for our first Sunday Story Society discussion is nearly here; our subject will be Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box”. Egan is author of the Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) and three other novels, as well as a short story collection, Emerald City (1993).

“Black Box” (2012) was published in The New Yorker‘s recent ‘science fiction issue’, and also via the medium of Twitter. It’s now available to read on the New Yorker website. Join us here on Sunday to talk about it.

Book and story notes: Egan, Jilla, Allan

Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010)

A combination of very recent UK publication (the end of March) and continued acclaim (most recently the Pultizer) means that this book has appeared quite suddenly on my radar; and, when I came to read it, I knew that it had been highly regarded, but not really what it was about. Now that I’ve finished it, I think A Visit From the Goon Squad is worth reading, but can’t see that it’s so excellent as to deserve all the plaudits.

The focus of Egan’s novel is a cluster of characters centred on a music mogul named Bennie Salazar, and his assistant Sasha. I say a ‘cluster’ because each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character, at a different point in time, and we’ll see particular characters only in certain chapters (sometimes centrally, sometimes tangentially). The main theme is time (the ‘goon squad’ of the title), and how its passing changes people and crushes their dreams (‘I don’t know what happened to me,’ says one character to Bennie. ‘You grew up, Alex,’ he replies, ‘just like the rest of us’). The non-linear structure is particularly effective at showing this: without the imposition of the usual chronological order, one is encouraged to consider different stages of characters’ lives at the same time, as it were.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is also written in a multiplicity of styles; and, in general, those styles work well (even at their most unusual, such as a chapter in the form of Powerpoint slides). But I finished the novel that it didn’t have that extra spark that would life it out of the ‘good’ bracket and into the ‘great’.

Link: Jennifer Egan’s website.

Shireen Jilla, Exiled (2011)

Anna Weitzman is happy with her life in New York, married to Jessie, a British diplomat. But then a series of misunderstandings and minor incidents draws into question Anna’s ability as a mother to her young son Joshua, and the boy is placed under the guardianship of Jessie’s American stepmother Nancy, a wealthy socialite. As the life Anna knew begins to unravel, she becomes convinced that Nancy is behind it all.

What Shireen Jilla does particularly well in Exiled is create the unsettling sense of life slipping out of one’s control, as Anna struggles to navigate the increasingly treacherous waters in which she finds herself without really understanding how she got there. The great contrast between the world of New York and Anna’s old life in rural Kent is vividly drawn (for example, when Josh takes head-lice into his private school, what would have been accepted as a routine occurrence back in England now requires a specialist company to come in and treat her entire apartment). One feels Anna’s disorientation as she tries to understand the social forces working against her.

I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment at the ending, which unpicks the knots of uncertainty and confusion that have been created; but I guess it’s part of the nature of the story Jilla is telling that that must happen. Whatever, Exiled is well worth a read for the journey, and a fine debut for Shireen Jilla.

Links: Quartet Books; Shireen Jilla’s website.

Nina Allan, ‘The Silver Wind’ (2011)

A new novella (published in issue 233 of Interzone) from a writer who always seems to have a refreshing take on the fantastic;‘The Silver Wind’ is no exception to that, as it takes some well-worn ideas and images and fashions them into something quite distinctive.

In a UK under the harsh rule of a nationalist dictatorship, Martin is a London estate agent who hears about Owen Andrews, a clockmaker who allegedly worked with the army on experiments involving time travel. Martin goes to see Andrews, thinking (or so he tells himself) that he might be able to find out how to avert the accidental death of his wife Miranda. But really he wants to know about Andrews, and discovers firstly that it’s not ‘time travel’ as such which is possible, but travel into different versions of reality; and secondly, that research into this phenomenon is ongoing, in a nearby military hospital. Martin goes out into the overgrown woods of Shooter’s Hill, is found by soldiers, and taken to that very hospital…

What is most striking to me about ‘The Silver Wind’ is the way that Allan roots even her most outlandish imaginings firmly in quotidian reality. The societal changes of the background are sketched in believably, and anchored by Allan’s very specific sense of place. Against this background, more preposterous concepts like time travel, and even archetypal images from fantasy and fairytale (such as the forest haunted by monsters – here occupied by escaped subjects from the hospital, who have been twisted by the experiments), become plausible because they are so firmly placed in context.

‘The Silver Wind’ is a very down-to-earth treatment of a theme that one might expect to be handled in precisely the opposite way (I haven’t really discussed the plotting, which is also strikingly low-key). One gains a sense of Allan as a writer firmly in command of her material and doing her own thing, which is a very exciting sense.

Link: Interzone.

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