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Sunday Story Society: ‘Meet the President!’ by Zadie Smith

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It’s time for the first installment of the new monthly Sunday Story Society, for which I’ve chosen to look at Zadie Smith’s story ‘Meet the President!‘ in the New Yorker (you can read it by clicking on the link). The way it works is, I start off with a review of the story, then you can join in talking about the story in the comments here, and we’ll just see how it goes. So…

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Zadie Smith has reportedly said that she’s working on a science fictional novel, which is an intriguing prospect to me. I’m not sure whether ‘Meet the President!; is an extract (it stands well enough on its own. And seems to make all the point that it needs to make), but it is a taster of how Smith may approach science-fictional material.

We begin on the edge of what is presumably still Suffolk, in a future sketched fairly conventionally, but efficiently: there was flooding a hundred years previously; Felixstowe has moved inland; a woman of forty-nine qualifies as ‘very old’ (on reflection, this may simply be reflecting the viewpoint of the protagonist as a teenage boy, but it still strikes me as fitting with the harsh nature of life in this place). Then comes the key technological innovation around which the story revolves: a personal augmented-reality device which allows users to place pretty much any situation or setting over the world they see.

‘Meet the President!’ is about dramatising contrasts. On the one hand, we have Bill Peek, the rich boy with the Augmentor, whose task (perhaps a futuristic analogue of the Grand Tour) is to travel around and use the augmentation technology to deepen his understanding of the world and its inhabitants. If that ends up looking like play, or ticking the boxes without really learning anything, so be it: Bill has the privilege to get ahead; to be safe; to move away from here (‘If you can’t move, you’re no one from nowhere,’ he says).

On the other hand, we have Melinda Durham and Aggie Hanwell, the local woman and girl who disturb Bill as the story begins. They have none of Bill’s advantages, and quite a few disadvantages if you go by what the Augmentor tells Bill about their likelihood of falling ill. But that kind of itemisation doesn’t give Bill the true measure of people – and the lacks the ability to deal with the real place in which he finds himself, as we see in the contrast between the rural community and the game Bill creates through the Augmentor.

I suppose that contrast could be seen as somewhat heavy-handed – Smith clearly has her thumb on the scales – but I think it ultimately works because there is such a sharp difference between the augmented and physical worlds that Bill experiences. I’d stop short of saying ‘Meet the President!’ is a great story (I don’t think it has quite enough depth for that); but it does make me look forward to that novel.

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And now, over to you…

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.

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