Sunday Story Society: “Black Box”

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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 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”?


  1. The spread of opinion is interesting. It seems to reflect differences in emphasis or critical concern on the part of the readers. My overriding interest has emerged as being in the language and thematic interplay as manifested in that language; I think I often miss certain social and structural aspects as a result. That is, of course, something of a failing on my part. But I think it means I’m more willing to buy into the premise in order for the exploration to take place, whereas others step back and question the social context of the story, as well as its use of Twitter as a medium or compositional tool. Likewise the concern with setting and motivation, I think it is the concentration of thought which makes ‘Black Box’, whereas for others it is what lets it down, because the story feels ‘undercooked.’

    More thoughts later I’m sure.

  2. I did like Black Box on the whole, but it has several obvious faults.
    There is a repetitive, labouring of points in several places that disrupt the narrative flow, lessening the tension and making it over long.
    The switching between seemingly generic abstract instructions and very specific details suggested a confused story, as Maureen said.
    I lost track in the end of what the moral was here. It is clearly set up as a moral fable, but which of several sides Egan comes down on is unclear.

  3. Is it set up as a moral fable? It clearly has moral content but I’m not sure it needs or is committed to a ‘moral’ as such. Self-sacrifice and exploitation are clear themes, but I think the ambiguity makes for a stronger story rather than being an obvious fault.

  4. neilwilliamson

    22nd July 2012 at 1:42 pm

    Good one to start with, David. Should be plenty to talk about.

    I read the story straight without knowing anything about it, so the fact that it was originally a Twitter serial comes as a surprise. It certainly helps to answer one of the questions that stayed with me during the reading, which was: why is she telling it like this? (The other was: what’s the difference between “a Speedo” and “swimming trunks”, but that’s probably less important.)

    Over all, I liked it. I found the presentation initially irksome, but eventually grew to admire it. The short paragraphs, the second person: they make sense when you think about how much power the story would have lost if it had been told as a conventional third person limited narrative, especially in terms of its ability to address the reader directly and make them think about the “story” and its “characters” in a different way. Basically I see it as an examination of male ideas of female agency in stories through a deconstruction of the kind of Hollywood action movie that was especially prevalent in the 80s and 90s (haven’t watched any made since then, so don’t know if that’s changed more recently), the kind where the female characters genuinely behaved like this character does.

    The concept of “the new heroism” is introduced, but even if the view point character has chosen to undertake this heroic mission, to the the outside observer (which is why the second person *you* is important) very little is different. She’s trapped inside the stereotype.

    Which is why, the hints about her adored husband being a roboticist and about her rescuers being “mechanical” hit home at the end. Female characters in action dramas have all the life and reality of fembots; the story leaves us with the ambiguity of whether she may or may not (or may as well) be exactly that. What’s not ambiguous for me is the inference that male writers are doing a very bad job of moving the depiction and agency of their female characters on in any meaningful way.

    In short, plenty to think about, and some lovely (concised) prose in the process. I liked this one a lot.

  5. I had no idea this was the story Egan tweeted, so initially I was a bit annoyed by the format, but once I found out it was the twitter story, the soundbites made sense.

    I liked it, but I found it a bit coufusing: who were the good guys and the bad guys supposed to be? Was this a futuristic fantasy or later 21C reality? I couldn’t put it into any kind of context because this is not the sort of thing I usually read. Neil makes some good points which clarified things a little for me. I thought the writing was powerful and there was a nice build up of suspense, and the robotic aspects were interesting and a bit unexpected. The things women do for their menfolk! 🙂 I think Egan was somewhat hampered by the format, but to me, this read like a series of recorded thoughts that were retrieved from the protagonist’s “black box” during a successful post-mission debrief and used for training other operatives. Or something. As I said, this is way out of my comfort zone, so I’m just taking a stab in the dark here. 🙂

    I enjoyed reading the story; it had novelty value for me and I think it worked well as a piece of experimental writing.

  6. As others have said – plenty to think about with this one! About its original publication via Twitter – it’s this I feel most certain about – I was not interested in engaging with the story in that way. I like that Egan has experimented with it (with such an interesting story as a result) but I don’t feel Twitter works well for this: it’s a social network first and prolonged stuff quite rightly when it emerges is Storified aftewards! So this feels like a step in the wrong direction to me and I’m glad my first proper encounter with the story was as a full text.

    I enjoyed the story once I settled into its style, but I can’t decide if I truly like it or not. In fact, although I’d describe myself as a fan of Egan’s, this is the reaction I’ve had to all of the fiction I’ve read by her – her novels The Keep and prize-winning A Visit From The Goon Squad. I’ve also enjoyed Egan as an interviewee on podcasts etc for her thoughts on her own and other contemporary fiction.

    So, some fragmentary notes from me on the story to begin with: to begin with I read it as a sci fi short story. I note Egan’s own ambivalence about the use of the genre. I’ve read a lot of sci fi shorts and if I’d come across this in a sci fi anthology it would have really pleased me because it’s something a bit different. I set aside the implausibilities that can be troubling about it (Maureen Kincaid Speller rightly asks: why is the character doing this? and Egan herself noted some readers concluded the narrator was delusional). Reading it this way, I just enjoyed the imaginative parts of the story and was genuinely thrilled & moved as we move in to part 37 and the narrator is in serious trouble. I worry though that I’m coming near to saying that if you look too closely at it (as MKS has done in her thought-provoking post) it begins to fall apart somewhat, although I note this wasn’t the experience for wordsofmercury and I’m not yet sure I think this.

    After part 15 when the nature of what we’re reading is suggested (the Field Instructions) I enjoyed the desperate comedy of her own emotions coming through, and the sensation of her official-speak crumbling and the human underneath.

    I’m really interested in neilwilliamson’s thoughts above on ‘fembots’ in some 80s & 90s action movies (not the Terminator or Alien movies of course) – I like this way of looking at Black Box.

  7. I thought the story was interesting. I liked the format and how it allowed gaps in the details without disallowing any sort of human feeling; it made the sections where she dissociated with her body all the more harrowing.

    What did irritate me about it were the connections I began to make with other stories/writers – Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’; Murakami for all the moon references, and ‘The Minority Report’ by Philip K. Dick. They didn’t add to the experience for me, although someone else may have seen deliberate links…

  8. Wow. Really unique style of a short story!

    It’s almost reminiscent of Hemingway in its clarity.

    There were some very profound observations scattered among the story, and for me, these really jumped out from the rest of the text.

    The whole thing, though, was very visual in its delivery – you could sense it and see it all happening as though you were a part of it – I wonder is this due to it being told in a very personal sense: “You will reflect on the fact that you had stopped being that person even before leaving,” etc. Could it be a very mild form of ‘brainwashing’ you into imagining that you are living it?

    I really don’t think I’ve read anything like this before. Excellent story to kick SSS off with – in fact, it seems to me that it will be quite a hard piece to eclipse…

    (Apparently she wrote this on Twitter, hence the structure… I really want to write a story on Twitter now…)

  9. David Hebblethwaite

    22nd July 2012 at 5:15 pm

    I think there’s a definite tension between the narrative and thematic aspects of this story. When I try to pin down “Black Box” as a narrative – to conceive exactly what these sentences represent, the protagonist’s motivations, or how this future may have emerged – I can’t do it satisfactorily.

    But I like Egan’s piece as a metaphorical study of sacrifice and agency (I think Neil’s definitely on to something there). I like how the cool narrative tone works against the spy-thriller plot. I like the way that Egan’s repetition of phrases can build up an intensity, as in section 7. (I know these aren’t all strictly ‘thematic’ aspects, but still.)

    I didn’t read “Black Box” in its Twitter edition, and I’m glad of that – I think it works better when read through as a single piece. But there was an interesting dissonance between reading the story as a whole and the greater emphasis placed on individual sentences.

  10. I think (unlike you, David) that I’d have preferred to read “Black Box” as it was originally tweeted. Many of the individual sentences are very powerful on their own, shorn of context. When it’s all put together I find myself less affected by it. Like Maureen, I think the story as a whole lacks clarity- and in ways that make me feel it was inadequately thought out rather than intentionally complex.

    I like Martin Ott’s comparison to instructional poetry though.The repetitive nature that Kev points out I think works better if you read it this way.

    There are things about “Black Box” that I like very much, but as a whole, integrated work I’m unconvinced by it.

  11. What are people’s thoughts on how the story ends? At first glance I thought she’d been saved but on a second look it’s ambiguous.

    Interested to read that you would have preferred to read the story on Twitter, Aishwarya – is this particularly because that format draws out the individual sentences as you mention, or have you other thoughts on this?

  12. I thoroughly reading this, David. Great first choice for SSS.

    Let’s assume for a moment that Egan was experimenting with Twitter. I found it a pretty successful experiment, read as a story. I’m glad I knew the background of its genesis – otherwise I wouldn’t have stayed with it. Once I’d accepted the limitations of the form, it sucked me right in.

    As for the female spy stereotype, it’s still current. No need to go back to the 70′ and 80-‘s – the same kind of “beauties” made their appearance in early episodes of Homeland.

    I’m also happy with the moral ambiguities and the blurring of the good guy/bad guy boundaries. There’s no need for an author to take sides. In fact, it leaves the SSS with more to talk about.

  13. That first sentence should read: I thoroughly enjoyed reading this ….

  14. David Hebblethwaite

    22nd July 2012 at 9:19 pm

    Eva, read the ending as saying that, even if the protagonist is rescued from her immediate predicament, she can’t truly be “saved” at all, because she has already lost a part of her self that she can’t get back.

  15. Just to reply to some of the questions/thoughts that have cropped up this afternoon:

    I can totally see what people are saying about the imprecise nature of the action, but actually I don’t have a problem with that – in fact the generic nature of it for me is what makes the reader focus on the type of story, the type of character in a general sense.

    Eva asked about the ending – I’m happy with it being ambiguous. She may be rescued, she may not be. She may be a real woman, she may be a (partial?) robot? Even as a heroine in the story, she may be an expendable figure because even now she’s not allowed real agency.

    Lizzy mentioned that the concept of beauties (fembots, dollybirds, ho’s) is still current. Hardly surprising I suppose but still…*sigh*

  16. I have, by coincidence, just written a blog about this story. I have tried to compare the way Jane Austen uses the technology of her day (by writing books which improve with re-reading in an era when books were a scarce luxury) to the way Egan uses twitter. Although I admire Egan’s writing very much I don’t think she’s on top of the technology. It’s a very exciting story, but on twitter, it would have been lost, imho.

  17. Great start to the Sunday Story Society, David, and lots of food for thought, already. I was particularly struck by the pieces by Dan Holmes and Bruce Stone that you flagged up in your introduction, and their engagement with the text as form. it wasn’t something I spent as much time on as I’d have liked in my thoughts-in-progress, partly because I am not sure I really have the critical chops to deal with that particular area of aesthetics but partly too because it seemed to me that so much focus was being laid on the story’s production that the content, the story itself, was getting lost, and I wanted to redress the balance by looking at it as an artefact.

    I suppose the question that arises in taking that approach is whether the two can and should be disentangled from one another. At heart, and no matter what techniques are used along the way, I still feel that the relationship between form and content in a story can’t be separated from one another, one brushed aside unconsidered while the other is polished as a trophy, but I keep on feeling that this is what’s happening with ‘Black Box’. I suppose the pointI’m trying to make is that even if form is used as a way of foregrounding the fictionality of the story artefact, the story itself needs to have some sort of … substance, I guess. One might think of Brecht’s efforts to ensure that playgoers understood the artificiality of of the play, forcing them out of an immersive experience into a condition of awareness that obliges them to acknowledge the play’s content by drawing attention constantly to the fact of the play being a play, but in the end, there is still a thing of substance which is the play; what changes is the audience’s perception of themselves in relation to it. In the case of ‘Black Box’, I don’t think that happens at all.

    We can look at the original Twitter publication as a form of cut-up, for example, with the story dependent on how we originally found the tweets, the order we saw them in (and indeed whether our Twitter client let us see them all), whether they were retweeted and so on, yet I find myself unconvinced. When you throw the cut-up words in the air and they settle, they settle as a ‘whole’ in a way that tweets don’t (and storifying them would, I think, surely miss the point). One might argue that to tweet the story is in a way performative of the information-gathering that the narrator is carrying out, except that the narrator has a mass of information, all in one place, whereas the tweets flutter away like burnt scraps floating in the wind above a bonfire. Now that might play into the aphoristic element that some commentators see emerging from this, but I can’t help thinking that we rather too often mistake aphorism for wisdom when the word ‘trite’ more appropriately applies.True, the tweet format obliges us to focus on individual thoughts and sentences but surely the point of a story is how they also knit together to form a greater whole, and I don’t honestly think that this story is so well constructed that it functions as a story even when bits of it are missing.

    Anyway, enough for now. I’ll put other comments in further posts.

  18. Was hoping someone else might have commented before I came back to this, to avoid a great chunk of me posting.

    I had other thoughts about the story that I had to leave to mulch for a while. My personal jury is still out on the second person narrative viewpoint. It’s not a narrative viewpoint I particularly like anyway – while on the one hand it is a useful way of directing a story and undoubtedly has value in a restricted format such as this, on the other it can very quickly shift to hectoring and manipulation (which it doesn’t here). This is probably the only instance I can think of where the story almost demands to be told like this, though I think, as I’ve said elsewhere, that Egan wanders away from it rather often. This may or may not be significant in terms of trying to establish the narrator’s mood at any point but somehow I was never quite convinced that it was intentional. I was, though, interested in the point that Martin Ott raised about the story as instructional poetry; I think the story is probably strongest when it is closest to that mode.

    It is so hard, in writing about the story, to move from the format to other issues. And the issue that does trouble me is the way in which Egan handles the presence and function of the Beauties and the narrator’s mimicking of them. This seems to me to be one of the points at which the story falters; I understand that Egan is riffing off 1980s stereotypes but I suppose I was anticipating some sort of interrogation of the fact that the situation persists and that people like the narrator are effectively supporting it by exploiting it but if the narrator is addressing it at all she does so minimally yet are we to believe she buys into it (given she has apparently had a successful autonomous career, we might infer not, but her questioning of what’s happening seems oddly perfunctory – one could of course say that it’s up to the reader but that seems to me to let Egan off the hook. Why create the situation if it’s then going to be allowed simply to lie).

    One could, I think, tie this in with the idea of this as science fiction, or not. I don’t think it is science fiction, in part because Egan’s attempt at world-building is so scrappy. Also, Egan assumes sf is futuristic but what strikes me about this story is that it’s only futuristic because Egan says it’s set in the future. I can find nothing within the story that says anything other than ‘right now’.

    Actually, the narrator’s augmentation reminds me of nothing so of a walking-talking doll of the 1960s; I think it’s that red ribbon between the toes, which I still find to be the most puzzling and disturbing image in the entire story, but there is also the sense of gimmicky gadgetry as well, on a level of ‘press the button in the doll’s stomach to make her hair grow’.

    Picking up on the ending, the more there is an emphasis on the fact that everyone has come back dead or alive, the more I’m inclined to read that as more ad-speak, and that they haven’t. And knowing one’s body will be retrieved is such a comfort. (One of the odd little discrepancies in this story is the fact that the agents are always monitored yet have to manually send the generic body pulses to confirm they’re ok, but information can’t be retrieved, and so on – almost like someone was making this up as they went along). Alternatively, and this is the real difficulty with this story, is the Field Instruction chip being reviewed after the narrator’s death? I don’t think there can be a happy ending in here.

  19. I agree with a lot of what you say here, Maureen. I dislike second person too (it really irked me in Stross’s Rule 34) but, like you, thought it worked here. And quite cleverly. Egan could have got inside the view point character’s head with first person, but I think what she was aiming – and for my money succeeding – to focus on was the relationship between the Beauty and the person or persons giving the instructions. I love the way Egan blends the instructional format (the “Field Instructions”) into a narrative. Yes, she breaks her own rules (it seems unlikely that instructions would be left for *all* of the eventualities that crop up), but then as you say her concept of SF or indeed science is vague and inconsistent throughout, and the more I think of it, the more I think that’s deliberate.

    I think what we have here is a critique of the fantasy life that girls, perhaps growing up in the 80s, were “supposed to have” versus the one they would like to have had. She wants to be a futuristic action hero but is hamstrung by her constrained imagination: beauty is her only “skill”, she’s completely incompetent at inventing realistic technology and worst of all she has to be told what to do at every step. Actually no, that’s not worst of all. Worst of all is she’s expendable.

    Which is really pretty insulting.

    What I don’t get is a sense of whether Egan is postulating this from a position of personal frustration or merely as an examination of “supposed” imaginative lives of boys and girls. I don’t think it necessarily really succeeds at either.

  20. David Hebblethwaite

    24th July 2012 at 11:22 pm

    I tend to find that second-person narration distances me from character (because it focuses my attention on action instead). I guess it works here, because there is that gap between the protagonist and the voice. I was more irritated by the narration’s glossing of dialogue (I got the point of it, but that point was made more than adequately).

    I’m leaning now towards the view that Egan perhaps hasn’t thought the story through fully. There’s a critique to be made of the forces behind the protagonist’s situation; but, as Maureen says, it’s left to the reader to do the critiquing – and that robs the story of some of its force.

  21. Though I liked the story quite a bit, I’d have to agree with Maureen Kincaid Speller’s comment that “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.”

    That said, one of the things that most impressed me was Egan’s ability to make the story really drive itself in spite of the limitations of the format. I did not see this nearly so much as a stream of tweets as what it in fact purported to be–an instruction manual of sorts. That is to say, just like with Ikea furniture, while B doesn’t always seem to follow directly from A, there is ultimately a clear path from A to C through B.

    But in the end, I was left frustrated that I had little to comment on other than the form. The story itself seemed at least mildly interesting in a sort of sci-fi/speculative way, but not fleshed out far enough to say too much about it. Ditto the psychological points about the narrator and her father, mother and husband. I suppose the funny thing is, Egan’s narrative drives itself effectively, but whither?

  22. Just a note to say thanks for folks’ thoughts on the ending, much obliged. Reading the above comments has rather helped crystallise my own take on the story & I’m leaning the same way as David writes above. I was stuck in oscillating feelings of having been quite entertained but not entirely satisfied and I think the probable reasons for this have been articulated above rather well.

    Re: use of second person – I happen to be reading the Man Asian 2012 winner Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin at the moment and it’s a bit of a masterclass in how to use second person, well worth checking out & perfect for the story she’s telling.

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