Jennifer Egan: “Black Box”

06/17/2012 § 2 Comments

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 4 & 11, 2012 (Science-Fiction Issue).

Yes, tweeting your story is a gimmick, let’s get that out of the way. But in A Visit for the Goon Squad, Egan managed to relate a portion of her story through PowerPoint slides, so let’s trust that she at least knows how to write in various formats, and let’s accentuate the positives in this belletrism, rather than belaboring the unnecessary and detached choice to write in sentences no longer than one-hundred-and-forty characters. Tweeting a story leaves no room for the extraneous, especially if you are refraining from the ugliness of shorthand. Tweeting a story requires each sentence to be polished, to be specific, to stand alone. Tweeting a story adds a staccato tension to action scenes, there is not just space between periods, but time: anything might happen. Tweeting a story creates a rhythmic effect, especially when opening sentences with poetic, mantra-like repetitions like “Tweeting a story.” In conjunction with the second-person, tweeting a story creates an instructive tone that is quite fitting for this character, a thirty-three-year-old citizen agent who has been engineered for her required service as a spy, specifically as a “beauty” who will infiltrate the confidences of her “Designated Mate” until she can subcutaneously record and photograph his terrorist plans without raising suspicion. Such disassociative instructions are also perfect for introducing you, the reader, to a slightly yet jarringly unfamiliar future, and I’m glad that Egan does not take the “obvious” route here (in which a big reveal shows that the Designated Mate is also a spy, and that in this future, everybody is actually spying on everybody else, acting with only the illusion of purpose and control).

The Black Box, incidentally, is the beauty herself: if she dies in service, so be it, but she must get her body to a Hotspot (think international waters), or the information she’s storing within her will be lost. And while it’s true that she’s not a trained operative — “you have spent your professional life fomenting musical trends” — it’s also true that “Human beings are superhuman”; that we each have an inner strength that allows us to manage both the everyday and extraordinary. For instance, “The Primal Roar is the human equivalent of an explosion, a sound that combines screaming, shrieking, and howling.” It’s being Labeled here, but that’s a skill most of us have, even though we rarely, if ever, use it. Likewise “The Dissociation Technique is like a parachute — you must pull the cord at the correct time.” Do we not all block horrific things out, at one point or another, the need for sacrifice squashing our self-interests? And what of this: “A smile is like a shield; it freezes your face into a mask of muscle that you can hide behind. A smile is like a door that is both open and closed.” Thematically, there’s also the question of who we are, anyway: consider the way the beauty thinks about her husband: “When someone has become essential to you, you will marvel that you could have lain on a warm dock and not have known him yet.” That is, we look back and see that we were someone else and wonder how that was ever possible — could we not then look forward, too, and understand that we may not turn out the way we thought we would?

That’s some surprisingly heady stuff for a short story told in chunks, a story that is very much focused — for a change of pace in The New Yorker — on action sequences and physical occurrences. But that’s what I meant earlier about giving Egan the benefit of the doubt: even in these brief sentences, she never shies away from fleshing out an idea, particularly when she hints at what certain things might really mean. For example: “‘Relax, relax,’ uttered in rhythmic, throaty tones, suggests that your discomfort is not unwelcome,” a creepy sentence that does more to emphasize the character of the Designated Mate more than the repeated identifier of “a violent and ruthless man” ever could. The dialogue is terse, understandably so, given the limitations of the form, so Egan plays with implications and context, a less-is-more approach that pays off and ratchets up the tension:

“You are a lovely girl” may be meant straightforwardly.

Ditto “I want to fuck you now.”

“Well? What do you think about that?” suggests a preference for direct verbal responses of giggling.

“I like it” must be uttered with enough gusto to compensate for a lack of declarative color.

“You don’t sound sure” indicates insufficient gusto.

“I’m not sure” is acceptable only when followed, coyly, with “You’ll have to convince me.”

Throwing back y our head and closing your eyes allows you to give the appearance of sexual readiness while concealing revulsion.

I’m surprised that there aren’t more spy/science-fiction novels out there — or maybe I’m just not reading them — as the idea of reinventing oneself seems like a perfect fit for the future world of reinvention. In any case, Egan has a nice follow-through with her concepts, particularly as this citizen agent attempts to fight her way back to her husband, even as she struggles with the knowledge of what she’s been warned: “You will reflect on the fact that you must return home the same person you were when you left. You will reflect on the fact that you’ve been guaranteed you will not be the same person. You will reflect on the fact that you had stopped being that person even before leaving. You will reflect on the fact that too much reflection is pointless.” And while I’d love to read more, particularly about love in the face of reintegration, it’s hard to feel cheated by the way “Black Box” ends, with the hero choosing to return her mind to her pain-wracked body (she’d used the Disassociation Technique), to suffer and fight for life itself, whatever that may turn out to be, even at last understanding, as her life flashes before her eyes, why her mother once lied to her about her paternity, that love and lies are not mutually exclusive. Along those lines, perhaps gimmicks and content aren’t mutually exclusive either!

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