By, Nick Norton
Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box” gives us a thrilling spy tale set in the near future, delivered from the perspective of an undercover citizen spy. Her mission is to infiltrate the home of a “powerful … violent and ruthless” terrorist and extract confidential information using seduction as well as various technological upgrades implanted in her body (Egan, 4).
When “Black Box” was released in 2012, it received critical acclaim as one of the first full-length short stories to be published and delivered entirely on Twitter. The utilization of this new medium was undoubtedly a ploy to attract new readers. Starting May 24th at 8 PM, Egan released one tweet per minute, for one hour, for ten days straight. At the time this must have been seen as a truly groundbreaking method of presentation and was probably quite engaging to take part in the viewing. How nifty, a story crafted through tweets that anyone can access for free. However, seven years later, the novelty of this method has more than worn off. I read the story entirely on twitter, and boy do I regret it. The tweet excerpts are incredibly jarring to read continuously and the occasional ad that popped up in-between posts did not exactly add to the experience. Egan’s method does not so much encourage the reader to fill in any plot holes, it practically forces them to. The story starts with the citizen spy already on her mission, skipping any backstory entirely, not to mention leaving out why she is on the mission in the first place. What I did enjoy about reading in the twitter format was that I could see which of the tweets other people had favorited and retweeted, as well as commented on. This added an unexpectedly modern touch to the reading, as with most paperback books the reader is scolded for ‘commenting’ on the pages of the story.
Aside from my gripes about the format and structure of the story, “Black Box” is actually pretty entertaining. The pacing is noticeably fast and action packed from the get-go, as Egan wastes no time introducing the reader to the thrilling mission of the ‘beauty.’ The action sequences are entertaining as well as engaging, as the reader gets it all through the calculated and robotic narration of this badass, volunteer spy. The plot itself wasn’t too hard to follow; its spy elements we’ve seen countless times before. Be it stylishly through James Bond or groovily through Austin Powers, infiltrating the bad guys base to steal information to prevent him from ruling the world is nothing groundbreaking. Where I found this story stood out was in what I believe to be one of its central themes: the objectification of women. Through its reference to the female citizen spies as “beauties,” and the routine usage of seduction in order to obtain information, it makes me wonder if Egan wants us to view the citizen spy as more human than robot, or perhaps more robot than human, the latter of which would lends itself to the idea of her being an ‘object.’
Overall I would give Jennifer Egan’s twitter fiction, “Black Box” a C+. The story itself is enthralling as well as emotional but it is bogged down by the jarring twitter format and overused spy tropes, ultimately preventing it from being a true masterpiece in modern storytelling.
Egan, Jennifer. “Black Box.” The New Yorker, Condé Nast Publications, 4 June 2012, newyorker.com/magazine/2012/06/04/black-box-2. Accessed 5 Feb. 2017.
Naste, Conde. Manarola. 2017. Traveler. Conde Naste. web. 26 Mar 2017