Jennifer Egan’s latest sci-fi short story is a great read, but could be better without the 140-character limit.
Jennifer Egan’s recent short story “Black Box” is a fast-paced, sci-fi thriller that kept readers on the edge of their computer chairs as they waited for the plot to be revealed through a series of tweets. Originally published on The New Yorker’s Twitter account in May of 2012, it tells the story of a female undercover agent working to obtain secret information from the enemy territory. She works at seducing the man assigned to her as well as remembering her training and gadgets to further her mission and get her to the ultimate goal. The story is set in a futuristic time, with the agent’s gadgets being literal enhancements to her person, making her body the most important piece of information for her commanders. This story has central themes of loyalty to the those important in one’s life, technology’s growing destructive potential for us, as well as gender and the stereotypes that accompany it, in this instance, being a woman in a male-dominant environment. While I found Egan’s story to have a captivating plot, I think it was hard to follow within the constraints of a Twitter medium.
Egan is an accomplished author and journalist, having won multiple awards and been praised for her captivating voice and word choice. In an interview conducted for The New Yorker by Deborah Treisman, Egan states that she feels “unqualified to write (science-fiction)”, but she “love(s) the thriller genre” (23, 25). “Black Box” is a combination of both, and I would say that while she feels as though she does not have the experience to write science fiction, she does an excellent job.
If I unpack the story in terms of her format choice though, I am of another opinion. While the choice of writing this specifically for the Twitter platform is a different idea that is sure to spark attention and appeal to a larger and younger demographic, having to read the story in such limited snippets can cause it to be confusing. In the same interview with Triesman, Egan states that the fact that the story was released in tweets “was so essential to the voice itself”, as it is told in an odd point of view, similar to view of ‘second person’ (9). The story is told as though the reader is inside the mind of the protagonist herself, with the main pronoun is ‘you’, such as when it’s said, “Your goal is to become a part of his atmosphere: a source of comfort and ease” (9). Once all the tweets had been released, they were gathered and organized into a Storify platform, which still has the story in the form of tweets, but without the advertisements and other distractions of the original Twitter platform. While this can improve the reader’s focus and I can see its appeal, I myself had to switch to a second reconstructed version of the story that was released in an issue of The New Yorker. The issue reorganized the tweets into paragraphs, making it easier, at least for me, to put into context quicker than the raw tweets allow. However, I did enjoy that the story was very much to the point, and there were not a lot of extra details and fluff that some authors may put into other works without it being necessary to the plotline. Egan definitely knows how to use that aspect of Twitter to her advantage, allowing for the plot to move quickly and readers to not get easily bored. However I stand with my previous statement that the Twitter medium makes the story choppy and hard to follow in my experience of reading it.
I can conclude that in my opinion that Egan is a talented writer and I would recommend this story, but only in the paragraph format. Twitter is not the best platform for storytelling, and we should just stick to using it for quick, mindless thoughts and following celebrity drama.
Egan, Jennifer. “Black Box.” The New Yorker, Condé Nast Publications, 4 June 2012, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/06/04/black-box-2. Accessed 22 Jan. 2017 and 4 Feb. 2017.
Treisman, Deborah. “This Week In Fiction: Jennifer Egan.” The New Yorker, Condé Nast Publications, 25 May 2012, http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/this-week-in-fiction-jennifer-egan. Accessed 5 Feb. 2017.