June 4, 2012

Sci-Fi Issue: "Black Box"

By Jennifer Egan
~8600 words

Equipped with implanted surveillance technology, a woman undertakes a mission to infiltrate an unnamed criminal organization.

It’s not every day we get a story recounted in the format of an instruction manual. Fans of this possible genre were tantalized in 1978 by George Perec’s Life A User’s Guide, but the novel didn’t live up to the title. Jennifer Egan takes the genre’s constraints more seriously, and since manuals tend to privilege the imperative (“Insert tab A into slot B…”), the narrator of “Black Box” speaks almost entirely in the second person. True, there are a few descriptive comments in the third person, but most of it is addressed to you. At the outset “you” appears to refer to the generic reader of the story; a bit later we figure out that “you” is female (addressing perhaps a hypothetical female reader?); soon we realize that the “you” in these terse guidelines is really one particular woman—the protagonist—who mentally repeats instructions to herself as the situation on hand evolves.

Just what is that situation? Well, our main character is a special brand of secret agent, a kind of Jamie Bond whose sole weapon is her beauty. Her mission is to work her way into the arms (and beds) of powerful men, all the better to gather crucial information about their activities. Like 007 she’s equipped with all manner of clever surveillance toys, though most of them are implanted in her body (one in her ear, another behind her knee), which makes her a bit like an airplane’s data recorder, also known as… a black box.

This is an easy story to like, but a hard one to love. At first you (and by this second person I really mean me) can’t resist the clever format and the rapid clip of the narration. The text abounds with crisp touches (“The goal is to be both irresistible and invisible. / When you succeed, a certain sharpness will go out of his eyes.”). And Egan is deft in her handling of plot: at the beginning we feel that the litany of instructions is merely a list of general principles, but soon they morph into very specific commands that reveal the exceedingly dangerous plot the narrator is caught up in. When we read “A slim catlike man may well rebound before a hasty exit can be made,” the sentence reads syntactically like a general observation, but it’s also so specific that we know it applies to our spy’s here and now. On and on it goes, as we walk this tightwire between the universal and the particular.

On and on, on and on. “Black Box” is really a rather long story, one composed mostly of paragraphs so concise they make text messages seem gabby. Since Egan has locked herself into a pattern of staccato utterances, she has limited room to maneuver. In fact, you begin to feel that the author has landed in the same predicament as her main character: stuck in a situation with no opportunity for escape, where all one can do is march forward and hope for the best. After all, it’s tough to develop characters when you need to couch your language in the khaki style of a survival guide. She makes a valiant effort of it, but eventually even her main character bails.

What could have been a playful and engaging piece of very short fiction becomes a bit tedious here. I applaud Egan for taking a stab at it, but let’s hope “Black Box” is not an excerpt from her latest novel.


Reader poll: I found "Black Box" to be ___.

Also from the sci-fi issue: "Monstro," "My Internet," "The Republic of Empathy."

1 comment:

  1. I had never read anything like it before, and somehow since reading, it's haunted me. It wasn't perfect, but it really did grip me.