Last week The New Yorker began nightly tweeting portions of a new Jennifer Egan story, titled “Black Box.” Over the course of ten installments, Egan’s futuristic spy thriller was formed, with each 140-character tweet serving as its heroine’s undercover dispatches. Read all together the tweets have a certain poetic quality; you can’t help but notice pacing and rhythm in the “lines”.
Case in point, from chapter 8:
White clouds spin and curl.
A blue sky is as depthless as the sea.
The sound of waves against rocks existed
millennia before there were creatures who
could hear it.
Spurs and gashes of stone narrate a
violence that the earth itself has long
Your mind will rejoin your body when it is
safe to do so.
“Black Box” was prominently featured in the magazine’s science-fiction issue this past week. In it, Egan shares her inspiration and process to writing this unique story:
I’d been wondering about how to write fiction whose structure would lend itself to serialization on Twitter. This is not a new idea, of course, but it’s a rich one—because of the intimacy of reaching people through their phones, and because of the odd poetry that can happen in a hundred and forty characters. I found myself imagining a series of terse mental dispatches from a female spy of the future, working undercover by the Mediterranean Sea. I wrote these bulletins by hand in a Japanese notebook that had eight rectangles on each page. The story was originally nearly twice its present length; it took me a year, on and off, to control and calibrate the material into what is now “Black Box.”
Asked whether she found the form of writing for Twitter restrictive, Egan replies,
No, because that was so essential to the voice itself. I mean, the premise is that these are the thoughts of the protagonist, which are being recorded as part of her spy mission. But they take the form of lessons, and actually the working title of the piece was “Lessons Learned.” The idea was that with each move she makes, or each thing that happens to her, she has a kind of reflection, which has a bit of a didactic quality to it. I always imagined her observations happening in this very atomized way; that was just inherent in the voice itself.
And on whether “Black Box” is a spy thriller-cum-philosophical story,
What makes something interesting enough to pursue is always the feeling that it’s unfolding on several levels at once. The best-case scenario is one in which I don’t have to look too carefully at what those levels are—I just kind of feel them happening. But one level that I was aware of and pleased about was a sort of mythological connection. I mean, she’s by the Mediterranean; she has had physical enhancements to her body that give her exceptional powers; there’s the explicit mention of the fact that she loved reading myths as a kid. I loved feeling, in this futuristic atmosphere, a connection to those ancient stories. So that was one level that I was aware of. And, yes, the sense of a kind of philosophical argument playing out was there as well.
A full transcript of Egan’s interview can be found here.
For those who are fans of Egan’s novels, the protagonist of “Black Box” is the future adult form of the precocious Lulu, of A Visit from the Goon Squad. For those who have never read any of Jennifer Egan’s work, “Black Box” stands alone as an enticing and suspenseful introduction to her writing that certainly bears a reading.