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Reviewed by Paul Sidey
‘I wanted to avoid centrality. I wanted polyphony. I wanted a lateral feeling, not a forward feeling. My ground rules were: every piece has to be different, from a different point of view. I actually tried to break that rule later.’
This is something Jennifer Egan said after she had published A Visit From the Goon Squad in 2010. In 2011, it won the US National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, trouncing Jonathan Franzen, and went on to receive the Pulitzer Prize.
Clearly, experiments with the narrative form bring rewards. In that successful and much-praised fourth novel, during the final edit, the author decided to slip in a chapter entirely formatted as a PowerPoint Presentation.
At first sight, this new slim volume looks like a book of poetry. It is 58 pages long. Most chapters don’t run over a single folio. Black Box has been created specially for serialization on Twitter, which means each entry cannot exceed 140 characters.
Egan comments again: ‘My working title for this story was Lessons Learned and my hope was to tell a story whose shape would emerge from the lessons the narrator derived from each step of the action, rather than the action itself...I found myself imagining a series of terse mental dispatches from a female agent in the future working undercover by the Mediterranean sea.’
So – an anonymous, attractive young woman is unleashed as some kind of honeytrap into a terrorist network in the 2020s. She is full of technological implants, can even take flash photographs by pressing her left tear duct, or, in poor light, the tip of her left eyebrow. In the event of death, her body will download a treasure trove of information. She must be prepared to sacrifice herself, for no financial reward, to ensure the security of her country.
What would John Le Carré make of this? Or, say, Peter O’Donnell, who wrote Modesty Blaise? Even science fiction comic strips have more character and motivation and plot. This is a prose poem without poetry. A spy thriller without drama. A la Rochefoucauld series of philosophical maxims without bite.
Nevertheless, the New Yorker published the story in full, and reader comments were posted afterwards, saying – ‘cool’, ‘creative’, ‘fun’, ‘genius’ and ‘identical to those handfuls of goat droppings, those that leave little by little and tablets’ (sic)...
So will this experiment go viral? Is this the genre-bending digital future of fiction? Is Black Box a comment on the limits of the 21st century’s attention span? Or is it simply a continuation of what the Guardian in their review of A Visit From the Goon Squad called ‘a modernist aesthetic of fragmentation and dissolution’?
Again, in her Author Note, Jennifer Egan talks about ‘the intimacy of reaching people through their phones’. Once upon a time, Dickens wrote his richly textured novels for serialization in twenty monthly installments – 32 pages of text, two engraved illustrations and 16 pages of advertisements, usually bound up in green paper. I suppose this was the app of the day. I am not sure if the new technology is taking us anywhere but to a wasteland of empty words and disposable communication devices.