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Review of books

October 2012
spiked review of books
Black Box: great story, bad twitterature

Nathalie Rothschild

Black Box: great story, bad twitterature

Jennifer Egan’s sci-fi thriller may have first been serialised on Twitter, but it triumphs in spite of the medium, not because of it.

In Black Box, Jennifer Egan propels a peripheral character from her Pulitzer prize-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, into the 2030s, advancing her from a record producer’s tech-savvy assistant to a cyborg honey trap on a voluntary spy mission in the Mediterranean. Her task is to extract information from wealthy thugs, described as ‘powerful men’, in order to thwart terrorist attacks on the United States.

A Visit from the Goon Squad shifted between eras, describing the effect of time’s passing on an array of characters whose fates intertwined in surprising ways. The book ended in the future - the 2020s - revealing that one character, Lulu, would go on to marry an African robotics specialist who would invent a scanning device used for crowd control.

In Egan’s new, futuristic spy thriller, Lulu is the unnamed narrator and a human black box, equipped with implanted recording devices that are activated by body movement and mind power - techniques developed in part by Lulu’s husband. The grandson of an African warrior, his gratitude for getting the chance to live the American dream has inspired Lulu to make the ultimate sacrifice for her country.

Befitting its tech-centred narrative, Black Box only exists as an e-book. Each chapter is printed in a text box containing around four to 10 sentences that read as instructions or reflections on potential or actual scenarios, but they always propel the plot forward in a suspenseful way.

The reason for this peculiar form is that Black Box first appeared on Twitter, dispatched from the New Yorker magazine’s handle sentence by sentence, one a minute for an hour every evening over a 10-day period. Half-way through the Twitter serialisation, the New Yorker also published Black Box in its entirety in the magazine itself, and now it is also available to read on tablets and smart phones.

The story came about in a very ‘analogue’ manner, however. Egan wrote it by hand in a Japanese notebook that had eight rectangular boxes on each page. She filled five to seven of those rectangles each day, ending up with a novella that was twice the final work’s length. She spent a year writing and editing the story whose working title was Lessons Learned because, as Egan explained in an interview for the New Yorker, the premise was that the narrative is based on the spy’s thoughts, which are being recorded as part of her mission. ‘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’, explained Egan.

Plenty of authors have experimented with Twitter storytelling before Egan. In some cases, already written stories have been chopped up into tweets, in other cases original fiction and poetry has been written and adjusted according to Twitter’s rules. Experimenting within the confines of a restrictive format can certainly yield interesting results; in Black Box the strict character limit means that Egan has had to leave a lot more to the reader’s imagination than if she had allowed herself a generous amount of space for scene setting and narrative flourishes.

The micro-blogging site is hardly a great medium for publishing novels or even short stories

Still, the micro-blogging site is hardly a great medium for publishing novels or even short stories. On Twitter, readers are generally unfocused and attention spans are short. Following a plot line, appreciating the care that has gone in to crafting pithy sentences, tying the loose ends of a narrative together - those are not easy tasks in the hyperactive Twittersphere where messages can get drowned in seconds. Besides, Black Box was tweeted between 8pm and 9pm EST, giving anyone outside of that time zone little chance of following it in its original form.

Twitter is great for sharing, spreading and reacting to messages and for creating personas. But beyond limiting her sentences to 140 characters, Egan, who apparently doesn’t use Twitter herself, did not exploit any of the micro-blogging site’s unique functions.  As far as Twitter literature - or twitterature - goes there are plenty of other writers who have used the medium to better effect.

For instance, author Neil Gaiman once kicked off a novel with a single post and encouraged his tweeps to suggest follow-up sentences. BBC Audiobooks America made a selection of the thousands of responses Gaiman received and published them as a crowd-sourced audiobook. The historical novelist Philippa Gregory set up the twitter handle @elizwoodville from which she tweeted in the voice of Elizabeth Woodville, heroine of her novel The White Queen. Curators of an exhibition about August Strindberg have created a Twitter avatar in the late writer’s name, tweeting entries from his Occult Diary, in that way merging the classic personal journal format with the modern phenomenon of bare-it-all blogging.

Whereas these literary experiments could only work on Twitter, Black Box can only be properly enjoyed in its entirety. A short story that uses tropes from the sci-fi and spy thriller genres without seeming clichéd, and that packs in themes like patriotism, heroism, femininity and masculinity, deserves more than a fleeting moment on Twitter. Black Box should be read despite having first appeared as a piece of twitterature.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here. Follow her on Twitter @n_rothschild.

Black Box, by Jennifer Egan, is published by Corsair.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.


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