Sunday, June 24, 2012

Black Box

by Jennifer Egan

This year's New Yorker summer fiction issue (which came out a few weeks ago - I'm behind on things once again) has a 'science fiction' theme, although it is full of stories by writers not normally associated with that genre, like Jennifer Egan.

Egan's story, 'Black Box', works on a number of levels.  To begin with, it's written as a series of short instructions, none longer than a Twitter posting.  The story is then divided into 47 short chapters, which can consist of as few as four of these 'tweets', to more than ten.  Consequently, this story looks very unique compared to most other pieces I've read in this magazine.

The instructions are designed to assist their recipient, a 'beauty', in her mission to infiltrate a crime or terrorist organization in the south of France by getting close to her 'Designated Mate', a violent man.  The nameless beauty (the instructions are written in second person, and addressed to 'you') is part of a new movement of citizen heroes, who volunteer for dangerous work out of a sense of patriotism.  The 'beauty' is outfitted with various hidden devices, such as a recorder in her ear, a camera in her eye (complete with flash), and a data port in her foot.  She is also trained in survival techniques, such as 'Dissociation Technique', and the 'Primal Roar'.

The story unfolds through these instructions, as our hero makes contact with her prey, and is later escorted with him to a remote seaside location, where he meets with another man, before she creates a distraction so she can photograph some drawings, and that has a number of consequences.

Egan gives us a James Bond like story, but without the egotism and identity of the hero getting in the way.  There are cool gadgets, mysterious evil-doers, and a palpable sense of danger.  Written in a more straight-forward way, this could have been a good story, but in Egan's hands, it's much more than that.  Egan's writing first caught my eye in this magazine, with a short story that was a part of her terrific novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, and I'm now more curious than ever to read more of her work.

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