Black Box by Jennifer Egan

Black Box by Jennifer Egan is an adventurous short story, originally released through Twitter as a series of tweets. A courageous literary feat, Black Box is a classic thriller featuring a beautiful American “spy” trying to infiltrate an unnamed infamous criminal. Written in second person this short story, indirectly guides our protagonist, who I’ll refer to as Beauty, through a treacherous mission. Set in the future, Beauty has been surgically enhanced with a chip in her hairline, a microphone implanted just beyond the first turn of her right ear canal, a camera in her eye, and a button embedded behind the inside ligament of her right knee. Surrounded by powerful men who’ve underestimated Beauty’s intelligence, she manages to seductively manipulate and outsmart all of the men around her.

Egan started tweeting Black Box on May 24th from 8:00 PM to 9:00 PM and continued for ten consecutive nights. Black Box, much to my surprise, has become one of my favorite digital works thus far. Although the experience the reader receives from anxiously awaiting each tweet is a one time thrill, it’s an unprecedented reading experience no other digital literature thus far has presented. Even if other writer’s who use digital interfaces try to recreate this experience by only allowing their program to run once, it still couldn’t quite recreate the same effect. Overall, Egan’s Twitter platform induces an exciting yet anxious reliving of the protagonist’s adventure. Black Box, although considered an electronic piece of literature, does the same work as print, in that the details, the imagery, and the connotations conjure up a world you can see yourself in, and essentially relive. Overall, it’s a realistic adventure that emerges you in the story,

Written in second person, the first tweet reads: “People rarely look the way you expect them to, even when you’ve seen pictures”. I thought it was worth noting how she chooses to commence the story in such a fashion. One of social media’s biggest critiques is the facade individuals are capable of presenting on social networking sites. Within these fake profile are falsified images, faint subtleties, flaws, and mannerisms that you can not pick up on unless meeting the person face-to-face. She continues, “The first thirty seconds in a person’s presence are the most important”. It’s clear that as a spy, first impressions are everything. Both phrases resonate so well with the obsession social media has induced in recent generations. Its an obsession with appearances, caring how others perceive you, and a need to control the image you put out, which is exactly how Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook work.

Choosing not to incorporate her story within the technical space of a digital interface posits the work as anomalous and therefore changes the writer and the reader’s utility beyond even the confinements of normative digital literature. Black Box is an unusual piece when compared to the other digital literatures we’ve read thus far, in that she incorporates a modern social platform. With this being said, I had a hard time drawing any connections between Black Box and the other digital literatures we’ve read thus far. I can say that while Vniverse cannot be read linearly, Black Box and a Jew’s Daughter can, even with the Jew’s Daughter hyperlinked changes. But unlike a Jew’s Daughter, Black Box doesn’t have the same inquisitive feel. You’re constantly searching for changes in a Jew’s Daughter, whereas the writing and even the protagonist’s story is very forthright. Beauty knows that every decision she makes must be very calculated and forthright much like the style of writing.

Digital platforms generally allow for free modes of expression, but Twitter’s 140 character limit presents a different sort of hindrance that perhaps, in the process of writing Black Box dictate how Egan chose to write this piece. Whether Egan transfigured the story to befit this limitation isn’t clear but further proves how she effortlessly infuses social media within this literary piece.

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