‘Black Box’ – Jennifer Egan

The first Sunday Story Society, organised by David Hebblethwaite, begins tomorrow, with Jennifer Egan’s ‘Black Box’. I’ve put together a few thoughts-in-progress on the story.<

Let’s start with the title, ‘Black Box’. Section 38 of Jennifer Egan’s story contains this:

Your physical person is our Black Box: without it we have no record of what has happened on your mission.

The reader may have, until even this point, quite late in the story, erroneously supposed that the story’s narrator has been transmitting the information she has been collecting on behalf of whoever it is she works for as she goes along. Far from it. Back in Section 15 there is a short comment – ‘Nuanced communication is too easily monitored by the enemy’ – which perhaps provides a clue. ‘Your Subcutaneous Pulse System issues pings so generic that detection would reveal neither source nor intent. […] Depress twice to indicate to loved ones that you are well and thinking of them.’ Yet there is something almost more terrifying about that ‘so generic’; one wonders whether the pings will ever be spotted.

The account we’re reading is part of the narrator’s ‘Field Instructions’, which ‘will serve as both a mission log and a guide for others undertaking this work’ (Section 15), and is stored on a chip somewhere on the head. The narrator can apparently review it before adding it to the mission file, so the implication seems to be that we can assume the narrator is speaking freely at this point, suggesting in turn that some of this material will not be retained for the official file.

 ‘black box’ prompts thoughts of flight data recorders in crashed aircraft, retrieved to help with unravelling what went wrong but that initially seems out of context here. A little research reminds us, though, that a ‘Black Box’ is, to quote Wikipedia, a ‘device, system or object which can be viewed solely in terms of its input, output and transfer characteristics without any knowledge of its internal workings’. ‘Your physical person is our Black Box’ suggests that for the authority in charge of the exercise in which the narrator is participating she is nothing more than an embodied storage device.

Storage, though, as we can see, is going on at more than one level: there is the information she is collecting for the agency for whom she works, the thoughts she is recording for her Field Instructions and, also the thoughts that are unrecorded, to which the reader can never have access. And yet, as the narrator herself observes, ‘these “instructions” are becoming less and less instructive’ (Section 15), though for the reader they are clearly extremely instructive in other ways.

The story itself is simple and straightforward yet extremely puzzling. The narrator, a woman, is working as a spy, disguised as some sort of escort to an important man, her Designated Mate. Colloquially, she is a ‘Beauty’, which is presumably a convenient label thought up by the agency she works for. She is bodily augmented in a number of ways in order to collect and broadcast information during the course of this work. What is not entirely clear is how or why she has come to this work: she is, as she stresses a number of times, a ‘volunteer’, a citizen agent; that is, she is not being paid but is doing this work for the good of the USA. The implication is that the narrator believes it to be her patriotic duty to perform this work, despite the danger and the cost to her physical and mental-wellbeing, but as the story unfolds we might want to question that.

It is, we are told, a one-off assignment. The reasoning behind this is that Beauties come to the job with the ‘“instincts and intuitions of experts, and the blank records and true freshness of ingénues”’. While I think this is supposed to mean that they are more convincing as escorts it is impossible to escape the fact that this is little more than ad-speak, a sales pitch that doesn’t quite make sense. I’d also be looking for a little more reassurance that people are coming back from these assignments in the first place. To debrief as you go along, thanks to the recording chip, suggests that while bodies might be coming back, live people aren’t.

The mission itself makes very little sense: the female narrator has been sent to get as close as possible to a man who has information. That he is a ‘bad guy’ is marked in the way a woman is an object, a trophy, a clothes-horse, one more way of making a statement about his position in the world, a token in an elaborate game. What he actually is and does is never show so there is no way for the reader to make an independent judgement. The point, perhaps, is that the mission itself is confirmation enough of the fact: the US acts against those whom it deems to be a threat.

Yet what is screamingly obvious is that the agency in control of this information-gathering operation essentially treats women in precisely the same way and calls it patriotism. The narrator has been subject to extensive body-augmentation in order to collect material in various ways. Quite apart from her private recording device and the ability to signal where she is, there is the camera and the recording gear and the capacity to suck up all the data on the Designated Mate’s Blackberry. That is a lot of augmentation (particularly given that this is a one-off mission. One wonders if that part of the story is in fact true. On the other hand, one also wonders if this mission is the final act of a desperate agency). The woman is then placed in a situation where she is effectively passed around among powerful men as a token of power (and either this has happened to her a lot or else it has happened to other women and she is drawing on their experience); she is raped several times in her role as ‘beauty’ and this is anticipated as happening for she has been taughtdissociational techniques to deal with it. There is also the profoundly disturbing moment when she becomes the conduit for the Data Surge which captures the contents of his handset: ‘Although the data are alien, the memories dislodged will be your own’ (Section 35).

Remind yourself that you are receiving no payment in currency or kind, for this or any act you have engaged in.

Which brings me to a question that hovers over the entire story. Why on earth is the narrator doing this. It is, as she keeps saying, voluntary, but that repetition, that reassurance, alone should signal wariness in the reader. What kind of organisation seeks volunteers for such situations? Just because one ‘volunteers’ doesn’t mean one hasn’t been coerced into volunteering. Either that or the narrator has to be stunningly naive in her optimistic patriotism. It is not easy to determine what might be going on, not least because one suspects that the narrator herself has been in denial, and indeed may be dissociating even as she recounts events. The stress in the sales pitch was on helping one’s country, and in Section 7, the narrator states again that ‘Your voluntary service is the highest form of patriotism’, though whether she truly believes this or is just parroting training isn’t entirely clear. The repetition of the fact that she is not being paid suggests that she has begun to wake to the reality of her situation, and to see that it really takes more than patriotism to deal with this.<

Things become more interesting in Section 15 where the narrator’s husband, briefly alluded to earlier, is mentioned again.

You will reflect on the fact that your husband, coming from a culture of tribal allegiance, understands and applauds your patriotism.

You will reflect on the fact that America is your husband’s chosen country, and that he loves it.

You will reflect on the fact that your husband’s rise to prominence would have been unimaginable in any other nation.

One might begin to wonder, given that the husband is elsewhere described as being a black man from Kenya (which has strange undertones of Obama about it), though no further clue is given as to what kind of prominence he has achieved, whether the narrator has been in some way coerced into carrying out this mission to confirm her husband’s patriotism.

Yet there is also an odd personal hint that the narrator is doing this in order to establish her own identity, as a result of discovering that she is the illegitimate daughter of a film star, the result of a fling: ‘A sudden reconfiguration of your past can change the fit and feel of your adulthood’ (Section 19), and maybe it does, but would it really drive one to such lengths?

The contradiction persists, however, in a lengthy series of observations in Section 21, about the citizen agents, of whom it seems there are hundreds.

In the new heroism, the goal is to merge with something larger than yourself.

In the new heroism, the goal is to throw off generations of self-involvement.

In the new heroism, the goal is to renounce the American fixation with being seen and recognized.

In the new heroism, the goal is to dig beneath your shiny persona.

Now our notorious narcissism is our camouflage.

Again, this sounds like advertising jargon; the feeling persists that the new heroism allows the employment of citizen agents who are, if they fail, no longer spoken about because no one knew they were there to begin with.

Yet then we have ‘because your husband is a visionary in the realm of national security’, and the reader might begin to wonder if in fact the narrator’s husband hasn’t put her up to this, to show how easy it is to do, how simple to survive. Which of course brings us back to the fact that the authority instigating this is at heart no better than the people the narrator is spying on

As Americans, we value human rights above all else and cannot sanction their violation. (Section 37)

So, we have a story that is a swirling mess of the public and the personal, each acting on the other, with perhaps a moment of catharsis for the narrator as she lies, wounded, perhaps dying, in the bottom of the boat, a package waiting to be collected, a flight recorder that may explain what went wrong.

For while something has undoubtedly gone wrong with this story, it is not easy to ascertain what it is, rather as it is not easy to ascertain what the story itself is about. One could argue, for example, that the story, the real story, lies in what is not said, in how the reader fills in the spaces and engages with the unasked questions, the questions the narrator can’t give a shape to, except, of course, that the narrator can, and to an extend does, do just that, for the Field Instructions have not yet been edited. Why is the narrator then so restrained? Are we being invited to guess at what is going on in the unrecorded personal thoughts? The real personal thoughts.

But to accomplish this suggests some very careful direction in the storytelling and I’m not convinced I’m seeing that. What I am seeing is a story that is constructed according to the constraints of a tweet, a series of tweets, strings of 140 characters, later consolidated as a series of blog posts and then as a whole story. I have only seen this story as a whole, so to speak, so have no idea how it felt to read it as it gradually unfolded. But even then there is a problem. We might recall that the entire set of comments is intended as a private record; the tweet format has been co-opted by the author to broadcast the story for the reader rather than because this is what the narrator would have done, so there is already a strange sense of disjuncture.

The brevity of the format naturally eschews detailed explanation of setting and motivation, although Egan seems able to include it when she feels like it. However, this leaves the reader having to try to figure out what is going on while providing an escape clause for the author if things don’t quite make sense. There is a difference between the narrator not making sense and the story not making sense; my own feeling here is that the story in and of itself somehow lacks clarity, in part because Egan is too taken up with the format and transmission of the story to fully consider its implications.

I think this comes out in part in the interviewshe gave the New Yorker on the story. The story was finally published in the New Yorker’s oddly-conceived ‘sci-fi’ issue. I said at the time I didn’t see it as being particularly science-fictional and I stick by that. Quite apart from it being positioned as sf only by being in the sf issue of the New Yorker, Egan herself is very vague on the matter.

The theme of this issue of the magazine is science fiction, and in many ways “Black Box” fits that category. It’s set in the future; it has these technological advancements—a memory chip that can read your thoughts and so on. But when we first talked about putting the story in this issue you had some hesitations. What’s your relationship with science fiction as a concept?”

“I have very little relationship to it, and therefore I feel unqualified to write it. I think I felt nervous about having the piece appear in that context because I feel I don’t have the proper credentials. I haven’t read a lot of science fiction, and I never intend to write it; it seems to happen a little bit inadvertently for me, in that I’m trying to follow people into points in their lives that demand that I investigate the future. And then I imagine forward and, of course, find myself imagining certain technological realities that haven’t happened yet. But I feel, you know, basically like a fake in the realm of science fiction. I’m interested in it, but I don’t feel like I’ve done the legwork to make a vital contribution”.

However, she seems to me to be remarkably vague on other elements of the story as well. Take this question from Deborah Treisman, in the light of the fact that story is supposed to be set twenty years in the future.

In the world of the story, what do you think has happened to America in the twenty years between now and then?

“You know, it’s hard to really know. I mean, I think there’s certainly a sense that terrorism is still a problem, that coördinated violence is a factor in our national security, and that we have continued to struggle to find ways of infiltrating these networks. And there’s been a new idea, which is to take pretty young women and unleash them into these terrorist networks. This became a vehicle also for looking at masculinity and femininity, and at the sort of cover that being a so-called “pretty girl” can give to someone. The suppositions that people might have about her awareness or her watchfulness—or lack thereof—can be very convenient to a spy.”

This suggests to me that part of the trouble I have with this story is that it lacks a sense of coherence. It’s nothing to do with it being in the present, past or future. It’s not even to do with the fact that she doesn’t explain this peculiar shift in the way espionage is handled. It has everything to do with the fact that Egan herself is very vague about what’s going on. Some of this can be dealt with by the fact that this is supposed to be a series of lessons learned, but not all of it. In fact, the structure fails the story at the point when I think the story itself is meant to be strongest, when the narrator begins to put aside the self-serving ad-speak nonsense she has been sold and tries to address her own emotional needs as well as seeing the Designated Mates and their Beauties as people too, as families, as parents. This seems to me to be intended as a moment of revelation and catharsis but somehow it slips through the story because there is no room for that in the Black Box which theoretically holds everything.

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2 thoughts on “‘Black Box’ – Jennifer Egan

  1. writeanovelin10minutesflat

    Gulp if you don't have the 'critical chops' to comment then I should just shut up. Thank you for an illuminating post. Cathy PS – I'd love to subscribe by email the RSS thing doesn't work for me …

  2. nicole

    Remind yourself that you are receiving no payment in currency or kind, for this or any act you have engaged in. These acts are forms of sacrifice.I seem to have had a different take on this repeated statement than most others who read the story as part of David Hebblethwaite's group, though it certainly did rub me the wrong way. I read this as saying, "You may feel like a prostitute, but remember that the reason society frowns on prostitutes is because they exchange sex for money. You are not doing that–you are exchanging sex for glory. See how much better you are than a common whore!" I suppose it contributed somehow to a sense of "American-ness" in the spy agency itself: we're going to assume everyone is puritanical about this stuff (how often does James Bond feel bad about his sexual shenanigans?), but we'll keep reminding you it's okay because there's no money involved! Personally, I'd prefer the compensation.

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