Monday, September 10, 2012

Jennifer Egan's "Black Box"

Dislike as I might my current temp secretarial job--the tedium of the work, the for-no-reason condescending attitude of the 2 ladies who are my bosses (unfortunately a characteristic of more than just "some" uneducated office ladies who have, nonetheless, achieved a tenure in their own little fiefdom and are thus eager to lord it over others)--at least I'm allowed to read during my free time, and so have begun to whittle down (working my way backwards by date) the stack of New Yorkers that have been piling up for months now.

Today I got to the June 4 & 11 issue (Science Fiction). When I came to the fiction "Black Box" by Jennifer Egan, I was immediately put off by the quirky format (different, smaller font from the usual New Yorker style, the usual 3 columns of text divided up into numbered boxes filled with very short paragraphs). But since I had time to fill/kill, I decided to trudge on, despite my dislike of "trendy"... And was immediately--by BOX 1--hooked! On the surface it's a sci-fi thriller about a female undercover agent of the future who's sent to infiltrate/sleep with a "violent and ruthless man" deemed criminal by her government. The format is basically a set of physical/psychological instructions that she's supposed to be following the whole time. But what got me the most was the fact that these "instructions" could also be read as a way that some women in general have been conditioned to act around men in general:

...Necessary ingredients for a successful projection: giggles; bare legs; shyness.

The goal is to be both irresistible and invisible.

When you succeed, a certain sharpness will go out of his eyes.


Some powerful men actually call their beauties "Beauty."

Counter to reputation, there is a deep camaraderie among beauties.

If your Designated Mate is widely feared, the beauties at the house party where you've gone undercover to meet him will be especially kind.

Kindness feels good, even when it's based on a false notion of your identity and purpose.


Posing as a beauty means not reading what you would like to read on a rocky shore in the South of France....


Eagerness and pliability can be expressed even in the way you climb from the sea onto chalky yellow rocks.

"You're a very fast swimmer," uttered by a man who is still submerged, may not be intended as praise...


...The directive "Relax" suggests that your discomfort is palpable.

"No one can see us" suggests that your discomfort has been understood as fear of physical exposure.

"Relax, relax," uttered in rhythmic, throaty tones, suggests that your discomfort is not unwelcome.


Aside from the psychologically feminist aspect that I really related to, the whole thing was also a fantastic page-turner. "WHAT is going to happen next?!" And the final scenes (boxes), I completely saw as if already on a movie screen (starring someone like Milla Jovovich).

I was really impressed, and had never even heard of author Jennifer Egan, though she just won the Pulitzer Prize last year!

And, after reading, I discovered that the whole story was TWEETED last May! Below is an interview with Egan re the experiment:


p.s. Another article from this issue that I enjoyed was Colson Whitehead's "A Psychotronic Childhood": "A monster is a person who has stopped pretending." THAT is interesting to think about...

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