In steps Jennifer Egan. A little more than one year Patchett’s senior, Egan is, at the time of this writing, the last winner of the Pulitzer in fiction. The final two chapters of her prize-winning story cycle, A Visit From the Goon Squad, leave little doubt that Egan shares an end-times view of the fate of literature. But instead of shouting from the sidelines, Egan allows herself to challenge these concerns in her work.
Indeed, earlier this year in the New Yorker’s science-fiction issue, Egan published “Black Box,” a story written in sentences of 140 characters or less. Then, over the course of nearly a week, @NYerFiction proceeded to tweet that story, a dystopic second-person thriller about an android spy posing as a call girl. In turning toward science-fiction and sci-fi forms, Egan is exploring new possibilities for literature in an age when technology and new media are competing for the book-reader’s attention. But even more, Egan’s recent sci-fi excursions expose her not as a writer resigned to the waning importance of literature, but as a literary “luddite” willing to take things to the next level, to begin a sabotage.
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In terms of plot, “Black Box” is a relatively traditional sci-fi story of human individuality in revolt against a mechanized society. Egan stated in the New Yorker podcast that the unnamed protagonist is in fact Lulu from the outlandish last chapter of Goon Squad, “Pure Language,” and that the events here take place ten years after the end of the novel, in the 2030s. In “Pure Language,” Lulu is the poster-girl of an imagined new generation, a whiz with technology and marketing, steeped in the lingo, and yet with an almost 1950s naïveté: she has no tattoos, she doesn’t use drugs, she doesn’t swear, and her only passion is money (uncommon traits for somebody working for a punk rocker.)
But in “Black Box,” Lulu is radically transformed. We find her working for the government, on the biggest (and only) mission of her life, posing as a call girl so that she can infiltrate an inner-circle of foreign enemies of states. Her wholesomeness has become devout patriotism, and her body has been consumed by the technologies she once mastered: the state has placed cameras behind her eyes, a discreet microphone in her ear, and a record of field instructions in a microchip beneath her hairline. Presumably, the latter is the origin of the tweet-like dispatches that make up the story.
It’s true that writers less-decorated than Egan have been experimenting with Twitter lit since the site launched a few years back, but in “Black Box,” Egan uses the limited and piecemeal nature of the Tweet not just as constraints, but as tonal guidelines for the narrative voice. Whether the dispatches are from Lulu in the field back to headquarters or vice versa remains delightfully unclear. Moreover the second-person imperative tone of the story lends each sentence an aphoristic quality, such that they might be read not as dispatches at all, but as an internalized set of rules about how to be a spy, a woman, and a patriot.
Indeed, a complicated system of authority emerges over the course of “Black Box” as we learn the full extent of Lulu’s devotion to her mission. Just as her body is grafted with machines of espionage, it also becomes a place for grafting gendered expectations: she must wear gold heels, must have tanned feet, must be innocuous, must register as “young,” and must wear a sundress “widely viewed as attractive.” Later, while her “Designated Mate” violates her, Lulu must practice a dissociation technique so as not to appear uncomfortable and break the illusion of being a prostitute. At inopportune times, Lulu’s mind turns to her husband back home, and she must remind herself that he is a fierce patriot and proud of her for undertaking this work.