‘Black Box’ by Jennifer Egan

Did you follow Black Box by Jennifer Egan on Twitter?

The short story was serialised over the span of ten nights (ending this morning) and was delivered via The New Yorker’s NYerFiction Twitter account. One tweet was posted per minute over one hour each day (it was between the hours of 8 and 9 p.m in the US which meant mid-morning for Aussies).

It was my first Twitter-fiction experience. I’ve since discovered that there are other twitter authors out there doing a similar thing although none with the status of Pulitzer-Prize-winning Egan.

Black Box was billed as a spy’s mission log, with each tweet representing an entry into the log. The language quickly clued the reader into the fact that it was very much a science-fiction spy story (references to other spies as ‘beauties’, the surveillance targets as ‘Designated Mates’ and ‘Dissociation Techniques’). I was hooked from the very first tweet –

There were aspects of Black Box, or more specifically Egan’s writing style, that I really enjoyed. The delivery via Twitter gave it a poetic feel and each tweet allowed Egan to legitimately change direction between setting the scene, straightforward instructions and playful details. For example –

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.


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

and then the more creative –

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


Cold fish is unappealing, even when served in a good lemon sauce.


Gold spike-heeled sandals may compromise your ability to run or jump, but they look good on tanned feet.

I liked these little contrasts. I also liked the clever mesh of spy-log instructions and the agent’s personal feelings and memories. You quickly understand that the agent is in fact a ‘black box’ and that the log, as well as various recording and surveillance tools, are in fact implanted in the agent. For example –

A microphone has been implanted just beyond the first turn of your right ear canal.

Activate the microphone by pressing the triangle of cartilage across your ear opening.


Although the data are alien, the memories dislodged will be your own:

Peeling an orange for your husband in bed on a Sunday, sunlight splashing the sheets;

Egan makes this work by explaining that once the ‘mission’ is complete “…stray or personal thoughts…” may be deleted.

However, the Black Box tweets appearing in my Twitter stream alongside other random tweets had the tendency to make the reading experience disjointed.

On the first day of publication I watched the tweets slowly unfold, as the story was intended to be read. But interjecting tweets such as where the Melbourne Taco Truck would be parked at lunchtime, the latest injury report from Carlton Football Club and a friend grumbling about babysitters were distracting. After day one, I made sure all sixty tweets had been posted before taking my time to read them in their entirety…. Which kind of defeats the purpose.

Without question, take the time to read Black Box. It’s clever and original. Twitter may not have been the best forum for publication but without Twitter it would not have been written in short, snappy sentences that linger long after you turn off your mobile phone. Thankfully you can read Black Box in full here.

Cold, slippery and with a surprising kick, these Lemon Drop Jelly Shots are the perfect partner in crime for Egan’s ‘beauties’.

3/5 The jury is out for me on ‘Twitter fiction’. I liked Black Box and I enjoyed the novelty factor but I think I’ll keep my reading time for books.

One response

  1. Pingback: Twitter Fiction Festival | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

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