In a new series on my blog, I will be writing essays of the texts I am currently studying for my Creative Writing MA course, including my own opinions on the piece as well as a look into the creative devices each writer employs.
Black Box is a revitalising and unusual short story that was invigorating to read. It is a subversive, dystopian twist on a spy caper that keeps you thrilled to the last line. Egan’s experimental story is set in a dystopian world, where the unnamed protagonist is part of an espionage programme, functioning as a National Service for women, and agents are referred to as ‘Beauties.’
Beauties, as the name suggests, are trained to be beautiful, passive and cunning, finding intel on their ‘Designated Mate’, a powerful man likely to have corrupt, omnipotent influence. Beauties’ bodies are upgraded to include hearing devices in their ears, flash photography in their eyes and even a USB port between their toes. They are trained to be detached from their previous lives and from the suffering they endure in order to successfully complete their mission. Their minds are expendable, but their bodies are essential and must not be captured.
This short story is written in a second-person, didactic voice, that uses imperatives and the conditional tense to create a piece consistently fluctuating between certainties and possibilities, encouraging the reader to hurry through the text to discover which version of events actually plays out.
Reading Black Box is like reading a set of instructions. Lines such as, ‘If your subject brushes past you and storms out of the room, slamming the door, you have eluded detection’, almost mimic the instructions the agent would receive in her training to carry out her mission. With this second-person tense becoming increasingly omniscient, as readers we are curious as to whether this is the voice of the protagonist carrying out these missions, the elusive ‘people watching over [her]’ feeding the instructions to the agent or an amalgamation of both in the protagonist’s mind.
The story is made up of forty-seven sections, with each sentence forming a new line, giving it an almost prose-poetry quality to it. This poetic style is further emphasised through the use of anaphora and repetition, which build an urgent, suspenseful and pacey narrative. This helps to generate a distanced tone, mirroring the protagonist’s emotional distance in such a high-stakes situation, which is juxtaposed by the occasional, emotive infiltration of memories from her previous life: ‘Reflect on the reasons you can’t die: / You need to see your husband. / You need to have children.’
These intrusions of personal memories alter the urgency of the text; as readers, we propel through the action, not merely to discover what happens, but to will this unnamed character to make it home alive.
Moreover, these personal, emotive moments give us an insight into the brutality of this world. When her enemy’s Beauty unexpectedly grabs her baby and a gun, aimed towards our protagonist, she is faced with a problem that dangles the unthinkable possibility in front of her: ‘Disabling a gun holder is likely to hurt the baby she is holding, too. / When self-preservation requires that you harm the innocent, we can provide no more guidelines.’
In the immediate aftermath, the narrator says, ‘We are most reluctant to hurt those who remind us of ourselves.’ Humanity attempts to crawl into the narrative, but is enclosed in one sentence, again being held at a distance so not to infringe on the mission at hand.
The story was originally written in a series of tweets, with each sentence forming its own, enclosed context. Perhaps this is a comment upon our modern age’s obsession with conversation and dialogue being diluted into bite-size chunks, devoid of context. Indeed, take lines of Egan’s prose out of context, ‘You are one of hundreds, each a potential hero’, or ‘Fear and excitement are sometimes indistinguishable’, they read like pithy, inspirational clichés one may see on a person’s social media page. Together, each line forms part of a jigsaw into a much more sinister, uncanny world.
Egan also explores the idea of female objectification through this narrative. Women are treated as passive entities, even in their most powerful role as undercover agents. The mutilation of the female body is explored, from experiencing rape to the biotechnology implemented into the Beauties’ bodies and even to the women being denied their own agency as they are forced to carry out these missions.
One can draw parallels here between this fictional nightmare and the often oppressed role of women within patriarchal societies in our world, past and present, who are treated as merely bodies carrying out functional purposes (seen through the prescribed roles of child bearers, caregivers and home-makers).
The short story form was particularly effective in allowing such an experimental, restrictive narrative voice to flourish. It can be sustained within this smaller word count, and as readers we quickly become aware of how entrapping this second-person voice is for the protagonist. She cannot divulge information about her purpose or her identity, as the imperative language only allows her to march forwards. Personal memories and revelations about her character must be inserted in the appropriate format, keeping us as readers quite some distance away from this elusive character.
The ‘you’ permeating throughout is arresting, and again traps the reader into the narrative. I felt as though I were being directly addressed and ordered to fulfil these duties. I also found it to be a pointed commentary on the role of women within society and how the mutilation of the female body is consistently used (indeed in present times and throughout history) to gain power.
Beneath this, I found the story to be deeply haunting and thought it served as a warning – there are dangers in valuing women purely for their bodily functions and capabilities, for both men and women alike.
Black Box can be read on The New Yorker website here.