Jennifer Egan’s short story “Black Box” was first published on the New Yorker’s Twitter account as a series of 606 tweets released at the rate of one per minute for an hour on consecutive evenings in May-June 2012. If its unusual mode of publication garnered widespread attention, its success derives from its brilliant inhabiting of the literary possibilities offered both by the tweet and by serial digital publication. I have argued elsewhere that, since the turn of the century, postmodernism has been superseded as our contemporary cultural dominant by what I call digimodernism, the textual, cultural, and artistic practices prompted by new digital technologies. Metamodernism reads digimodernism as one of the dimensions or strands characterizing the cultural landscape after postmodernism. “Black Box,” in my view, is probably the first fully-fledged and triumphant digimodernist work of literature.
It was not for all that the first literary piece to take the shape of a pre-existing digital platform: Sam North’s The Velvet Rooms (2006), for instance, largely comprised exchanges on an internet forum, though incorporated into a traditional novel framework, and of course much literature before Egan had already been published online, including on Twitter. “Black Box” is notable for the completeness with which it surrenders formally and artistically to the textual dictates of Twitter, which is not merely the story’s medium of publication but also its expressive ground and horizon. Above all, the formal challenges Twitter poses would have been those of economy and continuity: each tweet would have to consist of 140 characters or fewer, and to stand alone as a single self-contained thought while simultaneously feeding into an ongoing story. Egan’s solution was first to adopt the thriller genre, with its conventional deployment of consecutive or real narrative time, its clipped, forensic phrasing, and its atmosphere of menace through verbal tautness and cryptic, enigmatic suggestiveness. Her prose is concise, exact, lucid, and witty, and her poetically hypnotic, rhythmic phrases, often driven by connecting contrasts and parallels, are adapted to the task. With the thriller genre also came much of her story’s furniture: its daunting mission undertaken by a heroic agent, its shadowy, powerful, and frightening men, its ambiguously beautiful women, and its exotic location.
Some saw “Black Box”’s precursor in the serial publication in magazines of the Victorian novel, though this is to overlook the vast difference of scale: at 8,000 words, Egan’s story is closer to the length of a single monthly installment of Dickens’s or Hardy’s latest multivolume offering. Its forerunners seem to me rather, on one side, the constrained writing of a Georges Perec or Walter Abish, with their fictions omitting the letter “e” and chapters of words beginning with the same letter. In contrast, though, to the deliberate semi-arbitrariness of such constraints, “Black Box” adapts wholly and seemingly naturally to the demands of Twitter for brevity and distinctiveness. Eschewing the ludic, absurdist, and hyperconscious artifice of an earlier writing often identified as postmodernist, Egan embraces the virtues and pleasures of traditional storytelling delivered through a wholly new, digital format. In so doing, she accords her fictive strategies with those of sociologically dominant narrative forms in contemporary popular culture, which I have discussed as digimodernist textual endlessness, where individual episodes released at regular intervals both stand alone and contribute to a continuing story. Her use of genre and choice of protagonist reinforce this rapprochement.
Egan’s other forerunner appears to me to be the epigrammatic forms of a writer such as La Rochefoucauld: “A smile is like a door that is both open and closed”; “Profanity sounds the same in every language”; “Silence after a roaring motor is a sound of its own.” Her futuristic agent has various physical implants to aid her, including a device that records her thoughts and thereby provides a documentary of her mission for those who sent her. This “black box,” once retrieved, will also function as an instruction manual for agent trainees to come. The story is therefore recounted through general principles that offer advice for interpreting and behaving in the...