Though definitely a writer, and an acclaimed one at that, Jennifer Egan does not allow the traditionally written word to contain her. In 2010, her book A Visit from the Goon Squad turned readerly heads by presenting itself neither as a novel nor a short story collection. It also contained an entire — chapter? story? — section in the form of a Powerpoint presentation. If you find yourself on the fence about plunging into Egan’s formally irreverent, Pulitzer Prize-winning work, you can sample its first section (not the Powerpoint one, you may feel relieved to hear) as “Found Objects,” the way the New Yorker ran it in 2007. If the loose-ends music-industry worker protagonist’s brush with kleptomania intrigues you, and if you value authorial interpretation, you can watch Egan herself read a bit of the section above. The New Yorker has also run two other pieces of Egan’s Goon Squad-era writing on its fiction pages: “Safari” and “Ask Me if I Care.” Then comes “Black Box.”
Egan composed “Black Box” for Twitter, where it ran over ten nights on the New Yorker’s NYerFiction account. But she didn’t write it on Twitter, opting instead for longhand in a Japanese notebook printed with rectangular boxes. You can find all the tweets that comprise the story collected at Paste, and New Yorker subscribers can read the whole thing in a slightly more traditional form here. Egan spent a year on the story, which she describes as “a series of terse mental dispatches from a female spy of the future, working undercover by the Mediterranean Sea.” I’ve seen many a literary academic go into raptures about the implications of Twitter, but here we have an artist executing a genuinely intriguing project with “the odd poetry that can happen in a hundred and forty characters.” Certain generations of writers and thinkers make such a big deal about that 14o-character limit, but I notice that nobody under 35 blinks an eye at it. It’s just the way we communicate now — Egan must understand this makes it one of the most important mediums for writers to take on. You can hear her discuss that and more with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman on the magazine’s podcast.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.