The death of the traditional book

Black Box - Jennifer Egan

Despite this being a novella and also appearing in a magazine, I simply could not leave off making some comments on this rather unusual piece of literature. I guess this is something that you would call post-modern, but the way the story is constructed, and the uniqueness of it, is what makes it intriguing. Basically it is a simple spy story, but it was originally told through a number of Twitter™ posts over a period of a week and the story unfolds through a number of instructions to a spy (who, by the way, is not getting paid for her work).

The protagonist of the story is a volunteer American spy who goes to the south of France to infiltrate an organisation and obtain some secret information. The thing is that we do not know who this person is (she is never named), we do not know what the information is, or who the organisation is, but I do not think that detracts from the work in itself because what it does is that it leaves that part of the story up to us to imagine.

I guess this is a classic example of what one would consider post-modern literature. The idea has moved on from where the the images of the characters in our head differ from reader to reader (one person's vision of Bilbo Baggins would differ from almost every other) to the actual guts of the story being determined individually by all who read it. All we know is that she is a beauty (once again relative to the reader's perception of beauty), and that she is on a mission to extract information. What that information, who the mark is, what the organisation is, and what this person is back in the United States is (though we know that her husband is black) is left up to us to determine. Even the bulk of the dialogue is left for us to imagine, since, as I said, the story is constructed by using instructions from a spy manual.

It took me a little time to work out what was going on, but that is not surprising since at the start is seems that it is simply a random collection of comments, posted as Twitter posts, that do not seem to have any particular connection, but as we move through the story it becomes clear that they are instructions, and then it becomes clear that it is a spy story. At first I thought it was simply instructions to a beautiful woman on how to handle a man, and I guess in some ways the story can also be as such. It has, in a sense, a dual purpose. It is also, in a sense a movement from the unreal and the chaotic to the ordered and it takes time for this to come about. We, the reader, no doubt, are meant to be confused, to try to make sense of and understand what it going on, in the same way that we are meant to try to make sense of and understand life.

It also shows us how technology has changed the way we communicate. Ten years ago if you went on a holiday you would only be able to describe your experiences through emails to a select group of friends with photos attached to those emails, and ten years before that it would be over a beer at a pub once you had returned home. However these days you can follow people's exploits over Facebook, while seeing the photos appear as they are taken (though I would upload them when I had some down time at my hotel or in the airport). When I travelled around Australia I would only be able to update my status when I had access to a computer, but now I have a laptop that has been to Europe twice and Hong Kong once.

One wonders if this is how literature is going to develop and whether the traditional book is on its way out. Maybe, maybe not. We follow people on Twitter (well, I don't) and we follow people in Facebook. The idea of the imaginary novel may disappear as we are able to see people's lives more as they are posted on the internet for the world to see. Of course, some people seem to have no shame in what they post on the internet, and others are much more reserved, but still, the way we communicate seems to be changing day by day.