I hope you’ve been reading novelist Jennifer Egan’s serial spy story on Twitter these past nine evenings.
Last Sunday night, it began like this:
The e-verse is not killing great writing; it’s providing more and more fascinating ways to deliver it.
Last year I fell in love with Dan Sinker’s brilliant foray into serialized Twitter performance art as @MayorEmanuel. Sinker satirized the real Rahm’s mayoral campaign in real time, somehow managing to sneak in a multitude of Chicago political in-jokes and tell a sweeping epic story with elements of myth and fairy tale, all the while raising profanity to an art form. It was genius.
This week, Jennifer Egan, one of my favorite authors, has answered with her own marvelous serialized story for The New Yorker Magazine. “Black Box,” a spy yarn told on ten consecutive nights, is a series of Twitter feeds that deliver one morsel of story every minute for an hour. At first, I checked the story at the end of each feed, reading it as an epic poem of sorts, complete on the page.
But for the last few nights, I’ve devoured the tale minute by minute as it feeds. What’s striking is that each 140-character bite stands alone as an idea, a truism, a tiny story all its own. Like this:
Egan writes each piece as if you, the reader, are a honey-trap spy-in-training, reading a manual on how to infiltrate a dangerous criminal network. Because of the odd POV, each tweet feels slightly dreamy and distant and poetic. But string them together, and the narrative arc quietly reveals itself, with the feel of a modern Homeric epic. The guidebook’s didactic precepts soon begin to play out with pointed specificity, and the story of a talented young woman risking her life for a dangerous mission comes into focus.
It’s brilliant and riveting and fun, fun enough to compel me to refresh Twitter every minute for an hour as a backyard party undulates all around me, just so I can taste each bite as it’s served warm. On Wednesday night, I monitored the feed as I idled at a Fat-Mo’s drive-thru window, a crazy mammato-cumulus golden sky and rainbow filling my windshield. A pretty nice way to pass a quarter-hour wait.
For the sake of all us word-surfers, I hope to see more of this kind of innovative storytelling, as masterfully executed as this—with nods to old magazine serials and the skyward possibility of new media. You can catch up with Egan’s story here. And tonight’s the last night to read the tweets in real time, at @NYerFiction, from 8-9pm Eastern.
Related post: Genius: 140 Characters and the F-word