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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter July 4, 2018

Your body is our black box: Narrating nations in second-person fiction by Edna O’Brien and Jennifer Egan

Daniel Aureliano Newman

Abstract

For a century, the disorienting effects of second-person narration have seemed peculiarly well suited to representing the experiential confusions and political contradictions of inhabiting a female body in times of national crisis. This essay examines such effects in Edna O’Brien’s A pagan place and Jennifer Egan’s “Black box,” very different narratives that similarly exploit the deictic and ontological uncertainties of second-person address. Second person in O’Brien’s novel participates in its depiction of a sexually naïve rural Irish girl confronting the conflicting pressures of enforced chastity and reproductive futurism in the name of the Irish State. Emphasis is placed on the narrative’s unusual use of past-tense second-person narration and its intriguing overlap with O’Brien’s nonfictional writings. In Egan’s story, the protean and multivocal second person suggests a sinister fusion of individual and governmental agency, effected through the protagonist’s cybernetically-enhanced body. The result is a deceptively simple critique of post-9/11 American foreign policy as an extension of paternalism and patriarchy in the domestic sphere. The patterns investigated in this paper shed light on other recent uses of the second person in other experimental narratives concerned with identity, self-formation among disenfranchised individuals, and resistance to political and cultural oppression.

Acknowledgements

Early versions of this essay, written during a postdoctoral fellowship funded by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada, were presented at the Modernist Studies Association conference in 2014, at the English Department at McGill University in 2016, and at the Literature Section at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2017. I thank audience members for their insightful questions and suggestions, as well as Alyson Brickey for her comments on the final draft.

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Published Online: 2018-07-04
Published in Print: 2018-06-28

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