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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Black Box

Amos Oz

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To purchase Black Box

Title: Black Box
Author: Amos Oz
Genre: Novel
Written: 1987 (Eng. 1988)
Length: 259 pages
Original in: Hebrew
Availability: Black Box - US
Black Box - UK
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La boîte noire - France
Black Box - Deutschland
La scatola nera - Italia
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  • Hebrew title: קופסה שחורה
  • Translated by Nicholas De Lange with the author

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fairly effective epistolary novel of modern Israel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 29/5/1988 Richard Eder
The NY Times Book Rev. . 24/4/1988 Mary Gordon

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Black Box -- the title, referring to the instrument that analyzes plane crashes, is an image for Alec's and Ilana's dissection of their former marriage -- can become prosy at times. Occasionally, the epistolary form has to carry too much narrative and descriptive weight. But it is astonishingly successful in fusing the histories and characters of Alec and Michel with what they represent. They are utterly visible and believable as individuals, though pitched in a perpetual emotional overdrive." - Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The paradox, or perhaps the mystery of Black Box, is that it is only by pushing their natural extremism to its limits that the characters are able to come together in peace. Each of them lives his or her life on one or another hysterical edge. (...) The achievement of Black Box rests in its mastery of various voices, gracefully rendered in a translation from Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange with the author." - Mary Gordon, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Black Box is an epistolary novel, consisting almost entirely of the letters (and telegrams) several family members (and their lawyers) send each other over the course of 1976. Set in pre-e-mail times, and with telephone connections unavailable, undependable, or undesirable, the letter is the preferred means of communication here. Offering neither the immediacy of conversation, inward-looking -- though always addressed to another, there is something very solitary about letter-writing, which is a conversation with oneself before anything else --, and allowing both for carefully weighed words as well as endless exposition (in ways face-to-face confrontations rarely do), the various correspondents carefully position themselves vis-à-vis each other. It makes for intriguing family drama, and Oz uses it to good effect to present a slice of the modern (if no longer quite contemporary) Israeli condition.
       The set-up involves Ilana getting back in touch with her former husband, Alexander A. Gideon, a renowned scholar who left Israel and now teaches at 'Midwest University' in Chicago. The divorce was bitter and there has been practically no communication between the two since. Ilana has remarried -- her husband, Michel-Henri Sommo, is an Algerian Jew who grew up in Paris and now teaches French -- and she has a young daughter with him. Boaz, the son from her marriage to Gideon -- though there are possibly some paternity issues there -- is in his late teens, and has proven to be quite unmanageable, even getting in trouble with the law. Gideon has a decent amount of money, and some land holdings in Israel -- his father's wealth, with the old man now institutionalized, having more or less lost his mind. Gideon's affairs are handled by a lawyer, Manfred Zakheim -- "a kind of Heidelberg Machiavelli" (which is putting it ... kindly).
       It begins with Ilana needing help with Boaz, but soon is also about larger sums of money. Admitting to adultery when they divorced, Ilana got nothing and Gideon owes her nothing -- even in child support (there was a paternity issue about Boaz, which went unresolved at the time). Her new husband has no problem asking for quite a good deal of money -- and Gideon is willing to help the couple out. The initial boon this appears to be soon, however, also becomes something of a burden: Michael is suddenly no longer the (poor) man Ilana married, but rather can finally get into the business (with an eye also towards politics) that he wants to.
       The already very independent Boaz stumbles into a few more problems, but Gideon undertakes to help him as well -- to the annoyance of Michael, who tries to be a different sort of good influence on the lad. There's also no wiping of any slates clean: each action provokes a reaction, and the letters and telegrams zip back and forth, from Boaz's semi-literate ones (he really didn't pay much attention at school) to the lawyers trying to talk some sense into their clients (they repeatedly try to resign, too, but always come around eventually). Devout Michael almost always presents an almost affable demeanor but is focused entirely on his Jewish program -- religion and his vision of Israel trump all else for him (so he does kind of lose it near the end, when the domestic part of his life becomes a bit frayed). Ilana and Gideon meanwhile are still trying to figure out the past and all its fallout: as Gideon writes to her:

As after a plane crash, we have sat down and analyzed, by correspondence, the contents of the black box.
       Of course, it doesn't turn out to be quite so simple -- or so data-driven neutral (as a black box might suggest). Oz even ups the ante by giving Gideon an added vulnerability that helps upset whatever order might be in their lives (and also leads him back to Israel).
       The proximity of many of the actors is a challenge to the form Oz has chosen; he always has to keep at least some of the characters physically separate in order for this letter-writing business to still make sense. Throughout, too, he has to present the changes in circumstances via the letters -- and so occasionally there's an awful lot of description of what has happened presented in these communications, which doesn't ring entirely authentic. On the whole, however, Oz does handle the epistolary approach well: with the telegrams to the lawyers and the mix and match back and forth between the characters there's sufficient variety that the story keeps moving at a good pace. It's the longer, from-the-heart type communications that occasionally bog things down, but overall the approach works well.
       Black Box also offers an interesting picture of modern Israel, with the characters representing various strains of it, tugged in very different directions. Free-spirited and ultimately good-natured Boaz is one extreme, the religiously devoted (i.e. obsessed) Michael another, but characters from Gideon to Gideon's father to lawyer Zakheim all also represent some of the forces and personalities shaping the nation. Almost all, too, have a sympathetic side to them, even as they all show their ugly sides, too. The female figures do feel slightly underdeveloped -- and the visiting free-spirits that float around Boaz, as well toddler Madeleine Yifat, Ilana and Michael's daughter, in particular feel too simply like pawns on Oz's chessboard.
       Ilana and Gideon's acrimonious divorce suggests characters who are extremes -- as does Michael's religious obsession (and, in a different way, Boaz's laid-back approach to life (with the occasional explosion)) -- but even that doesn't seem quite enough foundation for the extremes found in Black Box: spanning less than a year, what the characters go through makes for quite the train-wreck. Reduced to letters, Oz tries to get at the essence of it -- black box style -- and he's fairly successful. Still, he can't quite transcend the limits of the epistolary genre (or exploit them fully), and falls a bit short of complete success here.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 March 2013

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Black Box: Reviews: Amos Oz:
  • The complete review's Amos Oz page
Other books by Amos Oz under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Israeli author Amos Oz (עמוס עוז) was born in 1939.

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© 2013 the complete review

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