Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553
The “black box” of the title refers to the piece of equipment carried on airplanes that provides an exact recording of what goes on in the cockpit. It is designed to help investigators determine why an airplane crashed. In this novel, the black box is the sequence of letters and telegrams exchanged by the characters that provide an account of the actions they take and the motivations for those actions. By contrast with the black box on a plane, however, these communications are always subject to revision and contradiction, so that none of the characters or the reader can be sure of what can be believed.
Oz claims that he did not start out trying to write an epistolary novel, but that the characters and the action dictated the form as it went along. Unlike some of his earlier novels, which were centered entirely on Israel, the characters in this novel go to Europe and the United States, in part a recognition of the extent to which yeridah (emigration out of Israel) has become a feature of Jewish life.
Ilana initiates the correspondence by writing to Alec, her former husband, a successful military leader turned scholar, who has made a study of fanaticism and is now living in Chicago. Ilana’s current husband, Michel, is an observant Jew, and her opening letter to Alec is full of protestations of love for Michel. The only reason she is writing her former husband, she claims, is out of concern for Boaz, the son the two had.
As the novel unfolds, almost every aspect of the initial letter becomes open to question, and the statements in subsequent letters from Ilana’s former and current husbands express some of that uncertainty. Mixed in with the relationships between those three are Boaz, Alec’s legal representative in Israel, and Ilana’s sister. Alec is prepared to give his son some money, but he distrusts the influence of Michel, whom he sees as a fanatic. Alec’s legal representative tries to corrupt Michel and succeeds admirably. The problem is that the corrupted Michel is still a human being, and he is puzzled by the extent to which his wife still seems captivated by her former husband.
Boaz takes on the responsibility of running a commune and wishes a plague on the houses of both his father and stepfather. Ilana admits to retaining an affection, with a strong physical component, for Alec, and she reunites with him by the end of the book, telling Michel that Alec is dying and needs someone to look after him. Michel is inclined to cite biblical texts in his correspondence, even if the point is not always clear to the recipient. The tone of Ilana’s final letter to Michel echoes many of the details of her initial letter to Alec.
The men in this novel are characteristic of various aspects of Israeli society. Ilana, however, is a force capable of disrupting the men’s lives and rearranging them as she chooses. After expressing herself in the strongest possible terms in a letter, she will admit in the next letter that what she had previously written was a lie. One detects an echo of the suicide of Oz’s mother, deceiving those who thought she had not lost touch with the realities of life.
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