Jessica Gross discusses “Black Box”


On Thursday, February 25, LABAlive will present an evening of fiction, presentations, and subversive teachings exploring our relationship with beauty. The evening will feature teachings by Ruby Namdar and work by fellows Gal Beckerman, Gon Ben Ari, and Jessica Gross, who will read a new short story, “Black Box.”

Gross talks about her new work and the inspiration she found in our house of study.

Tell us about your project. 

Throughout the fellowship thus far, I’ve been so inspired to write new stories and tinker with old ones for an ongoing collection, Body. The stories all feature characters whose complex psyches are revealed through their relationships — often adversarial — with their own physicality. The story I’ll read at this event, “Black Box,” is set in a soup kitchen, where a young woman, volunteering for the afternoon, meets David, an extremely handsome homeless man. The story is both about how he got there (via a conflicted relationship with his own beauty and with how he’s been treated as a result of it, in ways both real and imagined) and how his beauty functions in this setting, and given the very odd power dynamics.

How do you see it developing in the future?

I’d like to keep working on and revising this particular story — often, when I lay work aside for a time and come back to it with fresh eyes, new threads and approaches present themselves. More broadly, I plan to keep writing new material for this collection.

Any new thoughts about beauty?

I’m still wrestling with so much of what we’ve discussed. I came into the fellowship eager to discuss beauty’s idiosyncrasies, as I’ve historically approached beauty with a sense of perfectionism that stems from rigidity and fear of the unknown. Only recently have I come to see beauty as just the opposite — the nuanced, the unexpected. Moreover, I’ve come to really understand all the ways in which beauty is subjective, and how inextricable human beauty is from presentation, confidence, and other intangibles. So it’s been a bit strange (and frankly uncomfortable!) to refocus on human beauty as defined by objective criteria — to speak about the ways in which “beautiful people” are advantaged, and how connected beauty is with both divinity and tragedy. All of which is to say, lots of thoughts, but not necessarily effable ones yet! Brain: churning.

Which of the texts we’ve studied so far, or the discussions we’ve had, have most stuck in your mind, and why?

By far, it’s the image of David, wrecked by the news of his beautiful son Absalom’s death, bellowing out in his single moment of humanity. That text simply devastated me. It’s almost unbearably tragic — not just the knowledge of how painful Absalom’s death must have been to prompt stoic David to unleash this torrent of emotion, but also how terrible it must have been for David to be so highly bound, unconnected, above human emotion the rest of the time. 

How have they, or other texts, inspired this work?

Actually, our discussion of this text was the prompt for the creation of this story. The title, “Black Box,” is a direct quote from Ruby, who described David as a black box who was beloved, but couldn’t love in return. Into my mind sprang this handsome black box of a modern-day David. Of course, once I started writing, the character took on dimensions of his own, morphing farther and farther away from the David of the Bible until he was quite his own man. But our discussion was, without a doubt, the seed.