"insofar as there are stories here"
Read the opening of
Twilight, A Symphony
The End of the Story
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So Many Links, So Little Time
by Ralph Lombreglia
November 20, 1996
Poets may write sonnets, but the sonnet form makes them do it. Artistic forms -- with their specific opportunities and challenges and limits -- provoke artists to make art that they would never make otherwise. The late John Gardner (the author of On Moral Fiction) was fond of pointing out that novelists write novels because they have read novels. They have lived and observed "life" too, of course, but life alone (that is, life without the part of life known as reading novels) would not provoke the writing of a novel.
I say all this because this month I'm considering a piece of "hyperfiction" -- interactive dramatic narrative -- and I know that some people consider such a thing to be, by definition, an "unnatural" phenomenon. Well, human beings didn't arrive on the planet with the sonnet form in hand, so sonnets aren't particularly "natural" either. I'd describe my own position as sympathetic skepticism. I know enough about fiction writing and computer software to feel that something serious and legitimate and even exciting may be happening here. I also know that the real problem with hyperfiction is not that it's "wrong" but that doing it right is more difficult than most lay readers might ever suspect.
The sensible attitude toward hyperfiction is that it deserves the chance to demonstrate, over time, that its new technical possibilities are so inherently powerful and inspiring that they will provoke artists to make wondrous and meaningful new fictive creations heretofore impossible (emphasis on "wondrous and meaningful"). If the new techniques can't provoke a new kind of storytelling that enchants readers, then hyperfiction will go, all by itself, to that big section of the human basement reserved for all the things that seemed like good ideas at the time. No one need feel threatened by it.
One good early sign has been the work of Michael Joyce, whose reputation as a leading practitioner of hyperfiction has been based, until now, upon one work, afternoon, a story, which was composed in the late 1980s and was published, on floppy diskette, by Eastgate Systems in 1990. (Mr. Joyce is also the author of conventional novels and an academic treatise on hypertext, and he was a co-developer of the most widely used hypertext writing software, Storyspace.) Eastgate has just published Joyce's second piece of hyperfiction, Twilight, A Symphony, on CD-ROM for the Macintosh platform; a Windows version will be available shortly.
Michael Joyce is a talented fiction writer no matter what the medium or technology, and this remains, for me, the only starting place. Yes, I'm afraid that talent is still a requirement. A cubistic, hypertextual treatment will not redeem clunky prose, tin-ear dialogue, or boring stories about boredom ("Don't you get it? That's the point!"). Joyce is a worthy creator of complex fictive voices, a whole chorus of which populate Twilight. He selects good, serious, complicated underlying material, too, which naturally manifests his recurring preoccupations -- sex and death, primarily, that great, dependable dichotomy. Triangular love affairs provide some of the energy in his hyperfiction, as do the emotional pangs of ruined marriages and the effects of failed adult love on children. This is always modulated by the possibility of imminent death. In afternoon, a story, a man may have witnessed, from the opposite lane of a highway, the car wreck of his former wife and the death of his son. Part of that work's "plot" is the man's attempt to find out if this has actually happened. In Twilight an estranged parent kidnaps a child, and in another strand of the same work a woman seeks the services of a figure much like the real-life Dr. Jack Kevorkian -- the "Twilight Doctor" who helps people die. When she fails to connect with the doctor, the narrator (or one of the narrators) agrees to help her in his stead.
But these excellent instincts and premises are only part of the story. As in the work of many postmodernists, another aspect of Michael Joyce's sensibility militates against the straightforward embodiment of his material. That tension, of course, can be the source of brilliant, complex, deeply meaningful literary work; but it can also become a crucial impediment to reader involvement and gratification.
In the introduction to Twilight, what he refers to as its "libretto," Joyce summarizes the action of the stories in the new work but qualifies the summary with the statement, "insofar as there are stories here
Hyperfiction is much more difficult to discuss than normal fiction, partly because there is no "definitive experience." I can't really do justice to either of Michael Joyce's works here, but I came away feeling that his earlier afternoon, a story was the more successful piece. In afternoon he was more willing to cater to reader interest in character and action. He cut closer to the emotional bone and did less bravura brandishing of his stylistic or technological swords. In the earlier work, the kaleidoscopic presentation of story-stuff seemed to be the reason for using the technology. In the new work, the artistic agenda seems to be the willful disruption of story flow, often in favor of abstract ruminations, or detailed but digressive conversations and anecdotes, or commentary upon the act of writing hyperfiction and the community of hyperfiction authors. I was willing to take pleasure in well-placed parallel material that didn't strictly advance the plot, but I also wanted an accumulating pool of dramatic action and information about that abducted child, his aggrieved parent, the cancer-stricken woman and her quest for the doctor and for death. For my taste, those elements were underplayed, and thus my experience of Twilight came to be dominated by a feeling of being lost and unable to find a path.
As in afternoon, the text of Twilight appears in windows that replace their predecessors on-screen as one follows links through the work. Unlike afternoon, Twilight offers a second on-screen window that displays the project's overall structure in one of three views that can be used to navigate the sections of the work: an iconic map of "writing spaces," with links represented by arrows; a kind of flow chart; or a hierarchical outline. I availed myself of these maps, but usually they were too complex and inscrutable to be of any real help. I finally felt that here, too, Joyce had made the wiser choice in presenting afternoon, a story simply and austerely.
I've mentioned the multiplicity of intriguing voices in Twilight, but I must add that their intrinsic charm was often diminished by my disorientation. At many points in the work, try though I might, I couldn't say for certain who was speaking or what was going on. When I did understand who was speaking, he or she often wasn't talking about the things I yearned to know. I followed most links to and from most of the "writing spaces," but only a minority of them amounted to transitions that I found emotionally or dramatically rewarding. I rarely achieved a run of more than two or three linked passages that made distinct narrative sense in the sequence in which I happened to be experiencing them. Much as I admire Michael Joyce's linguistic gifts, not to mention his fearlessness, for me Twilight ultimately felt too arbitrary to be satisfying.
. . .
I said earlier that both the opportunities and the limits of artistic forms provoke artists to create new work. Actually, the limits are the opportunities. If you're writing a poem with a complex rhyme scheme, the seemingly game-like requirements will have, in the end, a profound influence not only on your word choices but on your entire thought process about the subject matter of the poem. In our lives the limit is death, and we know it. Where are the inherent limits of hypertext? Technically, there aren't any -- not even sequence and a "definitive experience," the only two limits of the novel. But unless hypertextual authors intend to write forever, and ask their readers to read forever, then of course some limits must be invented. Some form or internal logic appropriate to the work must be created and obeyed, and the perception of that logic's being stated and followed is the writer's claim on the reader's precious time.
It seems to me that since hypertexts offer no single "definitive experience" -- no single "authorized" textual reality -- their creators would want to take particular pains to give the reader enough to hold on to, enough substance to keep the reader feeling pleasure and gratification and to prevent him from having unpleasant feelings of vertigo, panic, or purposelessness. In reacting to Twilight, my aesthetic assumptions are really based on nothing more than that.
I grant, of course, that my reservations grow out of my own tastes and tolerances. And even as I raise them I remind myself of the inherent difficulty of such projects. Like any database, a hypertext becomes self-justifying only when there's a fairly large amount of material in it. If the options at any juncture aren't manifold, what's the point? Consider, too, that hyperfictionists have certain computer-programming techniques at their disposal, notably "conditional branching." That is, authors of hypertexts can "guard" text links so that readers cannot follow them until certain other links have been followed first. As in a game design, you might stipulate that readers can't go into the next room of the castle until they've picked up the three ruby rings or slain the five dragons -- and you needn't tell them how many rings and dragons there are, or even if there are any at all. Every time they visit that room of the castle, things could stand differently. You begin to see that every hyperfiction has the potential to require at least as many years to write as did Finnegans Wake -- and perhaps to require the same level of devotion from the reader as did that other Mr. Joyce.
Twilight is subtitled "A Symphony." If it's not "a story" (as Michael Joyce subtitled afternoon) or a prose poem, is a symphony actually what it is? That might depend on the composer you had in mind. In fact, Twilight might stand a comparison to atonal music -- music lacking a key center and usually written according to mechanistic or arithmetical rules that may have nothing to do with emotion or story. Or perhaps polytonality is the correct analogue. But is any musical analogy genuinely useful in understanding a composition in language? Would any musical comparison change one's sense of Twilight's signal-to-noise ratio? In the end, we have before us a piece of writing, or a collection of associated writings. And though the elements of music are not inherently representational, the elements of writing are. Words are sounds, yes, and they were undoubtedly sounds before they were anything else. But now they signify, and they won't be denied.
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.