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Michael Joyce

The End of the Story

Excerpts from a recent e-mail exchange with Michael Joyce

Subject: Twilight
Date: 11/13/96
From: Michael Joyce
To: Ralph Lombreglia

RL: If Twilight, A Symphony actually were a symphony, who would be the composer? What "kind" of music would it be?

MJ: What a wonderful question! An invitation, really. Of course, like any author, I cannot really say what my own music is, but I wish it to be the music of symphonies not undone but unbegun, the music of nightfall and mothers singing, the music that Rilke says, in the third Duino Elegy, mixes "a more human space with night space" and so causes "our restless future to delay for awhile and shape itself to the folds of the bedroom curtains." It is the music that Magdalena speaks of in the beginning sequence of Twilight, when she notices "how the birds wove the twilight into a tent, all their night music becoming an actual fabric of caring." It is this same music that one hears in Glenn Gould's haunted and haunting songs within his playing of Bach (Gould or his ghost is, as you know, a character in -- and something of an organizing principle of -- Twilight).

So, if you wanted names that come to mind, they would be the names of composers, like Delius, who didn't write symphonies, or like Virgil Thompson, who was less known for his symphonies than for setting the words of Gertrude Stein -- the mother of hypertext -- to music. Or maybe Boulez, whose work informs what Umberto Eco (also a character in Twilight) has to say about the open work. Boulez's notion of serial thought as a "polyvalent thought process" is one way to describe the workings of hyperfiction. "Classical tonal thought," Boulez says, "is based on a world defined by gravitation and attraction; serial thought, on a world that is perpetually expanding." Twilight, the work or the moment, exists in the tensional momentum between gravitation and expansion.

RL: In your introduction to Twilight, A Symphony you write, "The stories, insofar as there are stories here, move in two central arcs, east toward life (though in the past) and west toward death (though in the future)." Why "insofar as there are stories here"? Is storytelling not an essential part of hyperfiction as you practice it?

MJ: Of course storytelling is an essential part of any hyperfiction, including my own. The statement in the introduction (which I tend to think of as a libretto) means merely to isolate a truth about our lives: we find ourselves through stories rather than make them, or if we make them, we make them in uncertain gestures and incomplete arcs. The "insofarness" here is one of flickering light (the computer screen itself is always a twilight) or dissipating mist. We must see forms and shape ourselves to stories in these lights or mists, but whether the stories are actually there is something no one can answer with any continuing certainty. Twilight is at least partly about the end of story in the beginning of uncertainty.

RL: You use some non-textual media in Twilight -- photos and graphical vignettes, sound clips, one piece of digital video -- but not so much that the work can really be called "multimedia." How do you view the place of mixed media in your own hyperfiction, at present and in the future?

MJ: I like the notion of limits implicit in your question which reminds me of how, while driving through the desert, distant mountains seem to recede before they near. You are right to try to characterize this shifting point where the textual veers to the margin of the visual and aural as short of the point where "the work can really be called 'multimedia'." It is exactly my intention to near that limit, to seek the space where the word and image oscillate or transpose. For me the images, video, and sounds in this fiction are not additions to its telling but instances of it. So-called multimedia is too often mere illustration, a diminishment of both the verbal and the visual, a mistrust of the medium and the viewer or reader.

That said, I cannot see that we can any longer write without taking the image into account. If nothing else, the image is the bound of language, the space whose silence marks its music. As I've said elsewhere it is, ironically, the pure boundedness of the linked space that will distinguish my field, hyperfiction, in the age of the Web. Thus I write a passing form in an uncertain medium. Passing since in hypertext the word is likely to have to renegotiate its relationship with images and audience and uncertain because there is no guarantee that any of these works will survive the shift from virtual machine to machine as computational platforms change (in a process analogous to the shift from clay table to parchment).

RL: There are many quite long entries in Twilight, windows with a fair amount of text to scroll through at one go. Is it my imagination that afternoon, a story used far fewer long sections? Since interactivity is about moving around in various ways, why didn't you shatter or "explode" these long entries into more short ones that would have represented more linking possibilities?

MJ: Yes, there are very long screens in Twilight -- quite intentionally. And yes, you are right, afternoon was very much an instance (even an archetype) of the chunky-versus-smooth style of hypertext (a dispute about which, by the way, has been active in the hypertext community since long before its recent outcropping in all the soi-disant Web stylebooks). For an artist, any limit or convention, however tentative or preliminary, is an invitation to transgression. Thus, for instance, in his infamous 1992 New York Times piece, which more or less brought hyperfiction to public attention, Bob Coover mentions that for all his writing life he has worked against the narrative line and suggests that with the onset of hyperfiction he would now have to work against infinite possibility.

I was especially aware in writing Twilight of working against hypertextual conventions, even and especially those that I am to some extent responsible for establishing. Once the short screen is the preferred hypertextual method then the long screen is a fresh delight, an endlessly unfolding space -- like Scheherazade's veils or the roll of cloth towel in an old-fashioned gas-station restroom.

RL: An enormous amount of labor is required to create a rich, ambitious hypertext of original prose. This suggests that such work might best be done as a collaboration, and of course many such collaborations are already underway, in the form of MUDs and the like, as well as in CD-ROM and Web projects. Do you think that most hyperfiction of the future will involve forsaking the notion of fiction-writing as a sole proprietorship?

MJ: It is a mistake, or at least an indulgence, to think that writing ever was a sole proprietorship. The reader was and is always there. Against Tom Boyle's swashbuckling claim in Mondo 2000 that there can never be a truly interactive novel because "a genius, a person, is responsible for it, and if you break the spell of it in any way it ruins it," I prefer the wisdom of Calvino's prescient 1960s essay "Cybernetics and Ghosts," where he insists that once computers "have dismantled and reassembled the process of literary composition, the decisive moment of literary life will be that of reading." Partly tongue in cheek, Calvino goes on to deconstruct Boyle's presiding "genius": "The author: that anachronistic personage, the bearer of messages, the director of consciences, the giver of lectures to cultural bodies . . . vanishes . . . to give place to a more thoughtful person, a person who will know that the author is a machine, and who will know how this machine works."

All that said, of course, you are right. The next current wave is, as Coover noted long ago, moving toward a studio sort of collaboration. Whether that development is right remains to be seen. On the one hand the inclination of the medium at the moment is to close hypermedia up before Calvino's thoughtful new reader gets a chance to see how the machine works; to Disneyfy it and put it into the hands of producers (in the process turning artists into that ignorant term, "content providers"). On the other hand hypermedia and especially the Web encourage the proliferation of artistic collaboratives that weave reader and writer, word and image, networked and in-hand hypertexts, real-time narratives like MOOs, and shaped narratives like hyperfictions, into a single dimensionless and expanding surface.

Although some very thoughtful critics and theorists like Greg Ulmer and Don Byrd argue compellingly that individually authored hyperfiction is a dead issue, although my own work increasingly has taken me into collaborations (with Rosemary Joyce and Carolyn Guyer in the forthcoming hypertext Sister Stories and with several authors in the Web hyperfictional essay Mola), and although Twilight makes use of and enfolds others' work and other works, I continue stubbornly to believe that there is some reason to write as an individual, open to others.

RL: How do you use conditional or "guarded" linking in Twilight? What artistic purposes do you try to serve by setting some links to be available only after a reader has followed certain other links?

MJ: The unfortunately named "guard fields," whose unfortunate namer I unfortunately am, are the genius of Storyspace hyperfictions and the single tool I most miss in writing for the Web (Eastgate will publish my Web-fiction "Twelve Blue" in a week or so on their site). Guards let the writer open and close the aperture of a fiction, shaping the reader's experience, creating narrative rhythms and recurrences, unveiling surprising vistas, disclosing unexpected turns. It is a mistake to think that hyperfiction removes possibilities from a writer, whether the possibility of suspense, the music of language, the expanse of a long screen, or the element of surprising turns. If anything, hyperfiction invites complicitous reveries, since the reader always can refocus upon the frame of the interface (looking at, rather than through, the fiction in Jay Bolter's phrase) and jump outside the sequence of the shaped experience of the guarded reading.

In this context I should note that besides using guard fields, Twilight also makes use of Storyspace's new random-link features in a few spaces, opening the text to a controlled sort of aleatory leap, a freefall and billow.

RL: Many Atlantic Unbound readers will know the by-now famous CD-ROM Myst. It isn't textual, yet it is a story-driven -- or at least script-driven -- work. Those countless Myst addicts weren't clicking away simply to get a slide show of pretty graphics. They were following a story, picking apart a mystery, luxuriating in a sensibility that was certainly literary in some sense. Thus the writing -- or "storyboarding" -- beneath Myst was as important as its much-admired 3D renderings. And this fact reminded me of William Goldman's comment about screenwriters in the movie industry: "Until we do our job, nobody else has a job." Did you admire or feel inspired by Myst? Do you think that the "narrative" and game-design elements of Myst suggest possible directions for hyperfiction?

MJ: It is almost commonplace now among hypermedia producers, especially those who see writers as so-called "content providers," to argue that the future of fiction lies in storyworlds. For instance, Marty Behrens of Sony Interactive argued as much at the Interactive Fiction Retreat at Sundance two years ago. The argument goes that writers will create storyworlds and possibly even character types or avatars that the audience will inhabit, MOO-like (perhaps in a punning sense as well, cowed and coralled as well as object-oriented). I am certain that because I love amusement parks, movies, James Joyce, and dreams, many people will also.

I am not now nor have I ever been a Myst player, but I love some people who have been and are. Although I can't claim an influence (or, if an influence, one rather from Cosmic Osmo and Manhole, the Millers' earlier opuses), I surely acknowledge a common heritage with them.

Film is, of course, the right place to look, but film in turn looks back to the novel, and especially the Russian novel with its own sense of luxuriating in sensibility and space. War and Peace is as spatial, serial, multiple, and polyvalent as any hypermediated work.

RL: You were a co-developer of Storyspace, the hypertext writing application used to create and present your hyperfictions. That makes you an artist-academic-technologist. Any comments on that tripartite identity?

MJ: Like most people these days I am much more comfortable with parts than wholes. My life is a patchwork. I suspect this question nods toward the tired notion of the renaissance man (and I thank you for not raising its tired frame directly). Rather than renaissance men, I believe in awakenings of all genders and kinds. We began this interview with music; forgive me if I end it there. If I am indeed a tripartite anything, and especially an artist-academic-technologist, I would only hope to be the kind that Archie Shepp is, an aging jazzman of a sort trying to get the sounds into and out of both the box and the world alike.

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