Analysing Works of Hyperfiction

Analysing Works of Hyperfiction

Introduction

In undertaking an examination of the special affordances to writing that hyperfiction allows, an overview of the development of hyperfiction through the study of central hypertexts would prove very valuable. These texts signalled in the new writing form, and in their interactive capabilities, as well as non-linearity and multi-perspectives, represent a challenge to the sequentiality of printed text. The hypertext titles under examination are Afternoon: a story by Michael Joyce,[1] Patchwork Girl by Shelley Jackson,[2] and Victory Garden by Stuart Moulthrop.[3] Surveying the development of hyperfiction narrative techniques through these hypertexts, helped to inform what shape my hyperfiction would eventually take.

These hyperfiction works are different from the proto-hyperfiction examined in the previous chapter in that they are born-digital. This means that the same narrative is not fully reproducible in another medium, such as printed text. An important rubric throughout this chapter has been questioning whether or not the hypertexts under examination would function the same in printed form. This has been useful in my own hyperfiction-writing process also. The fact is important because it shows a concerted effort on the part of the author to engage fully with the hypertext form. They made the decision that the best way to communicate their text was through hyperfiction, and designed the text accordingly. All of the hypertexts that will be looked at demonstrate a deep engagement with the mode. These hypertexts adopt non-linearity and multi-perspectives not just in form but in content as well, making them very successful examples of hyperfiction-writing.

Afternoon: a story      

Afternoon: a story first appeared as a hypertext in 1987, but was re-engineered in 1990 for the hypertext-writing software Storyspace, which the author Michael Joyce helped to develop. It was one of the very first hypertexts, containing 539 separate sections or lexias, held together with over 900 hyperlinks. The user begins with the section “I Want to Say”, which is pertinent, as it prefigures the difficulty the narrator has in addressing certain painful subjects. The user clicks on different links with each lexia or fragment, which transports them to various different strands and narrative actualities.

afternoon-1

Figure 1: afternoon: a story title page (Source: Eastgate Systems).

Afternoon is a very influential hypertext as it was one of the first to be made widely available. It also has a built-in feature which enables first-time users to come to grips with the links in hyperfiction. If they are unsure which hyperlink to click on, they can abdicate the decision by pressing the <enter> key. This returns the default narrative, which in a cursory way gives the user a sense of the plot and characters, only to arrive at an abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion. Jill Walker opted for the default narrative for her first of four eventual readings, each additional one revealing a new, often contradictory, narrative retelling: “This default sequence eases the new reader into reading Afternoon. Reading this sequence gave me enough background information to start enjoying the leaps between story lines, and to understand connections where I’d earlier only been confused” (Walker).[4]

The competing narratives become available through re-reading of the hypertext, with some lexia remaining closed-off until the second or third read-through. With this additional information and careful re-reading, details concerning the main character slowly start to collect. The new, supplementary information then manages to alter the meaning of the lexia read originally: “Repetition is one of the most important rhetorical figures in Afternoon. We re-read nodes, re-interpret nodes read in a new context or we try frantically to escape from relentless loops of re-reading” (Walker). This is something I would incorporate into my own hypertext, where competing, parallel narratives would offer additional detail to one telling of events, in the aim of altering the reader’s initial impression of a character.

The uncertainty surrounding the branching narratives serves to decentre the hyperfiction’s overall structure. The way in which two competing narratives are held at the same time denotes a degree of simultaneity also. As Janet H. Murray points out, “Multiform narrative attempts to give a simultaneous form to these possibilities, to allow us to hold in our minds at the same time multiple contradictory alternatives” (Murray 37-38).[5] Further to the subject of synchronicity in hypertexts, is the speed at which hyperlinks operate. Flitting between lexia through hyperlinks occurs almost simultaneously – not that it takes long for readers to turn a page or cast their eye to the next new paragraph in a printed text. Programmatically at least the individual lexia exist simultaneously, but there is a slight delay on the part of the reader, for reasons of comprehension.

The branching, overlapping structure of Afternoon also proves very ripe for different uses of multi-perspectives. This can be seen in the jumping between the 539 different sections that make up the text. Not only does this allow for wholly different and competing narrative events, but also multiple viewpoints of the same event. This is similar to the multiple perspectives in Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway, as well as the works of Faulkner. In addition the branching narrative allows for the possibility of competing, contradictory narratives. As Bolter points out, the hypertext form enables the author to achieve what up to now was almost prohibitively complex – multiple and conflicting narrative potentialities: “[Afternoon] does openly and with ease what experimental writers in print could do only with great difficulty. It offers a narrative that encompasses contradictory possibilities” (Bolter 143).[6] This proved very useful in my experience of writing a hypertext, with the competing parallel narratives and viewpoints something I wished to replicate.

An interesting question in relation to these branching narratives of varying length, where multiple re-readings are necessary, is how is closure actually achieved? With a text that offers so much opportunity for re-reading, how much is sufficient, how will the reader know when exactly, without a clear declaration of “The end”? Joyce banks on one of two things occurring with the reader, that they either grow bored and give up, or through the endlessly recursive reading strategy, will have collected what feels to them sufficient information to induce feelings of closure. Either way, the decision is in the hands of the reader: “Joyce makes the responsibility for closure, for stopping, entirely the reader’s” (Landow 229).[7] This degree of reader autonomy is tied to interactivity – the reader can at any point return to the start screen and pursue a different route, taking another stab at the hypertext, very much like being in a video game, hitting reload, and starting the same level again. Also connected to this is nonsequentiality, as this approach subverts the traditionally-held importance of beginning, middle and end – especially the end, in this case.

Joyce problematizes the sense of closure: it does not have to be reached by the normal end to a text, but at any point in a reading. Joyce is quoted saying as much: “‘Closure is, as in any fiction, a suspect quality, although here it is made manifest. When the story no longer progresses, or when it cycles, or when you tire of the paths, the experience of reading it ends’” (Landow). George Landow also observes the difficulty in concluding a hypertext such as Afternoon, and attributes this to its branching structure: “the problems that hypertext branching create for narrativity appear with particular clarity in the matter of beginning and ending stories” (226).

The structure of Afternoon is highly variable, with the different hyperlinks transporting the reader to different lexias, narrators, and chronologies. The highly confused narrative, taken as a whole, resembles in several ways the perception of time by the character Benjy in The Sound and the Fury. Like with Faulkner’s text, re-reading is necessary to make sense of Joyce’s varying plots and narratives, as well as its choppy chronology.

Some critics do question to what degree Joyce’s branching, fragmented narrative is multi-linear, however. The act of reading is inherently linear – the user is strictly capable of reading one text at a time, even if that text exhibits multi-linear characteristics. As George Landow argues in “Is Hypertext Fiction Possible?”, it could be that readers have been culturally conditioned to expect linear instead of non-linear narratives: “[An] explanation might center on the claim that human beings in all times and cultures, including our own, depend on linear narrative. ‘We tell stories’, Joan Didion points out, ‘in order to live.” Perhaps linear narrative has too much human importance to abandon’” (265).

Bolter, who worked closely with Joyce on developing the Storyspace programme that Afternoon is written with, argues that despite the clearly branching, non-linear structure of the text, the order that the plot adopts has not evolved in the same way: “Paths can have narrative force, as when Peter tries to find out whether his wife and son have been in an automobile accident. Following this trajectory makes the story quite linear. Peter fights his way through various telephone calls, in an effort to get information” (Bolter 126).

Connected to this, the structure of Afternoon cannot be said to be entirely multi-linear. These narrative cycles that readers find themselves trapped inside, combined with a prescriptive albeit multiple narrative structure, make the hypertext arguably more instead of less linear. Certain nodes can only be accessed on the third or fourth reading, which closes off potential avenues of reading on the first time round. As Espen Aarseth writes, in this instance at least the traditional codex may be more instead of less open: “Hyperfictions written in Storyspace, like [Afternoon], do not allow its readers free browsing, unlike any codex fiction in existence. The reader’s freedom from linear sequence, which is often held up as the political and cognitive strength of hypertext, is a promise easily retracted and wholly dependent on the hypertext’s system in question” (Aarseth 75).

Only once the reader has read through the hypertext fragments in the preferred sequence does the narrative then reveal itself. Here it becomes a matter not of understanding, but of participation – the user must stay the course, and at least click on the links in the correct order, though an informed decision based on careful readings would expedite things. Hayles finds the power that Joyce holds over the narrative to be almost tyrannical: “[Joyce’s] control over these sequences is palpable, for several of them do not allow any exit… until the reader has clicked through the entire sequence, creating an oppressive sense of being required to jump through the same series of hoops numerous times” (Hayles, Electronic Literature, 62-63).[9]

In this way the reader participates in what links or narrative threads to pursue, and is in effect critiquing the narrative, interpreting and passing judgement on it. As mentioned in the introduction, this degree of participation helps to author in the text, with the reader’s thoughts informing the text’s overall structure: “In Afternoon we may get lost in Peter’s compelling narrative of his search for his son, but the need to make choices keeps pulling us back to the fact that we as readers are participating in the making of a fiction. We are constantly critiquing the nature of these choices as we read” (Bolter 167).

While Afternoon may restrict its reader’s passage in ways that other hypertexts explored here do not, this is in fact an important part of the story, and reflects the main character’s unsuccessful attempt to avoid confronting his past. The initial confusion experienced by the reader simulates the emotional turmoil of the main character Peter: “The needs of the reader to struggle with the story mirrors the struggle that the character goes through” (126).

The events that affect the main character Peter are drip-fed to the reader, and depending on the chosen hyperlinks, can have vastly different outcomes. But the struggle on the reader’s part to understand the narrative is reflected by Peter within the plot. The equivocal nature of Peter’s thought processes as he narrates events is indicative of a form of post-traumatic self-denial. Hidden within the narrative strands is a painful truth Peter tries to evade rather than face. Janet Murray observes, “[Joyce] conceals a key section in a way that mirrors the protagonist’s self-deceit. Only after repeated evasions can readers reach the lexia in which Peter will call his therapist and face his memory of his own culpability in the accident” (Murray 58).

The hypertext’s asymptotic shape, which circles these facts but generally avoids them, can be seen as an act of sublimation on the narrator’s part, in an effort of avoiding these disturbing realisations: “the reader discovers that Peter [may be responsible for his ex-wife and son’s deaths]. This discovery explains the approach-avoidance pattern Peter displays in attempting to find out where his son is; he does not want to face what in some sense he already knows” (Hayles, Electronic Literature, 61). The labyrinthine shape of the winding structure can also be compared to the “Wandering Rocks” chapter in the other Joyce’s Ulysses.

Pursuing the question can Afternoon be refashioned into a printed text and still function the same, like the proto-hypertexts analysed in the previous chapter, the answer is no. The high levels of interactivity, the branching, parallel narratives, and the need for the user to revisit certain sections several times before being allowed to progress, are not transferrable. Afternoon could only exist as a hypertext. Aspects of Afternoon I would in turn borrow for my hypertext were the branching narrative and different chronologies, in addition to the rejection of an ending or closure. However one aspect or element I was unable to reproduce, was the variable narrative that alters depending on what links are pursued. This seemed like a logistical step too far for my hypertext.

Patchwork Girl

While Afternoon was a successful iteration of interactive fiction, it was not sufficiently open or dynamic – while parallel narratives were possible, the route that the reader might take through the text was ultimately quite restricted. However this was not the case with Patchwork Girl. Produced by Shelley Jackson in 1995, using the same programme as Joyce with Afternoon, the Storyspace system, another key difference between them is that Patchwork Girl is heavily visual.

The hypertext presents the user with visual hyperlinks in the form of parts of a female body. Jackson compounds Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with The Patchwork Girl of Oz by L. Frank Baum to produce the highly recursive and referential text. By clicking on a body part or organ, the user is whisked away to connected narrative fragments: “Patchwork Girl engaged the [Storyspace] tool in significantly different ways. In an important innovation, it drew connections between the electronic text and the female monster’s fragmented body” (Hayles, Writing Machines, 37-38).[10]

The reader is presented with an anatomical diagram of a human female, and encouraged to click on any of the portioned, differently-labelled sections of her body (Figure 2). Patchwork Girl is visual where Afternoon is not, and presenting the reader with the individual parts all at once confronts the reader with new narrative capabilities. It can be a lot to stomach for the reader at first; like a dinner plate, or an open-world video game, all of the individual ingredients are available from the off, which encourages the reader to pursue whatever looks the most appetising. Similar to Afternoon though is the uncertainty surrounding closure: some users will pick and choose, leaving the text alone once they have reached their fill, while completists will feel the need to consume every shred and morsel on offer.

Patchwork Girl

Figure 1: Patchwork Girl menu (Source: Eastgate Systems).

The theme of form mirroring content, seen in the delayed closure for both main character and narrative in Afternoon, is present in Patchwork Girl also. The main character, based on the female companion Frankenstein assembles for his monster, is a collection of parts from other woman, the same as the text is a collection of parts from different texts. Landow observes the same, that the collection of different narrative fragments parallels the construction of the main character: “This digital collage-narrative assembles Shelley Jackson’s (and Mary Shelley’s and Victor Frankenstein’s) female monster, forming a hypertext Everywoman who embodies assemblage, concatenation, juxtapositions, and blurred, recreated identities” (Landow 237).

The disfigurement of the narrator, and the scars decorating her body, operate on multiple levels of signification: joins of different human parts, cloth fragments collaged and sewn together, and separate lexias tied using hyperlinks: “Just as the monster finds pleasure and identity in her scars, good hypertext works are defined and distinguished by their unique linking structures” (239).

Under no circumstances could Patchwork Girl be downgraded to a printed text, the precise textual structure is so bound to the visual, interactive elements of the computer display that it could not operate in any other medium: “Patchwork Girl could only be an electronic text because the trace of the computer interface, penetrating deeply into its signifying structures, does more than mark the visible surface of the text; it becomes incorporated into the textual body” (Hayles, “Flicking Connectivities”).[11]

Owing to the open and immediate availability of the different pieces of text to Patchwork Girl, this not only disrupts the overriding narrative structure, but the chronology of the text as well. Afternoon emphasised re-reading and decision-making in order to progress, and in this way the hard-to-reach lexias resembled passing levels in a computer game. But as seen in Patchwork Girl, with no clear-cut route available, it falls to the reader to decide what links to click on and what order to progress.

This reader autonomy is something I wished to grant in my hyperfiction also, where although there is a finite number of sections in Patchwork Girl, the route that readers take passing through them is changeable and dynamic. But this also succeeds in fragmenting the narrative structure and the chronology. The timeframe in the hypertext, like Afternoon, leaps between the past and the future, which serves as Hayles writes to underline the present: “chronology is inherently tenuous because linking structures leap across time as well as space… Patchwork Girl locates its performance of subjectivity in the individual lexia. Since the past and the future can be played out in any number of ways, the present moment, the lexia we are reading right now, carries an unusually intense sense of presence” (Hayles, “Flicking Connectivities”).

This privileging of the present, and the way different lexias exist side-by-side, carrying the same potentialities, also shows a degree of synchronicity. Owing to the speed of computer programmes mentioned earlier, all of the lexias are evenly located in relation to each other, but as Hayles points out, it falls to the reader to apply a sequence to the hypertext in order to understand it: “Sequence is constructed by accumulating a string of present moments when the reader clicks on links… [In contrast] is the simultaneity of the computer program. Within the non-Cartesian space of computer memory, all addresses are equidistant (within near and far memory, respectively), so all lexias are equally quick to respond to the click of the mouse” (Hayles, “Flicking Connectivities”).

Useful features in Patchwork Girl that I wanted to reproduce for my own hypertext were its open, non-linear structure, and also the reader autonomy in determining what shape the narrative could take. However one important aspect of Patchwork Girl I could not see to including was the visual component. Also important hypertext techniques that were underrepresented in Patchwork Girl were multiple perspectives and synchronicity. These were present in the next hyperfiction by Stuart Moulthrop, named Victory Garden.

Victory Garden

As mentioned in the previous chapter, while the short fiction of Jorge Luis Borges contains ideas that are incredibly influential to authors of hyperfiction, Borges has never technically written examples of proto-hyperfiction himself, choosing instead to describe instances of such in a more conventional way. This can be seen in the short stories “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain”, “The Aleph”, and “The Garden of Forking Paths”. One reason for this is that if the texts concocted by Borges did exist, they would be absolutely unreadable: “Borges can imagine such a fiction, but he cannot produce it… [He] never had available to him an electronic space, in which the text can comprise a network of diverging, converging, and parallel times” (Bolter 139).

However Stuart Moulthrop identified how Borges’ “Garden of Forking Paths” could conceivably be reconfigured as a hyperfiction: “Borges’ text already contains pathmarks for some of these divergent routes… a hypertextual fiction would take it upon itself to explore these and other excluded possibilities, along with various networks of narrative that might pertain to them” (Moulthrop 123-124).[12] As a classroom experiment, Moulthrop and his students set about attempting to produce a hypertext version of “Garden of Forking Paths”, by drawing links and nodes from the original text, as well as narrative branches that run parallel to each other: “In a rather limited and tentative way, the electronic “forking paths” represents a hypertextual realization of Borges’ textual theorizing” (124). This tutorial with students contained the germ for Victory Garden, produced by Moulthrop in 1992.

As with the previous examples, asking if the hypertext can be successfully translated into a printed text, for Victory Garden like all the others the answer is no. This is due to the fact that Victory Garden was clearly intended to adapt and open-up printed fiction to the newer form. Many competing and contradictory accounts are held simultaneously and describe the same events in an instance of multiple perspectives. Similar to Patchwork Girl, the hypertext relies heavily on visuals. Beginning Victory Garden, the reader is presented with several different paths to progress through the hypertext, either the visualisation of the garden, the list of different interlinking paths (Figure 3), or by hyperlinks scattered throughout the text.

Like in “Garden of Forking Paths”, Victory Garden contains both events and actions, coupled with their alternatives. For example, the central character Emily is serving in the Gulf War. The competing events that transpire are that she dies in one eventuality, and survives in another. Each outcome is determined by the decision which hyperlink is clicked on by the user, and shows a high level of interactive variability.

A glimpse at the plan of the narrative structure to Victory Garden gives an impression of just how complex the hypertext is. Further, the level of intricacy plotting the hyperlinks dwarfs Afternoon in its labyrinthine structure: “With its 2,804 links connecting 993 lexia through a variety of paths planned over long stretches rather than from node to node… Victory Garden takes Daedalian architecture to a level of complexity that probably no reader has fully appreciated” (Ryan).[13]

Victory Garden

Figure 2: Victory Garden plan (Source: Ryan).

Some criticism has been levelled at Victory Garden for not fully achieving what Borges set out in his short story, a book containing all of the potentialities of an event, that it does not go quite far enough: “Moulthrop’s Victory Garden does not outline multiple destinies for its heroes, but rather traces many pathways into a reasonably solid and chronologically organized narrative core” (Ryan). In Borges’s story however, the forked garden or maze, and the labyrinthine novel, are one and the same, making Moulthrop’s hypertext more successful than Ryan credits.

The truth of the matter is that such a text would be unreadable, first requiring superhuman intelligence on the author’s part, and ceaseless patience from the reader. Slatin highlights the difficulties in both writing and reading a hypertext; for an accurate realisation of Borges’s story, the complications would be much worse: “the author of a hyperdocument has a hard time trying to predict where the reader will go from any given point. The reader who activates a link often has a hard time too because it can be so difficult to predict what the result will be” (Slatin 164). This is something I also had to address while writing my hypertext, how an overabundance of parallel narratives, and interactivity, threatens the cohesiveness of the hypertext. It was a careful balancing of the different hypertext features in order to make the hypertext as easily understood as possible.

The same as in previous examples, the labyrinthine structure and contradictory narratives actually reflects the mental life of several characters, in an example of form mirroring content. In one possible eventuality, the main character Emily dies in armed combat. How this is represented on the screen is, Moulthrop uses normal text in the run-up to the event, followed by images of shattered text. The effect is to simulate “as if the enemy shell itself had landed on the previous block of writing… The effect of moving from the intact lexia to the shattered one is like an animation of the landing of the shell” (Murray 83).

Conclusion

The narrative techniques first located in terms of modernist fiction and proto-hypertexts in the previous chapter, have been shown in use in these examples of hyperfiction, where they are not bound or limited by the constraints of printed texts. Such important features as interactivity, non-linearity, multi-perspectives and synchronicity, operate to make the reading experience far more participatory and dynamic for the user.

Afternoon: a story by Michael Joyce stands as one of the first and best examples of hyperfiction. Utilising hundreds of hyperlinks allows the text to hold competing narratives simultaneously. The multiple narratives reward re-reading, carrying great variability between each strand. The capabilities for storytelling that hypertext allows are of central importance to Afternoon, not just in structure but in theme as well. The breakdown of Afternoon’s central character, and his shirking of emotional baggage, is represented by the fragmented, non-linear narrative. While the structure of Afternoon does allow a more open style of reading, it is still quite constrained, particularly when compared to Patchwork Girl.

Patchwork Girl by Shelley Jackson boasts a completely open structure, providing the user with every available section to read from the beginning. Unlike Afternoon the reader encounters no obstacles to progressing through the text. What also separates Patchwork Girl from Afternoon is its visual nature, which it makes good use of, presenting the reader with an image of a body and inviting them to click on whichever part stands out. Related to the form of hypertext mirroring content, in Patchwork Girl the scars embroidering the narrator’s flesh represent both hyperlinks connecting different lexias, and body parts from a wide assortment of different women. Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden, while still visual like Patchwork Girl, was very structurally complex. Begun initially as a class experiment to translate Borges’s “Garden of Forking Paths” into a hypertext, the links between its lexia are heavily plotted, resulting in several narratives running parallel to each other, which describe contrary actions.

[1] Joyce, Michael, Afternoon: a story.

[2] Jackson, Shelley, Patchwork Girl.

[3] Moulthrop, Stuart, Victory Garden.

[4] Jill Walker, “Piecing Together and Tearing Apart: Finding the Story in Afternoon

[5] Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck.

[6] Jay David Bolter, Writing Space.

[7] George P. Landow, Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization.

[8] Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature.

[9] N. Katherine Hayles, Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary.

[10] Hayles, N. Katherine, Writing Machines

[11] N. Katherine Hayles, “Flickering Connectivities in Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis”.

[12] Stuart Moulthrop, “Reading from the Map: Metonymy and Metaphor in the Fiction of Forking Paths”.

[13] Marie-Laura Ryan, “Multi-Variant Narratives”.

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