CRÍTICA:

FOUR HYPERTEXTS FROM EASTGATE



afternoon, a story
(Michael Joyce)
Patchwork girl
(Shelley Jackson)
Forward Anywhere
(Judy Malloy/ Cathy Marshall)
Twilight: a symphony (Michael Joyce)

Susana Pajares Toska
spajares@eucmos.sim.ucm.es
Universidad Complutense de Madrid

What is Eastgate

Eastgate Systems is a company that publishes "serious hypertext". It has probably become the most relevant hypertext company since 1982, where it released its first title. Eastgate´s catalogue offers now hyperfiction titles and academic works in computer format, software to work in hypertext environment and printed books on the subject. The Eastgate team includes very significant names in the hypertext world: Mark Bernstein, Jay David Bolter, Michael Joyce and John B. Smith. The company aims for a growing degree of the reader´s activity to, in Mary Axelson´s words, ( http://newmedia.com/NewMedia/97/12/feature2/New_Storytellers.html), "enable an author to carry on a conversation with the reader, to create a relationship somewhere in the wide gap between a live performer responding to an audience and an unchangeable novel or film." More information about the company in: info@eastgate.com or in the Internet:http://www.eastgate.com.

The four hypertexts we´re reviewing show the development of hypertext technology and Eastgate´s interests, as the first one (afternoon, a story) was first published in 1987 (New Eastgate edition, 1996), and the last one (Twilight, a symphony) also by Michael Joyce, is from 1996.


                            

afternoon, a story
(Michael Joyce)

Michael Joyce, afternoon, a story, Eastgate This hyperfiction is the most widely quoted in hypertext theory, specially as first example from what hypertext can do when is more than "Choose your own adventure".

The closest thing to a plot that we can find in this story is a man who sees a wrecked car looking like his ex-wife´s, so that the wounded or maybe dead bodies that lie by its side could be hers and their son´s.

"I want to say I may have seen my son die this morning."

But this is not how the story begins, although this idea will keep coming back like an echo while the story changes time, place and even narrator. Its themes are marriage, relationships, couple, children, the past, work, sex, culture... The narrative techniques also vary, there is monologue, dialogue, direct and indirect quotations from many authors, like Cortázar, Sterne, Huizinga, Homero... The plot is thus not given beforehand, but every reader must assemble these pieces to build an own coherent mosaic, and this can be done.

"I´m not sure that I have a story. And, if I do, I´m not sure that everything isn´t my story, or that, whatever is my story, is anything more than pieces of other´s stories."

The fragmentary structure suits a main character who is afraid to think, afraid to know, so that the assembly goes on until the reader wants it. There is no fixed end to the story, conclusions are not trustworthy, specially in hyperfiction:

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. Even so, there are likely to be more opportunities than you think there are at first. A word wich doesn´t yield the first time you read a section may take you elsewhere if you choose it when you encounter that section again; and sometimes what seems a loop, like memory, heads off again in another direction.
There is no simple way to say this."

Indeed, it is not easy to explain how this bunch of separate moments gets interconnected through the reading achieving a coherent path, maybe we can find an answer in the particular use of hypertext technology. The first screen from afternoon ends with a question:

"Do you want to hear about it?"

The reader can type "yes" or "no", or she may not answer and press "enter", the next screen will be different for every case opening different paths trough the story. The reader can end up feeling like a mouse with the story as the cat, because the story plays with her changing context rather abruptly, repeating itself or avoiding an answer. But the reader can do something else than clicking blindly around. There is a tool called "Links" that, when pressed, shows all the paths that start in a page with its name and destination, so that the reader has a clue to choose between them.

Michael Joyce´s hypertextual strategy is based on "words that yield", that is, words that when clicked on take us to another screen meaningfully related to them. The search turns into a poetic quest. For example, the sentence already mentioned: "I want to say I may have seen my son die this morning." Clicking on "want" takes us somewhere else that clicking on "die", so that the reader can follow specific semantic fields that are particularly significant to her. The author says in the reading instructions:

"I haven´t indicated what words yield, but they are usually ones wich have texture, as well as character names and pronouns. There are more such words early on in the story, but there are almost always options in any sequence of texts. The lack of clear signals isn´t an attempt to vex you, rather an invitation to read either inquisitively or playfully and also at depth. Click on words that interest or invite you."

Paradoxically, this extreme freedom can exasperate the reader when the story starts circling round the same screens with no way out, giving her the feeling that the story is controlling her. But it is an experience we don´t hesitate to recommend because of the interesting story and the fact of its being one of the first hyperfictions experimenting in this new art form. Michael Joyce succeeds with few technical resources, probably because he knows very well the great masters of literature who had already broken linearity within the printed page.


                             

Patchwork girl (Shelley Jackson)

Shelley Jackson, Patchwork girl, Eastgate The title is an inspired idea for this work and also a general hint to what hyperfiction is. A "patchwork" is "needlework that is done by sewing together pieces of material which are of different colours and shapes" (Collins Cobuild English Dictionary). The pieces are shaped into a single object whose heterogeneous sources are always visible. This work doesn´t try to hide the joining places where the different ideas get together but to show them. Patchwork girl points out the diversity of its components, stiched together by scars so detectable as the monster´s.

The title page and introduction to the reader appears after a screen with a woman made up of sewn pieces, and the work´s multiplicity can first be noticed here:



P A T C H W O R K G I R L ;
OR
A MODERN MONSTER
________________
BY MARY/SHELLEY, & HERSELF

a graveyard,
a journal,
a quilt,
a story,
& broken accents
________________________
(sources)

There are two titles, two authors (one of them is a writer divided into Mary Shelley and Shelley Jackson, and the other is the monster herself), and a sort of index that, unlike those in books, must not be followed in this order.

The titles refer to the mythical monster of Frankenstein that is recreated here with some differences: the monster is a woman and Mary Shelley does not only write about it but create it physically. The presence of three authors means that there will be three narrative voices. The index makes the reader take her first decision of where to start, and gives an idea of the story´s variety. Each section is different, some have a plot-like structure, some just an associative structure: the graveyard tells about the origin of the monster´s parts, the journal is written by Mary Shelley, the quilt is a mass of related fragments, the story is told by the monster, the broken accents contain the ideas about writing and the sources are the "bibliography".

The myth of Frankenstein is interpreted according to the building of an own identity from imprecise fragments of sometimes unknown origin: "Every part of me is linked to other territories alien to it but equally mine." Thus, there are a lot of direct and indirect quotes from many authors: of course Mary Shelley, but also Derrida, Hélène Cixous, Lyotard..., specially in "a quilt", "made up entirely of quotes from other sources, pieced together in an intuitive, crazy-quilt style."

But this work is not only about identity. It also reflects on writing as it was conceived by the ancient roman thinkers: with "text" as "fabric" made up from different parts. Jackson quotes Quintilian and explains how the metaphor of the monster of Frankenstein´s is appropriate for this ancient rethoric as membrum means "limb" and "clause" at the same time. Linear writing tries to make the joining points invisible so that the result appears as a logical and homogeneus development of ideas, but hypertext is something else, much more similar to the way we perceive our own life:

"Assembling these patched words in an electronic space, I feel half-blind, as if the entire text is within reach, but because of some myopic condition I am only familiar with from dreams, I can see only that part most immediately before me, and have no sense of how that part relates to the rest. When I open a book I know where I am, which is restful. My reading is spatial and even volumetric. I tell myself, I am a third of the way down through a rectangular solid, I am a quarter of the way down the page, I am here on the page, here on this line, here, here, here. But where am I now? I am in a here and a present moment that has no history and no expectations for the future. Or rather, history is only a haphazard hopscotch through other present moments. How I got from one to the other is unclear. Though I could list my past moments, they would remain discrete (and recombinant in potential if not in fact), hence without shape, without end, without story. Or with as many stories as I care to put together."

The system is cleverly designed to make the reader sew these patches together stiching her own quilt. There are always two open windows: a text window and a map window that locates the text in a bigger related space. (The reader can also choose between four different kinds of maps.) All this reveals the hypertext writing process as in a systematic dissection, allowing an extremely creative and concious reading.

The map-images showing varied body parts are also remarkably effective to suggest paths and themes.

The "control" key is here a very interesting navigation tool: while pressed, the links from a screen appear surrounded by a red line, making easier to decide where to go. The reader can also add her own notes and save her reading so that the chosen paths can be kept for future reference.

These tools and the possibility of seeing the whole story-map on the screen can be used by the reader to read every single word in Patchwork girl, eliminating hyperfiction´s critisized anxiety about the end of stories, (of course, the reading can be abandoned at any point). We don´t need absolutely all the patches to sew our quilt, although the beautiful language and the story´s depth justify an extensive exploration.


                                 

Forward Anywhere
(Judy Malloy/ Cathy Marshall)

Judy Malloy/ Cathy Marshall, Forward Anywhere, Eastgate This is a singular work because of the way it was written and because of its being the only collaborative fiction reviewed in this article. It includes an essay by the two authors where they explain the writing process and how Forward Anywhere must be read.

This work is the result of a collaboration between artist Judy Malloy and scientist Cathy Marshall, both experts in hypertext writing environment. The project aimed at exploring associative thought and its hypertextual uses. The subject would be the authors´ own lifes, which had apparently nothing to do with each other. They decided not to meet in person to avoid interfering in the working routine they had chosen: eMail communication. For example, one sends a message to the other where she tells how the finding of an old still packed doughnut evokes intense past memories. The other answers with a message about a job where she would find a doughnut on her desk every morning. Although this can seem unimportant, the associative chain ties together important moments from both authors´ lifes, moments that are examined to the light of the other´s memories and bring unexpected associations.

"How might we frame this hypernarrative? For what you will read is neither literal truth, nor fiction, but rather a single hallucinatory vision made up of two pasts."

They first wrote lots of text screens to organize them later, but they decided at last that the only structure that would be able to faithfully show the writing process was maintaining the order in which the screens had been written. The associative structure is thus strictly preserved as it came out of the authors´minds.

"The links would arise naturally within this constraint, shaping the work in an organic way."

The themes are of course many: childhood, parents, school, pair relationship, work, technology, children, one own´s identity ... Every memory finds an echo in the next screen which fills it up with a surprising new meaning. This process brings a catharsis about in which the personal meanings become universals thanks to this response they cause in a different person. These universals are relative, because both authors have a lot in common: they are women, of a similar age, American, with professional success ... It is a writing method where someone is author and reader at the same time, letting the other´s ideas drive her own and building a shared puzzle with them all.

Forward Anywhere is then different to the other hypertexts reviewed here. It can be linearly read like any printed book because the associative game is already been made by the authors. It lets few choices to the reader, without even having the opportunity of saving the own reading. This explains the first part of the title, "Forward".

But there are also tools to go beyond linearity. The reader can use the "Lines" button to go to any screen that has words in common with the current one or she can click on any word so that a screen comes up where that word appears. There is also the "Anywhere" button, which simply takes the reader to any new screen. In the three cases, an unread screen appears if there is one available. These three tools introduce chance in the reading and account for the second part of the title, "Anywhere".

When to finish reading? Just when we get tired. "Closure was never a goal of this piece." Even if we read all screens linearly, we can circle round to the beginning and reread the texts with new information to interpret them.

Forward Anywhere is interesting because of the associative game and the possibilities of this kind of writing. It is a pity though that the final version that Eastgate sells doesn´t include a tool that existed in the authors´ version with which the reader could choose a word and the machine would look for all the sentences where this word appeared and put them together, creating absolutely unexpected associations. The authors give an example in their introduction with the word "blanket":

"under the thin sheets and the blue blanket, reading a psychology textbook We had separate blankets so I couldn´t steal the covers during the night and I´d still be lying there, under my makeshift blanket of crushed velvet After dark as I lay under layers of wool blankets night trains things into the car in case I had to evacuate -blankets, some food, my Harold was asleep on the couch in front of the video monitor with a blanket "Easy for you to say", she said. The pile of folded baby blankets Inside, Nancy sat a plaid blanket covered foam mattress."

The computer plays the avant-garde author. Forward Anywhere can be useful to make readers aware of the associative thought and reading processes, although they are nothing more than audience here.


                      
Twilight, a symphony (Michael Joyce)

Michael Joyce, Twilight, a symphony , Eastgate The story begins with a chapter called "Our story so far" that explains the basic argument, giving the reader the contextual basis to understand the multiple fragments from the start. There are two stories, distant in time and space but related because they both have lakes as scenes and characters in common. In the first story, Hugh Colin hides with his son (his mother has the custody) in a holiday place where he meets a couple of Polish political refugees. In the second one, later in time, Hugh and the Polish woman, Magda, are looking for Doctor Twilight, one of the few doctors who practise euthanasia, because she has an incurable illness.

Upon this basic structure, Joyce builds an impressive scaffolding made up of voices, memories and thoughts that tells us about the eternal human themes, death and the search for the self.

"My search is for what authentically can be said about a life, how people talk about what is in their hearts and whether it is possible to do so all outside the ironical. All this is meant to be in the most authentic voice I can here summon, knowing -aside from the theoretical questions- that my own authenticity is always in question even for me. Aware always also that as soon as you have read this I begin to disappear or, like Mallarmé´s swan, freeze into the form of my own inaction."

The language is splendid, or we should say "languages", because it is a constant variation of integrated styles: lyrical, lively dialogue, journalistic language, philosophic language... Joyce uses even the language of literary criticism, quoting enemies of hypertext or making Eco and Goodard act as characters in a theoretical discussion. Other narrative techniques are: direct and indirect quote, words in at least seven languages other than English, the repetition of sentences or texts that reappear included within different texts and even doubly joycean word games like "the Old man and the see".

In fact, Joyce pays here homage to his illustrious predecessor not only by playing little style games, but so explicitly as this:

"there´s only been one book ever written and it was a Greek who wrote it -though some say he was Armenian, Asia Minor, Greek-Jew or Jew-Greek or something- and then an Irishman rewrote it and everybody else kept trying."

This work reveals Joyce as a master of the hypertextual environment from where he´s taken the last advances to tell his tale. Twilight, a symphony is compositionally a step forward compared to afternoon, a story.

The first innovation is that two screens open at the same time: text screen and map screen. The map places the space we´re reading, allowing the reader to navigate everywhere, from one hierarchy to the next, conscious of every fragment´s belonging to a coherent structure where relationships are made explicit. There is an specific tool to move within maps other than clicking on them: a four-headed arrow. The upper arrow takes us to the superior space to that we´re reading, the lower arrow to a space within the space we´re reading, the left-hand arrow to the space we´ve read before, and the right-hand arrow to the next space.

Other known tools are the possibility of saving our reading and the "dialog box" that comes out pressing the information button and which contains a list of the links leading to and from the current space and a history of the reading in "recently visited spaces". However we can´t write our own notes or use bookmarks to mark pages.

Twilight, a symphony includes more than text. There are pictures, photos, a video of a short film, music and other sounds including human voices. These components are not only decorative but have their own semantic purpose and serve as links to different parts of the story. The photos show smaller photos and meaningfull objects as very deep personal memories. The short film could be described as impressionist because of its shifting light and colours and the rock music that we can hear. Music is very important in this work as we can already tell by the title. We not only hear fragments and read about composers and musicians (Glenn Gould, Bach, Chopin, etc.), but the reading´s ups and downs suggest the movements of a symphony.

This multiplicity is specially adequate to Michael Joyce´s ideas about the meaning in motion and the impossibility to end stories, everything is relevant in Twilight, a symphony. He quotes Harold Pinter´s words making them his:

"Meaning begins in the words, in the action, continues in your head and ends nowhere. There is no end to meaning. Meaning which is resolved, parcelled, labelled and ready for export is dead, impertinent, and meaningless."

Michael Joyce´s work is not only attractive for its mastery of the technical hypertext environment, Twilight, a symphony is a beautiful work of art that deserves to be read for its own sake. Maybe the best compliment to be paid to this work is that, although we´ve used a few lines to talk about technical matters above, the reader uses the hypertext tools unconsciously, getting absolutely involved in the meaning of the story, which is the most valuable thing in Twilight, a symphony. The hypertext is not the enemy or the competitor of the printed page, but a logical follower, another way of telling stories:

"There is only one story of time and space and it is constantly retold: someone far away tries to come home."

A further impertinence

If , like Pinter, we think that every attempt at conclusion is impertinent, these few impertinent words will serve as open end to this review.

The obvious advantage of off-line hypertexts compared to on-line hypertexts is their speed and the possibility of including photos and images without loss of time (and patience).

The four texts examined meet the standards of what hypertextual theory considers that hyperfiction should be, being a good practical example of so much, sometimes overconfident, theory. They have evolved from the initial state where the novelty of the technology made the reader forget meaning to the perfect symbiosis achieved by Michael Joyce in his last work.

As a rather partial reader, I appreciate the hyperfictions that allow a reasonable amount of freedom, with tools like maps and the possibility of saving the own reading and write notes. Even though other kinds of hypertext where kind of cat and mouse games are played could also be interesting when the readers get used to the medium.


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