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Tales Told by the Computer

Among the many things the computer is supposed to change in our lives, one of the most profound, if the change were really to occur, is our experience of narrative. For the way we tell ourselves stories—our sense of the opening, development, and closure of a plot—still largely determines the way we think of ourselves and of our progress, or otherwise, between cradle and grave.

We are not talking here about the e-book, the portable screen on which, page by page, any traditional narrative can be read. That, in the end, offers only a more economic, if less attractive, way of giving us what we already have. Perhaps the only reasons to welcome the e-book are the possibility it offers to save on school texts, to travel light with a number of volumes in electronic form, and above all, for those like myself whose eyesight is not what it was, the possibility of choosing a larger type size than any printed book will offer.

No, the development that seeks to revolutionize the nature of storytelling is the so-called hypertext narrative, a product that, whether stored on CD or downloaded from the net, can be experienced only through the computer, since access to the many choices and variations it offers can only be achieved through the use of keyboard and mouse. It cannot properly exist on the printed page. All over the world, Internet sites and university courses promulgate and promote the phenomenon. Novelists of the stature of John Barth and Robert Coover have written enthusiastic essays promoting the phenomenon and taught classes of students how to use it. In an “Endtroduction” to Katherine Hayles’s new book Writing Machines1 the editor remarks: “…Bibliomaniacal impulses are mutating in this world of multi-, trans-, inter-, and re-mediation, and we need to establish new categories for describing the emotional and physical relationships readers have with what (and how) they read.”

The hypertext narrative comes in so many forms that it is difficult to consider its potential with reference to just a few examples. All the same, two fundamental innovations immediately present themselves: the hypertext is free to mix the written word, whether narrative, poetry, or essay, with sound, static images, or even cinematic effects, and to deliver the text at whatever speed and in whatever form the author chooses. This is such a dramatic extension of the bookish tradition of illustration and illumination that in many cases the written text may lose much of its sense if separated from the dynamic within which it is presented.

However, by far the most revolutionary development of the hypertext and the feature that most distinguishes it from a printed book has to do with the succession in which sections of written text are read. Hypertext dispenses with the linearity that invites us to proceed from page one of a book through to the end, front cover to back. Pages are not numbered and we cannot “turn” them. Instead we are invited to use the computer mouse to click on any of a number of links—“hot” words or images in the text on the computer screen or on the margin of it—to proceed to a (not “the”) following screen. Each link we click on will produce a different result.

It is clear that with this innovation each reader’s experience of the text, at least in so far as the trajectory of plot or the accumulation of the work’s reflections is concerned, will be different. He or she is obliged to construct a personal route through the text, and this largely at random and often without knowing how many pages there are or whether there is still more to read or not. “The traditional narrative time-line,” wrote Coover, who makes it clear that he has a personal investment in “fictions that challenge lin-earity,” “vanishes into a geographical landscape or exitless maze, with beginnings, middles and ends being no longer part of the immediate display.”

Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, or A Modern Monster, is an example of a fairly early hypertext (1995) which, in every respect but linearity, remains fairly close to the print-bound novel; it has only a very few illustrations and no sound or cinematic effects. An opening image, comparable to a book cover, shows an old-fashioned, Da Vinci-style drawing of the human body, a woman’s, above the title “Patchwork Girl, by Mary/Shelley & herself.” The reader is invited to click on various body parts or various areas of an anatomically represented brain. In each case he will see different sections of text varying from a brief sentence to a full, traditional page, many of which offer further links. What eventually emerges is a sequel, or addition, to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Taking her cue from the unhappy student’s dilemma over whether or not he should make a mate for his monster, Jackson stitches together pieces of Mary Shelley’s work with convincing pages of pastiche, telling, for example, the stories of those whose corpses yield the body parts for the gruesome experiment, the story of the girl herself, her fugitive anonymous life as an outcast and freak, and her erotic adventures. All of this in a decidedly nineteenth-century prose:

My left leg belonged to Jane, a nanny who harbored under her durable grey dresses and sensible undergarments a remembrance of a less sensible time: a tattoo of a ship and the legend, Come Back To Me. Nanny knew some stories that astonished her charges, and though the ship on her thigh blurred and grew faint and blue with distance, until it seemed that the currents must have long ago finished their work, undoing its planks one by one with unfailing patience, she always took the children to the wharf when word came that a ship was docking, and many a sailor greeted her by name.

My leg is always twitching, jumping, joggling. It wants to go places. It has had enough of waiting.

At every point the text insists on an analogy between the patchwork nature of the girl’s body and the fragmented and nonlinear hypertext, between her difficulty in establishing an identity from the many lives that have formed her and ours as we click back and forth looking for a thread of narrative, often finding ourselves frustratingly confronted by a screen we have already read, unsure how to proceed or when to stop. In this regard, and like almost all hypertexts, Patchwork Girl seems obsessively conscious of its experimental medium, which it is eager to present in a positive light as a heightened form of realism, a metaphor for modern consciousness, and, in this case, something peculiarly feminine, if not feminist. Digressions on the female vocation for quilting, for example, run alongside sections such as this:

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…. But where am I now? I am in here and a present moment that has no history and no expectations for the future.

More romantically the narrator announces:

I hop from stone to stone and an electronic river washes out my scent in the intervals. I am a discontinuous trace, a dotted line.

Or again:

The pasts I collect like snapshots in accordion-pleated plastic sleeves. Perhaps I’d like it better riding a strong steady flow, guaranteeing that if I boarded a Mississippi steamboat at x I would certainly pass through y before disembarking at z.

At this point one has to say that, as Mark Twain has amply shown, if you do embark on the Mississippi at, for example, St. Louis, you will inevitably pass through Cairo before reaching Memphis. Only if you fall asleep, as Huck and Tom do, do you risk missing the place where you want to stop. Not for nothing does Jackson speak of “some myopic condition I am only familiar with from dreams.” The hypertext, perhaps, has a vocation above all for the dreamlike. The linear progression of time, the unyielding contour of the familiar landscape, these, whatever enthusiasms one may have for the postmodern world, are still our standard experience in the hours of wakefulness.

Turning back for a moment to the traditional book, it’s worth recalling that nothing obliges us to read it from front to back. When we pick up anthologies or essay collections, we frequently ignore the order in which the pieces are presented. Many like to read the last pages of a novel first. I myself have the habit of reading the articles in this journal in an entirely haphazard fashion, dipping into the middle, returning to the beginning, skipping to the end. But at a certain point, once I’ve decided I am interested, I settle down and read the thing carefully through from beginning to end.

The linearity of the book, the page, or even the sentence, is thus only a convention, not inherent in the form, but something we choose to submit to, or not, every time we decide to read. In the 1960s and 1970s there were various experiments with loose-leaf novels whose chapters could be read in any order. They were soon abandoned. In his novel Watt, at the point of his main character’s maximum derangement, Samuel Beckett begins to invert the order of the words in the sentence (“Day of most, night of part”), then the letters in the words (“‘Geb nodrap,’ he said, ‘geb nodrap’”).2 No sooner has he reminded us that such things are possible, that nothing obliges him to write from left to right, top to bottom, than he returns to standard prose. Why?

However much the mind, on occasion and generally unprompted, may sense the nearness of distant moments, the closeness of remote places, thus challenging our normal experience of space and time, nevertheless it is evident that much of the pathos of our lives has to do with the stark simplicity of chronology: birth, youth, maturity, death. A novelist may choose to start in medias res or at the last gasp, every kind of mental resistance to harsh facts of passing time may be recorded; but over the trajectory of the work as a whole, the reader expects a chronology of a kind to be reconstructed. Indeed, such a reconstruction from the tangle of memory and imagination can be considered a conquest, synonymous with the achievement of a certain kind of knowledge and central to the moment of “recognition” which concedes to the author a valuable wisdom about the world we share. That achievement is there in Don Quixote as it is there in Ulysses, or even, though in a more problematic fashion, in Beckett’s trilogy. Borges, one of the writers whom hypertext practitioners most admire, once wrote an essay, “A New Refutation of Time,” which, having embarked on a most energetic denial of the reality of the combined enemies substance and time, concludes with a brutal volte-face: “The world unfortunately is real; I unfortunately am Borges.”

  1. 1

    To be published by MIT Press in December 2002.

  2. 2

    It is curious that Katherine Hayles’s Writing Machines, which deals mainly with the “materiality,” as she puts it, of the written text seems unaware of the many writers across the centuries who have offered profound meditations on the physical aspects of text and language: Shakespeare, Swift (exhaustively), Browning, Joyce, and Beckett, to name but an Anglo-Irish few. The omission of their reflections is emblematic of what we might call “the provincialism of the contemporary” that dogs a great deal of criticism in the field. Though the range of sources may be geographically wide, it is chronologically restricted. “My title, Writing Machines,” Hayle tells us, “plays with the multiple ways in which writing and materiality come together.” She goes on to express her admiration for Milorad Pavic, Ursula LeGuin, Paul Zimmerman, and Robert Coover, but seems unaware of Gulliver’s encounter, almost three hundred years ago, with the professor who invented the word machine on the fantastical island of Lagado.

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