Tuesday, March 18th, 2008
In an essay titled Navigating Electronic Literature in Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, Jessica Pressman writes:
Navigating a nonlinear narrative such as a hypertext, or a related form like Andrews’s stir frys, demonstrates how electronic literature challenges expectations associated with and codified around print-based reading practices. Since hypertexts are structured as networks rather than linear plots, they lend themselves to openness and disorientation. Some hypertexts may not even contain a definitive ending but instead continue in endless loops of lexias; such works depend upon the reader to resolve when to finish reading the work. In other words, the navigational aspect of hypertext changes our interaction with both the story at hand and also with the concept of narrative itself.
I’d like to use bits and pieces of this section of Pressman not to argue with terms or agree with the affect of electronic literature on the reader or even the assumptive truths about plotting but to assess the question of “how electronic literature challenges expectations associated with and codified around print-based reading practices” with a brief reading of Pauline Masurel’s and Jim Andrews’ story Blue Hyacinth.
In this essay, I’m going to avoid the idea of “openness and disorientation” that Pressman writes about in her essay but appeal rather to the two guiding principles I’ve been following before moving on to the idea of narrative and how it may be constructed, organized, and experienced in hypertext fictions. I believe that “disorientation” is a loaded term and often taken as pejorative and should perhaps rather be attributed to the study of narrative systems and technology, not necessarily to their content. But I’ll come back to this later.
First let me enlarge a little on the juicy notion of orientation in the reading environment. Shelley Jackson in “Stitch Bitch: The Patchwork Girl,” an essay in Rethinking Media Change, writes “My favorite writing is impure, improper, and disorienting. Ecstatic or fantastically systematic, hybrid in form or uncertain genre, incomplete or overwrought, too little or too much, it staggers off the straight and narrow line” (240-41). It’s hard to say whether I agree or disagree with the phenomenon of disorientation, but I am drawn by Jackson’s sentiments. In order to engage this more deeply, I’ll draw in the metaphor of the city.
Whenever I’m in an alien place, a city for example, I usually take a walk, if this is possible. I walked Mexico City a little, Aguascalientes, Milwaukee, and Fairbanks. I found these places unfamiliar and, yes, disorienting. These places or texts demonstrated all the familiar gestures of place and space, though: roads, buildings, vegetation, sounds and signs but none of these were in the right or proper place. They were arranged differently than my neighborhood and had different shapes, but they could be read and made orient-able by experience. I must admit, though, that I understand Jackson’s point of view, and in several contexts, such as the context of place. There is something fascinating about one’s own reactions to the unfamiliar and having the opportunity to find spatial and place-specific pattern. There’s something interesting about pausing on a street in Milwaukee and having a conversation with a stranger and finding that they speak about familiar feelings and articulate similar and honest ideas about life.
What I don’t like is the act of travel to an unfamiliar destination. Airports are “placeless,” liminal spaces. In airports, you see people avoiding intimacy and knowledge because they are “displaced” and want to move on. Such places are equivalent to the aisle in a store where one stands looking and does not want to be fixed or interested; these places do not invite “stay.” They are psychologically empty.
We are rarely in cities. In The Life of Geronimo Sandoval, Ham Sandoval’s love interest, Pen, calls him and says, “I’m in Atlanta.” But she isn’t in Atlanta. She is in a phone booth and Atlanta is merely a contextual devise, a familiar abstraction. For Ham, Atlanta means “not here.” For Pen, Atlanta means “not there.” Experientially, we can sit on the steps of a building in Atlanta or Milwaukee and observe the birds. I remember watching the sparrows hop around with bread in their beaks and they brought me some bit of comfort. We can feel that environment and wonder over the birds, but we cannot feel Atlanta or know it beyond it’s sectional topology.
Likewise, we cannot experience literary genre in their abstract definitions, that tragedy is this or that. We can know and describe genre. But it’s the instances of those genre that act as familiar or unfamiliar experiences. Most people know how a mystery or romance novel will be organized from beginning to end, or, rather, as a whole. I remember my first narrative disorientation came with a horror movie that ended with the supposedly destroyed monster rearing from the surface of the water to grab the hero’s ankle to the clash of music. The end. I’m drawn to B-movies because I know exactly how to read them. I enjoy making jokes about them, too. Regardless of the required cliches found in mystery or romance novels or B-movie horror films, it is one thing to make fun of them, quite another to write one with the right conventions in their proper place. We typically come to a mystery novel much as we agree to a meeting with friends for coffee or a sip of wine: familiar images, rehashed tales, and the intimacy of shared experience and knowledge.
Much of this, of course, has to do with rules. People love rules, which is one reason for the durability of games in culture. People also love to break rules on their own terms. We don’t like when others change or beak the rules outside of our knowledge. Legal or ethical, rule changing is typically an act of consensus.
Permit me now to move to Pauline Masurel’s fiction Blue Hyacinth to explore issues of continuity and the text in context. Let me stipulate that Blue Hyacinth is like an unfamiliar city, a text we may come to and not really know what to expect from it. Below is a screen shot of the “first page” of the work after following the above link.
In the shot of text above, we have several units of meaning to read and explore. We know that the owner of the Pink Tulip “stands – still clutching mobil phone – in the alleyway.” The reader doesn’t know which alleyway or anything else really about the Pink Tulip other than that it is in a vicinity with other clubs. But the reader does have context. The owner has bribed the bouncer to “set off the fire alarms in the rival establishments . . . ” Of course, the proprietor’s target is The Blue Hyacinth and he means to disrupt its business in order to fatten his own accounts. He’s put a plan into action and all seems to be working and perhaps more real than he had intended: the customers at other clubs “spill out” and a DJ is sorry about the loss of his equipment. We have everything we need: characters, conflict, the beginnings of plot, and a track for the reader to follow.
Now I must pull back. Masurel’s story is not what I would technically call a hypertext in the tradition of Gibb or Lockridge, even though I would refer to it as such at a party. I must warn the reader that a stray move of the mouse may shuffle some of the text “out of its initial state.” Moreover, clicking on the link to the site that houses “Blue Hyacinth” may not reveal what I’ve written about above. The next screen reveals what might happen if the reader enters the site and touches any part of the text with their mouse:
This unique experience is instructive about texts in general. Relations, technology, and contexts matter to the reading of an unfamiliar village or city. Following a reentry into Masurel’s text, we have another set of paragraphs. What I notice first is not a club but an animal and situation of betting. A speaker, a woman, puts “a tenner on Blue Hyacinth to win.” The point of view character is unfamiliar with the business of racing and is also aware of the bookie’s subtle understanding of her naivete.
The betting scene, which carries over the relationship in the prior text between the proprietor of the Pink Tulip and his bouncer into this new area, is only a portion of the experience. For this reading, I made the mistake of touching the left middle of this delicate and responsive text with my mouse and I don’t know what the bluer text replaced. I’m suddenly reminded of Shelly Jackson. This is precisely the text she referenced in her own writing earlier:
Ecstatic or fantastically systematic, hybrid in form or uncertain genre, incomplete or overwrought, too little or too much, it staggers off the straight and narrow line.
Masurel’s text worked by Andrews’ stir fry scripts certainly “staggers off the straight and narrow line.” With one clumsy and accidental touch of the mouse, “Blue Hyacinth” has changed and with that change I’m presented with a deep blue ellipses and the words “it goes on for months” with only a space between that sentence and “another in the corner is smoking.” And with this one touch of the mouse I’m offered a unique opportunity for multidimensional sleuthing. I’m going to step and make some guesses: the fight between the proprietors continues. The betting continues. It’s a cat-and-mouse game, in the streets–maybe.
In the betting parlor, the woman observes another woman “watching the race.” She’s watching the race in a certain demeanor. ” . . . a subtle matter of class, tone and expectations.” Someone wins.
In that same space, my mouse carefully moved aside, we learn that weeks pass and that the cleaning lady will take the betting slip away, “ignoring the bin.” By reflecting on the two text windows, via the reading narrative I took to encounter “Blue Hyacinth,” a world is taking shape, with two plots already bespoken: we have a woman, we have a war between the clubs.
But it’s time to tap the text and build whatever world it wants to reveal. The mouse in this reading is a subtle stylus. What follows are three touches in succession to show how the story grows.
Tabitha who “flexes against the collar” is inscribed over “a tenner on Blue Hyacinth to win”:
In this, the bookie disappears and “on the wall of a more popular club” replaces it. Additionally, ” . . . but who’d believe?” and “The manager of The Pink Tulip has already left the vicinity” enter the unfamiliar city. ” . . . but who’d believe?” is an additive unit to the text while “The manager . . .” enters in from the screen I first encountered concerning the Pink Tulip and The Blue Hyacinth establishments as does “on the wall . . . ” This subtle, near surgical, incising and layering of units would seem to suggest spatial and temporal connection. While the blue neon sign blinks and the manager plots, a woman is betting on Blue Hyacinth.
In this subsequent shot, we have a subtle alteration at the top. “she walks in.”
The reader may not know who the pronoun “she” references: “The smoker,” the point of view character,” even the cleaning lady. What we do know from “Blue Hyacinth” is that the reader can learn how to read the responsive spaces if he or she treats the text with delicate prods of the mouse. It is not required that the reader know what sort of text this is. The reader may indeed find that Masurel’s text discloses a story in units of meaning that will come together not by sequential prose schemes but by the relationships a reader makes by watching, recalling, onMouseOvering, and connecting images, characters, and events, such as the cleaning lady departing with the betting slip or the proprietor’s scheme.
Non-linear, when applied to such a text, could be a reference to or description of either the text and its rearrangement or to an array or to stored variables or the programmatic for loop. In either case, Masurel’s and Andrews’ unique text is an invitation not just to new media literary art but to any text whose configuration, presentation, and power, no matter the system that makes it available, shape experience in meaningful ways. This is Shelley Jackson’s “favorite” writing: Milton’s, Masurel’s, Gibb’s, and Lockridge’s. As I believe I’ve begun to show, these writers’ texts are delightfully familiar enough to promote linger, pause and reflection.
I would therefore add to Pressman’s description above: “openness and disorientation” but also “meaning” and examination of the human.