Reading Hypertext: Reading Touch

Friday, March 21st, 2008

I started this Part Five on reading hypertext in exactly the wrong way: by beginning with a subject I’m really not interested in exploring at this moment: literary criticism. This is not a critique of criticism: I’m not really interesting in discounting an area of thought that for some may show evidence of appeal and insight. I find the insights of criticism philosophical rather than “textual” and therefore applicable to abstract questions, such as is there a “self,” is there gender beyond culture, and how can we know and question these things. Fiction and poetry may come at such questions but they do so with a language intrinsic to their methods of inquiry, as does philosophy.

It strikes me that people always learn a subject in their own native language while the subject itself, such as architecture or physics, is applied with universal tools. A pencil is made of wood just about everywhere people use pencils. The quantities of mathematics can be experienced beyond native language, as when on a foreign shore two people cannot express their ideas about politics but share an image of two crabs in the sand.

This doesn’t mean that philosophy wont ask interesting questions about human experience. It does mean, however, that it will do so differently than fiction and poetry and digital animation. For some readers, this is an impossible nut to break: that poetry will express a different view of a common notion like love, a view of love impossible to express in, say, philosophy of painting. Poetry is required because it holds a particular kind of knowledge: the knowledge only poetry can express. I believe that future methods of expression will not challenge the validity of poetry, but will encourage new views or “points of view” on human life experience, as the novel did since Shikibu’s Tale of Gengi and Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

Here are a couple of trivial examples of different language usages, units of meaning that point to a similar aim:

1. “That bridge’s structural integrity is well below standard.”
2. “Any day now that bridge is going to kill someone.”

Here’s another set:

1. “Subtracting an accusatory object from a conjunctive series can be an excellent tool for comedy.”
2. One man says, “Max is fat as a hog and everyone hates his guts.”
Max’s wife says, “That’s bullshit. Everyone loves Max.”

In her hypertext, Bottle of Beer, Susan Gibb writes

Yolanda only felt loneliness in the dusk of the day. It was the meeting time of a man and his woman. It forgave all wrongs of the night that lay still cold and heavy as an anvil at dawn. In the morning there were things to be done that hid the seeds of resentment under plates, inside cups. (Dozing Mendoza)

In this section, we learn something that complicates our understanding about Yolanda and her particular circumstance: she feels loneliness at a time of day when intimacy is the custom. In Yolanda’s life forgiveness is significant, also, given the life she’s had with several men in succession, but even more than forgiveness as a value or moral imperative, it’s also nearly impossible for her given the role resentment plays in her relationships, especially on the day of her death.

In Bottle of Beer two deaths play important roles in the story: Yolanda’s and Juan’s. These two deaths structure the of emotional arc in the story.

This line in the story follows the above paragraph: “It had always been this hour that had found her vulnerable.” Yolanda is “vulnerable” at dusk, or, as the author writes, she is “found” vulnerable at this time, as if a particular time of day hunts her and is on the hunt. When others convene into spaces of intimacy, Yolanda has been alone, even in the company of others. She persistently suffers loneliness, and because she does, she remains trapped in a state of vulnerability.

Yolanda also suffers nightmares (Kismet Slept), nightmares that accrete from the experience of memory. In Ill Winds, for example, Jorge penetrates into Yolanda’s space because he desires her and she admits him in because she suspects his knowledge of a secret, the murder of her husband Juan. The rape that results is a direct effect of secrets that need keeping:

Eventually he did not bother with the meal and came late at night. She would feel his hairy arms around her, his chest furred like that of a bear, his calloused fingers grabbing and poking. He would thrust himself into her but he was quick, and if she held her breath, he would be done and gone and she could go back to sleep.

. The importance or emotional weight of this penetration is not expressed by Yolanda, however, but by the narrator, who observes this jalapeno-fleshed woman alone on her porch.

Partly, because of the distancing voice, the significance of the approaching jogger can be read as sinister and benign, strange and ordinary. The jogger approaches out of the sun and into the middle distance which is the light of dusk, entering into Yolanda’s most vulnerable period. Gibb writes, “As Yolanda dozed, half in the world of the sun and the living, half in the world of the missed and the dead, the black spot of life on the highway advanced and grew into a man.” Yolanda is between worlds. She’s not quite on or off the porch, neither alive nor dead, neither in the present nor in the past, awake or in dream. Has she ever lived without loneliness or emotional violence, treated often like a “breed mare” (Cellar Secrets)? Has she ever lived outside of a time without masculine presence or influence, though Carlos is described as having a “sweet touch” (Hard Times), or the brutal honesty of physical sexuality?

Touch matters to Yolanda. When she enters the house her legs scrape together and that scarping draws up the memory of Carlos (Eventide). Additionally, while Carlos is a favorite, he is also a man who broke Yolanda’s heart: “Then Carlos had broken her heart with his fist . . . ” Even here, touch matters. Carlos is described with the image of the fist, a fist that breaks a pot. Curiously, in Hard Times, Gibb restricts the reader to the writing space without supplying a link for exposition or further exploration. It would appear that Yolanda is reluctant to give up some aspects of this relationship to the narrator. Instead, the additional opportunities for exploration point to other men in Yolanda’s life. Conceptually in the hypertext, this amounts to an undisclosed shard, a shard, or additional linked memory, that might have been, or, rather, may be imagined by the reader, unseen but imagined, untouched, but an aspect of the texture of Yolanda in the reader.

The touches persist. Yolanda clasps a beer in her breasts so that her hands are free on her climb from the cellar. Yolanda grasps furniture to steady herself on the way back out to the porch. And in the embers of the day, Gibb writes

Yolanda closed her eyes, listened to her mother, her brothers, Juan, Javier, and her Carlos, all singing a loud disharmonious song. Padre Pietro blessed them, sprinkling them with holy water and winking at her with a sly grin. Babies cried and faces moved through memory, sorting themselves in her life. Javier sat counting gold coins into a pile, and Jorge screamed as he ran into the moon.

This is the wonderful touch of successive memory moving at the end of a woman’s life, a woman we never see die. Rather, the runner finally arrives and the narrator’s attention shifts to him, penetrates him, and ends with the resuming of his run, as if what he sees is perhaps nothing but normal, nothing he hasn’t seen on other runs, an image that he’s witnessed over and over again.

Touch is partly an issue with the particular kind of technology we use as readers to experience Gibb’s story. The stylus of the mouse assists us in our own penetrative acts, as it did in Andrews’ “Blue Hyacinth,” and the screen illuminates the text by contrast. Yolanda’s life is about touch, loneliness, and the ability to act at a time when action is required and yet this act, though protective and ultimately ethical, must be paid for with silence in the face of brutality. In this story, we must not forget Juan, who penetrates and stalks the memory. We also must not forget to pause on the links, perhaps read the shards, all or just a few. This has been one reading of Bottle of Beer and, more importantly, of Yolanda, a reading where, importantly, the reader’s knowledge of the narrator, Juan, Jorge, and Carlos will affect Yolanda as a figure of human touch. Yolanda is a kind of touch, a gesture of the human. Another kind of unfamiliar city to explore.


Comments are closed.