Part II.
Hyperfiction in Practice:
Walking in the garden of Forced Paths

Reading hyperfictions: exploring the storyweb

Differing from Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestors did not think of time as absolute and uniform. he believed in an infinite series of times, in a dizzily growing, ever spreading network of diverging, converging and parallel times. (Borges: The Garden of Forking Paths,, p. 91)[13]

Usually an analysis of a literary work would proceed from a summary of the plot or story related in the work. This, naturally, is difficult to do with a hyperfiction product, since in theory there are as many stories as there are readings of them. In addition, with hyperfictions one needs to take into consideration the actual program or authoring tool that has made the rendering of the hypertextual structure possible - in this case the authoring tool and program Storyspace that to my knowledge is one of the most widespread creative writing tools on the hypertext authoring market[14]. Since this program is the physical interface between scriptor and reader, evidently its abilities as a 'storymaker' is put to a test during a reading, as well as its actual 'contents', the storyweb itself.

The references to labyrinths that occur in both afternoon and Victory Garden are appropriate [15]. Moving through these hyperfictions is in many ways like making your way through a labyrinth where you find yourself passing certain 'squares' or key-sequences more often than others, as if all paths in the labyrinth inevitably lead to these, one way or another. However, as in the labyrinth, even though you cross specific places ever so often, no trail or 'square' takes you straight to the entrance - or the exit - of the text.

It is worth noting that a storyweb is just one labyrinth, in the sense that the reader is not presented with a number of stories completely separated from each other, but with a number of optional variations or versions of a core-plot and scenario, some of which exclude each other, since the events taking place in one version will be found to be incompatible with the course of events in other readings. Thus, the reader rather quickly discovers that a few 'miniature-narratives' are embedded in almost every reading, consisting of a number of key-scenes that are comprised in either one lexia or in a number of sequentially connected lexias, key-trails. These key-scenes or lexias present a number of characters whose personalities appear to maintain a certain nucleus of stability (by which I mean that one's impression of their personality does not change significantly from reading to reading).

Evidently, reading afternoon or Victory Garden to the point when one feels that the story-web has been fully explored or tentatively exhausted, takes several readings[16]. Furthermore, both products offer the reader the possibility of a 'linear' reading by providing him with the opportunity of just 'turning pages' by using the 'Return'-key. These readings are supposed to provide the reader with a more 'conventional' story-line and, in addition, visits to some of the 'highlights' of the web.

In whichever way one has chosen to do it, when the reader has worked his way through the key-scenes in the storyweb (once or several times) the reader will eventually end up with a sense of the nature of the relationships between the characters and a sense of 'who' they are. One might say that as reader one has 'exhausted' the storyweb: you have reached a point where you find that you have read all there is to read or all you want to read. Although there is no closure of the narrative fragments found in the storyweb and although no 'conclusion' is possible to draw, one is left with a feeling of having 'closed' the reading(s) in the sense that one feels that the links (between lexias) and relationships (between characters) it is possible to discover have been discovered. In other words, the reader will have drawn a more or less complete (mental) map of the storyweb as the readings of the hyperfiction draw to an end, similar to the way a 'mapping out' of a labyrinth would ultimately make it possible for the lost person to find his way out. Accordingly, towards the end of the reading process, some kind of 'websummary' in the form of a rough 'mapping' of the relations and characters featuring in the storyweb should be feasible.

In other aspects, the exploration of the storyweb initially closely resembles playing a computer game. Commencing a new game often includes a 'start-up'-phase where you become familiar with the structure of the entire 'thing', as you try out the various options provided and generally learn how to 'make your way around things' (using legal and illegal shortcuts etc.). Similarly, the novice reader or first reading is as much an exploration of the possibilities Storyspace offers as an actual 'reading'. Similarly, one spends the first time around 'getting to know' the characters (e.g. figuring out who 'I', 'she' etc. may be), making sense of who is speaking when and who is related to whom in which way. The second and following readings are more focused, as one now quickly recognises the trails one is following and tries to find new ones, that might describe what happens to the characters (or in a story) 'later'; or elaborate on the relationships between 'favourite' characters; or describe events whose consequences have surfaced in previous lexias. In this sense, subsequent readings of a storyweb to an extent also resemble the 'purposeful reading' of a computergame, since you as reader find yourself consciously heading for the places in the storyweb where you can 'pick up' information that can add another piece to the putting together of the jigsaw puzzle (i.e. the final 'map' of the storyweb), employing as many tricks as possible on the way to avoid visiting the same lexias as before.

afternoon : a summary

afternoon is one of the earliest pieces of hyperfiction writing and as such has acquired an almost transdiscursive status, being one of the first works of fiction that tried to translate into practice the emerging 'poetics' of hyperfiction writing [17] . Elsewhere Joyce himself says of this work, that

I wanted quite simply, to write a novel that would change in successive readings and to make those changing versions according to the connections that I had for some time naturally discovered in the process of writing and that I wanted my readers to share. (Joyce, Of Two Minds, p. 31)

In the storyweb of afternoon, one encounters Peter (a sensitive writer), Wert (a company owner, 'a man of the world'), Wert's wife, Lolly ('the unhappily married psychiatrist') and Peter's and Wert's shared mistress Nausicaa ('the mysterious woman'). Peter's ex-wife also appears at random, although mostly reflected through Peter's point of view. Scattered throughout the lexias of the web, the reader meets the voices of all these people and through this polyphony of voices, their thoughts about themselves or others, their reflections on or descriptions of the events taking place in other lexia; the reader is able to draw his 'own' mental map of the way these people are related to and feel about each other.

One of the recurring key-events in afternoon seems to be a car accident, in which Peter's and his ex-wife's son, Andy, might have been killed (as a reader, you find that you often end up somewhere on the path of lexias related to the car accident). Another key-scene is a job interview where Peter meets Wert for the first time and Wert tells Peter about his business ventures. The construction of the storyweb also allows for a limited construction of a chronology of events, through small hints like this:

I have been employed here three years now, lunched with him over three summers, and never made this connection. I have an appalling inattention to such details. (afternoon, part of lexia: he, he says, my emphasis).

Hence, it would appear that one path of the storyweb describes the conversation taking place when Wert hired Peter (three years ago). Another path describes 'the present', the day when Peter is afraid something has happened to his ex-wife and son. Other paths describe possible 'afters - events and dialogues taking place this day or 'later'. Some lexias appears to be memories, some of which indicating through the use of past tense that all the reader has read so far, might already have taken place. This, for instance, applies to this lexia in which the scriptor (Michael Joyce?) through the speaking voice (Peter) overtly comments on what every reader might be unwittingly desire (?), a fixed order of events that makes 'perfect sense' [18]

She never understood when I would want to shut the air down, open the windows, and make love. Still sometimes -- at least until the end-- she would humor me, knowing how I loved the feel of the sweat between us, the slap of belly to belly, the taste of salt on her thighs, cooling after in the still air. It was my fault. I gave her nothing. I kept wanting to put her into some story of my own making. I kept wanting to change the facts, not just the way things happened, but in what order. (afternoon, lexia: air, my emphasis)

The general impression, however, is that what is important in the story/stories about these characters is not so much the relation between events as the psychological games that are being played out between characters or in their individual minds, leaving it to the reader to draw his conclusions as to what would be the actual outcome or consequence of these games.

afternoon: lost in the funhouse of the author

In the initial reading the storyweb presents itself to its reader this way:

I try to recall winter. < As if it were yesterday? > she says, but I do not signify one way or another. By five the sun sets and the afternoon melt freezes again across the blacktop into crystal octopi and palms of ice-- rivers and continents beset by fear, and we walk out to the car, the snow moaning beneath our boots and the oaks exploding in series along the fenceline on the horizon, the shrapnel settling like relics, the echoing thundering off far ice. This was the essence of wood, these fragments say. And this darkness is air. < Poetry > she says, without emotion, one way or another. Do you want to hear about it? (afternoon, link: begin)

This lexia contains many of the 'technical' devices Michael Joyce employs as a scriptor. The reader encounters an unnamed "I', a 'she', a short description of an event, fragments of a dialogue and a overt addressing of the reader by the author ('do you want to…'). The reader can respond to the question by choosing to click on a 'Yes' or 'No'-button. Most lexias are constructed similarly, the use of 'I', 'she' or 'he' and the use of the < > indicating spoken dialogue (often without any indications of which tone of voice they are to be read in or of whom is actually speaking) making it possible for the reader to identify the speaking person or the various 'he' or 'she' pronouns with different characters, depending on which lexia the reader has previously visited. Similarly, the monologic or dialogic character of many of the lexias makes various interpretations of intention and the nature of the spoken parts possible, as does the often somewhat sketchy outlines of events and places.

Thus the theorists are right in so far as the process of making sense of what one read indeed depends on the reader. Once again, Michael Joyce as the storyweb-scriptor is well aware of this, as would appear from the following comment in the link calm:

I do know what you feel. You make some choices, you begin to see a pattern emerging, you want to give yourself to believing despite the machine. You think you've found something. (afternoon, lexia: calm)

However, sometimes it is almost impossible to say whether the connections made are the result of the mapping going on in your mind or a result of the mapping provided by the author. Although the Storyspace-program in principle allows for the construction of an unlimited number of links (and, hence, an unlimited number of stories), in practice Michael Joyce, the scriptor of this particular storyweb, has provided only so many links (in some cases only one) leading from the individual lexia. Consequently (though certainly more than one reading is possible) only a limited number of variations (on the story of the relations between the characters) are extractable from the afternoon-storyweb. As often as not, I have found that I have indeed been intentionally guided one way by the scriptor, that is: he has been more or less completely in control of my reading. In certain key-lexias the 'Yes' or 'No'-buttons that the reader is supplied with for interactional entertainment value, occasionally take me to the same lexia, as do several or all the 'yielding' words (e.g. linked words). Some lexias do not even have other lexias than the 'begin' lexia attached to them, they are, one might say, obvious 'dead ends'. Hence, after a couple of readings one is definitely left with the sense that the author has indeed made priorities on his reader's behalf, choosing which lexias are 'key-lexias' and which are not. Likewise, I find that the associative fragments of quotes from literary works, encyclopedias, self-made (?) poems or ironic author-comments, that are scattered throughout the entire storyweb very much point me in the direction of making the same interconnections (associative couplings) as the author rather than my own.[19]

In conclusion, one might say that in afternoon Michael Joyce has taken me, the reader, into his working laboratory where he has left scraps of scribbled notes all over the place for me to find at leisure. Hence afternoon lends itself to a reading of itself as a reflection of the mapping of its scriptor's mind more than as a structure of possible structures that could and would make sense to me. As a reader this 'mapping' on the basis of the synaptic associations of Michael Joyce's brain makes one feel somewhat lost 'in the author's funhouse', prey to associative whims beyond one's control, since, in this case, the author has not provided me with any kind of graphical overview of or introduction to his labyrinthine brain. Taken to its extreme, by emphasising the labyrinthine 'feel' of this storyweb, the author makes his presence much more felt than in many printed fictions.

Furthermore, the feeling of lack of readerly control of the structure is enhanced by the relatively limited interactive options the reader has. He can use the 'Yes' or 'No'-keys and the other 'buttons' on the screen, but, for instance, the text itself does not tell him which links are available. Joyce has provided an small 'input-field' at the bottom of the screen and the possibility of calling up a small window in which the reader can type 'margin-notes'. However, the reader's comments (whichever form they take) are not responded to by Storyspace and they are not integrated in subsequent readings in any way, unless the reader himself chooses to save the present reading and 're-enter' on another occasion. Consequently, the storyweb in itself remains untouched, solely under the authoritative control of the scriptor himself.

One wonders to what degree this tension between the promise of movement ad libitum and the actual experience of movement restricted is also part of Michael Joyce's strategy or 'intention' since, as discussed above, providing the reader with more links is merely a question of the scriptor choosing to add more links to the storyweb during the construction of it. The conclusion is inevitably that there is clearly intention lurking behind any particular choice of link, an intention you as a reader are invited 'to follow' by finding your way down the paths trodden by the scriptor himself and by letting him play with your readerly desires.

afternoon: an evaluation

Having tentatively explored the afternoon storyweb, the lasting impression is that there is not much intention or much to be learnt from the story. Thus, generally speaking, the lack of spatial description or, as it were, 'fleshing out' of characters in combination with the vagueness and casual tone of speaking that the characters' lines often seemed to be marked by, gave me (as reader of the storyweb) the impression of being baffled witness to an one-act absurd theatre play rather than being the reader of a piece of 'fiction' - that in its own way tried to be like a novel [20] - thus, there were times when I thought that the point of this piece of hyperfiction was exactly that there could be applied no 'perfect sense' whatsoever to the construction of the storyweb.

However, there might be a lesson to be learnt in the experience of the process of story-making, since as a reader, one is repetitiously verbally or formally confronted with one's own desires for making order out of the events et cetera he comes across. Whereas this confrontation might initially provide the intellectual reader with food for thought, this playing around with the reader cannot be repeated as the only point of the reading if the genre of hyperfiction wants to evolve. Evidently, the need to make multiple linkings and interpretations possible seem to make the 'scenic', sketchy character of the stories and characters in the storyweb necessary -. Hence, the necessity of providing lexias that can 'stand by themselves' (i.e. can be accessed through various links all over the storyweb) seem to have given birth to an abrupt, scenic style of writing that does in fact not leave much room for authorial creativity, and, furthermore, this sketchiness makes the reading rather listless and inanimate in the long run. One problem to be dealt with in future hyperfiction writings is clearly the question of a 'dynamics', both of interaction and story.

Since afternoon comes on one single floppy-disc, there is not storage space for moving images, advanced graphics or soundfiles. But, although Michael Joyce does occasionally play with the 'visual' output of the screen (words in italics, in different fonts, 'jumping' around on page et cetera) the 'materiality' of the text itself has clearly not had his interest. In this sense, 'content' rather than visual form has had this scriptors main attention - leaving the problem of how and in which medium to present text to be solved by Joyce's successors.


Victory Garden: a summary

The storyweb of Victory Garden presents its readers with different versions and variations on the relationships between a number of people working or studying at a University somewhere in The States. Among the protagonists, one finds Thea Agnew and a graduate student of hers, Emily, now stationed somewhere at the front-line of the Gulf war, much to Thea's dismay. Some of the trails in the storyweb consist of a continuous e-mail exchange between these two women. Other trails or lexias focus on 'soldierlife' at the front and one trail eventually leads to Emily's death (a black screen!). Other trails describe and elaborate on an evolving confrontation between the 'progressive' and the 'traditionalist' groups of lecturers at the University, with Thea 'fighting' desperately to prevent a new curriculum from being adopted. Emily has a manic boyfriend Boris Uruqhart, lecturer at the University, brilliant but unpredictable, who might end up as the head of the new curriculum committee. According to some lexias, Emily has actually been secretly involved with Victor, one of Boris' students, before her leaving for the Gulf. Jude Bush, another student, pursues Victor, but also meddles in the 'curriculum-plot', apparently trying to come to Thea's rescue. Emily also has a sister, Veronica, who throws a party that turns out very dramatically (a gun-shot incidence). The party-sequence appears to be one of the key-trails in the storyweb, since the reader often ends up 'somewhere' in the lexias of this trail, whose party-scenes 'introduces' most of the people mentioned here.

Victory Garden: return of the novel?

Maybe history is different for us. Perhaps, hypermediated and postmodernized, we now live in a universe that looks suspiciously like a Garden of Forking Paths. Or perhaps the old ways of understanding our lives - struggle, question, commitment; love, loss, mourning - can't really be pushed aside.I didn't set out to resolve that issue. I set out to put some stories in motion, hoping they'd take me somewhere. Here's where they led...
(from the 'prologue' to Victory Garden, link: Big Story

Since, like afternoon, Victory Garden is created with Storyspace, the experience of structure and possibilities of interaction described above applies as much to this product as to afternoon. However, since Victory Garden is produced some years later, changes have been made both formally as well as 'storywise'.

The Victory Garden-storyweb has about twice as many links as afternoon and this expansion of size makes possible a more detailed 'fleshing out' of narrative trails and personality of characters.[21] Even if in his prologue Stuart Moulthrop claims that he 'set out to put some stories in motion', in its entirety the work is obviously a meticulously constructed bricolage of facts and fictions commenting on the conservatism of Reaganite 'New' America and its relation to the Gulf war and on the relationship between (war)games and reality, - from what appears to be a clearly leftist point of view. Hence, in this storyweb, the insertion and commentaries in the form of 'real life' quotes from newspapers and theory books, transcripts of radio talks et cetera, seems more 'in place' or more 'part of' the fictive story-versions than the 'real life' fragments in afternoon.

Stuart Moulthrop (Moulthrop) uses the names of the characters more often, generally writes in the past tense and provides his readers with aggrandized, distinctive narrative and more manifestly connected key-sequences. Thus, compared to afternoon, reading this storyweb feels more like reading a traditional 'story'/novel in that one perceives of it as being more coherent and easier to navigate within. In other words, one might say, that contrary to afternoon, there is a more distinct feeling of the existence of 'plot' in the traditional sense, as one more or less coherent continuous story line and unfolding of events.

Contrary to Michael Joyce, Moulthrop provides his readers with a visual map of the key-lexias in the storyweb. The reader can access the lexias directly from the map by double-clicking on the lexia desired. In addition to this, Moulthrop has chosen to present the reader with a list of some of the 'trails', he or she can choose to follow, ironically mimicking (?) the style of a tourist guide:

NORMAN a path of gloryABW maybe this all makes more sense backwards...GRAND the grand tour CONFIDENCE various adventures of Boris T. UrquhartGRAND the Big Story [sic]ONEIRIC because we all have strange dreams...LIFESTORY story of your life? COUNTRY events in the Gulf and elsewhereWORKOUT various meditations PATHWAYS not on the grand tourSEEMLY strange, strange...TWISTED madness in our methodWALKABOUT various adventures of Thea Agnew (Victory Garden, link: paths to explore)

Finally, he has chosen (optionally, however) to make visible the number of links available in the individual lexia - when the reader presses the Control-key the linked words turn red. Hence, although in comparison with afternoon the physical degree of interaction is not increased, in this hyperfiction the reader is apparently offered the opportunity of being more in control of the story-creation than in afternoon. On the other hand, Victory Garden is not as 'self-conscious' of the process of story-construction as afternoon, perhaps because its scriptor takes it for granted that the reader of it is more familiar with the experience of hyperfiction reading.

In conclusion, it is my sense that Victory Garden is both more traditionally 'literary' than its ancestor (in terms of, for instance, 'unity' of story) which did, at least as applies to this reader, eventually increase the desire to explore and exhaust the storyweb. Still, Victory Garden has also utilized the formal options and advantages of Storyspace to create a genuinely hypertextual commentary on present day America. However, although it does in places uses the graphic aspects of the text as part of the 'message' communicated, the materiality of the hypermedium and the communicative prospects of other media are left unexplored.

Conclusion: I would have liked to be an interactor

Reading hyperfictions designed with an authoring program such as Storyspace seem to have both advantages and disadvantages. Clearly, as a reader one is by far much more in control of the routes and, consequently of the ordering of, one's readings, than in the printed work. Surprisingly, however, these hyperfictions present their readers to an author (or scriptor) who seems in fact to be more in control of the reading than an author of print does. [22] One might say that the author, residing on the level of 'the structure of possible structures', has become a meta-author. Thus, it seems that giving the reader control on one level, is depriving him of control on another.

One way of dealing with this problem is to make a theme in itself, as Michael Joyce has done. Another way is to provide the reader with as many possible instruments of control as possible. Evidently, one might also employ other means of increasing the reader's level of interaction, consequently increasing his control of the making of stories as well, if the ideal is to turn the reader into a true interactor and this will be one of the issues discussed in chapter 3.

Furthermore, to my sense, a fundamental problem still needs to be solved. Surely, neither Michael Joyce nor Stuart Moulthrop could have wished for their readers to 'leave' a reading of their works with the feeling of having halfheartedly participated in another performance of 'Endgame'. How can future writers prevent fragmentation of text from leading to frustration of reading? Would the use of hypermedia (all versions of them) be a possibility?


© Lisbeth Klastrup, 1997