VI. Hyperfiction aesthetics
Although hypertext theory has strongly emphasized the importance of visual elements to hypertext--"the defining characteristics of hypertext [include] particularly its tendency to marry the visual and the verbal." (Landow 1992, 103)--they are not at all central for the hyperfiction Texts I have discussed here. There are a couple of trivial resolutions to this apparent contradiction. First, Joyce and Moulthrop are both writers, not visual artists. Because of this, they probably feel much more at home with text than with images. Jackson, on the other hand, has previously written an illustrated children's book, and her familiarity with the visual aspects of narrative may be reflected in her more radical approach to visual mapping in hypertext.
The other extratextual reason is, most likely, the need to demarcate 'serious hypertexts' (a slogan for Eastgate Systems which has published all the three Texts) from 'games'. This is quite interesting, keeping in mind the central role to hypertextualists of the poststructuralist notions of writing/reading as something playful--obviously 'playing' is more acceptable than 'gaming.' I would argue, however, that the technological appeal is quite an important aspect of hyperfiction, too. The narrative techniques used by Julio Cortazar, Vladimir Nabokov, Raymond Federman, Italo Calvino, etc., which for many readers were mere tricks and annoying distractions, now elicit totally different responses because of their adaptation to the electronic environment. Whereas jumping from page to page when reading Hopscotch might have been annoying, it is much more enjoyable to explore the possibilities of hyperfiction interfaces. The aspect of mastering a computer environment is an essential part of the hyperfiction reading experience, an aspect common with playing computer games.>11
There is no inherent reason for not using visual devices in hyperfiction narratives, and in fact I am inclined to claim that most interactive fiction IS dominantly visual--the most developed adventure games being nothing but interactive fiction. I am quite willing to state that the future of interactive fiction is dominantly visual (and probably, based on virtual reality devices).>12 The role of writing is, though, quite different in that kind of fiction; in fact it is more convenient to approach it from the theory of film. But that is a different story. Printed fiction did not perish because of film, so there is no reason for text-based hyperfiction to perish because of audio-visual interactive fiction. Writing has, after all, its own unique properties.
It seems to me that these three hyperfiction Texts, in their text-dominance, provide aesthetic experiences quite similar to that of printed fiction. In addition, I would argue that the use of visual navigation devices strengthens this effect. Victory Garden resembles realistic conventions mostly because of its visual-representational map. The map helps the reader to conceive of the Text as a coherent whole, with some ultimate metaphoric meaning.
When reading Afternoon, one cannot but notice the many parallels between the "secondary orality" Walter J. Ong ascribes to electronic writing; William Dickey has very similar arguments, though his views of oral techniques differ somewhat from Ong's (Ong 1995, 143-144; Dickey 1994, 150). The most notable technique of oral literature used in Afternoon is episodic structure. Episodic structure naturally can be ascribed to all three of the Texts discussed here, but with Afternoon it is a central narrative device used in quite a distinctive manner. Ong makes a comparison to "primary oral" literature:
Homer had a huge repertoire of episodes to string together but, without writing, absolutely no way to organize them in strict chronological order ... organization of the Iliad suggests boxes within boxes created by thematic recurrences,... (Ong 1995, 143)
Repetition with slight variation may be Joyce's most salient technique in Afternoon, and there is a strong tendency to replace linear narration with episodic structure.>13 As Ong describes: "The poet will get caught up with the description ... and completely lose the narrative track" (147). With hyperfiction we must naturally replace the 'poet' with the 'reader', but otherwise this is--potentially--an accurate picture of hyperfiction experience. The difference lies in the fact that the hyperfiction reader has the navigation system available, and he/she will never actually lose 'the narrative track', unless intentionally. And that is the difference between primary and secondary orality: whereas there was no alternative to episodic structure for a pre-print poet, in the case of secondary orality these techniques are self-consciously used as devices. "They are impressionistic and imagistic variations on the plotted stories that preceded them." (Ong 1995, 150)
Ong's account of 'deplotted stories' is somewhat narrow--he mentions works like Alain Robbe-Grillet's Marienbad and Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch, clearly postmodernist Texts. But modernist Texts already went quite a long way towards 'deplotted' stories, at least when compared to realistic conventions. I think that the closest precursors to Afternoon are to be found in modernist Texts from James Joyce (sic!) to Virginia Woolf, etc.>14 This also corresponds quite well to Brian McHale's definition of modernism as narratives dominated by epistemological questions (9). Afternoon is wholly built on the question of whether the bodies that the narrator saw in a car wreck were those of his ex-wife and son. The possibility of alternative stories explaining this initial problem is opened up because of the narrator's unwillingness to get accurate information about the situation ('the riddle' of Dickey's techniques of oral literature, 1994, 150). It is thus the epistemological uncertainty that causes different stories, and their existence depends on informational lack--they are epistemological (fictional) worlds in Umberto Eco's sense (Eco 1979). Thus the potentiality of ontologically multiple parallel worlds will never really be evoked.
The foregrounding of ontological questions--a defining element of postmodernist fiction (McHale 1987, 10)--can be done in many different ways, the laying bare of the narrative structure behind the story being one of these. The way Patchwork Girl is partially built on the premises of its visual structuring closely resembles some postmodernist techniques. For example, "A Crazy Quilt" shown above, shows a striking similarity to Italo Calvino's The Castle of Crossed Destinies, a story collection written according to a tarot-card deck: the cards are assembled in columns and rows that intersect each other, and each of the stories are based on one row or one column of cards. The effect is that the stories also intersect each other; they use the same materials, but the meaning of each card depends on the current story. The collection of stories as such weren't particularly postmodernist, though the intent reader might notice the "art in the closed field" feeling.>15 Still, the tarot cards that accompany each story as illustrations, as well as an illustration of all the 78 cards, provide the overall structure of the story collection (to be exact, there are two different tarot decks, and two different story collections in Castle of the Crossed Destinies). It is this open declaration that the stories are generated according to a strict procedure that makes Calvino's book markedly postmodern.>16
"A Crazy Quilt" also takes as its starting point the graphical
layout of the lexias, and through the visual map explicates its
own premises. The whole section is thematically and metaphorically
linked to the theme of Patchwork Girl, since one of the themes of the novel that identities are patched
together from various textual parts, but also that stories can
be seen as constructed this way. "A Crazy Quilt", though, differs
from Calvino's story collection in that its stories are not as
tight or as coherent as Calvino's. But as Landow has noted, the
mere existence of a link between lexias implies a meaningful,
if not causal, relation between them. So the reader is tempted
to construct a story from the parts of the quilt. Here is one
actual instance where the hyperfiction reader works as a bricoleur,
using the materials available and constructing his/her own story
out of them--in fact, in much the same way as Calvino allegedly
did when writing his stories. And as Calvino's example suggests,
each reader may take a tarot deck and try to construct stories
him/herself, and Patchwork Girl, through its multiple visual navigating devices offers the reader
a tempting opportunity to search for stories hidden in the lexias
of "A Crazy Quilt".