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Cambridge University Press 2002




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The outer limits of narrative



When does narrative become something else? What are its outer limits? Questions like these have come up frequently in connection with modernist and postmodernist experimental fiction, and more recently with hypertext fiction, including hypertext narrative, a form of writing which underwent an explosive proliferation in the 1990s. The first thing to make clear is that to make sense, this question of when something ceases to be narrative must be applied at the level of the work itself, or its overall effect, rather than at the level of its parts. As I noted in Chapter One, narrative occurs almost everywhere in human communication, including almost all the kinds of written, scripted, and visual art. A lyric poem may not be called a narrative -that is, it may not have the impact or felt quality of a narrative — yet almost invariably it will include all kinds of narrative bits and pieces. These bits can even have a high degree of narrativity, yet still the effect of the whole is not that of narrative. Regarding modernist, postmodernist and hypertext fiction, like James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) and Virginia Woolf's The Waves (1925), William Burroughs's Naked Lunch (1959) and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973), Michael Joyce's Afternoon (1987/1993) and C. D. Coverly's Califia (1999), they all may push at the outer limits of narrative experimentation and yet they are at the same time packed with narrative. So the key question is: When do we say that, despite the fact that a work may include much narrative, the whole thing is really something other than narrative? Is there some kind of line that is crossed?


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Electronic narrative and hypertext narrative



"Electronic narrative" has proliferated exponentially with advances in desktop software and especially since the invention of the Web in 1993. In this short time, it has achieved a great range of effects by capitalizing on the electronic capability of breaking up the text and including pictures, graphics, and sound. But combining pictures and sound with narrative are ancient capabilities that have been realized in other, non-electronic, media. Likewise, though electronic narrative can also lend itself to the collaborative authorship of narrative, it only does perhaps more quickly and efficiently what has frequently been done in the past in other media.

The unique narrative experience that late twentieth-century electronic resources have enabled is, I think, a direct consequence specifically of the hypertext function. "Hypertext narrative" is that subset of electronic narrative that makes use of this capability. It uses the linking function to allow readers to link to other virtual spaces in which almost anything can be found (though these things have been placed there, in most current instances, by the author). George Landow in his Hypertext 2.0 uses Roland Barthes's term lexia to refer to prose links - supplemental narrative discourse, alternate continuations of the story fragments of still other narratives - but links can also consist of footnote material, definitions, pictures, poems, music, and so on. As links, they allow readers to switch instantaneously out of any particular passage and link up with something else and, perhaps even more significant, they give readers the option of either choosing or not choosing to exercise any particular link. Even in this regard there have been anticipations of this capability in other media. Julio Cortazar's novel Hopscotch (1963) invites the reader to read the chapters in two different orders. The novelist Marc Saporta went even further when he published Composition no. 7 (1962), which was marketed as a box of unnumbered and unbound pages to be read in any order the reader chooses. But there have always been readers who like to skip around as they read. Is this a comparable experience? And then there is the very natural experience that most of us have of recalling earlier parts of a narrative as we read, or imagining what might come next.


Broad generalizations have been made about the radical departure in­herent in electronic narrative, but it is important to bear in mind that far and away the majority of electronic narratives are transcriptions or imita­tions of hard copy. In these numerous cases, the only difference is reading off a screen rather than a page. Where radical innovation has occurred has been in the work of small groups of dedicated artists who have cap­italized on the resources of the electronic medium, especially hypertext linking. But even in these works, whether or not they go beyond what we would call a narrative (and there are a number that do), depends not on the mere presence of hypertext linking, but on how that linking is de­ployed. Are these links, in other words, deployed in such a way that we continue to look for, and occasionally find, the thread of a story? Or do they so disburse attention from the story line that we see the whole thing as something other than narrative: an extended prose poem, for example, or a meditation, or an "anatomy," or any one of a number of non-narrative genres?

Some discussion of the unique departure of hypertext and other kinds of experimental fiction has turned on the way it undermines narrative linearity, where linearity has meant following in a line from earlier events to later ones. Given the multitude of lexia in hypertext fiction and the freedom ) the reader to order these scraps of narrative as she or he pleases, such narratives defy the notion of any single narrative order, much less one that arts at the beginning and moves forward to the end. But here again we have to recall that narrative has always had two components: story and narrative discourse. And as we noted above, narrative discourse can go forward or backward or inside out. So, in this sense, non-linearity has been common to narrative discourse from the earliest recorded instances of story telling Ancient epics commonly began "in the middle of things" (in medias res) and then recovered earlier parts of the story as the narrative proceeded In contrast, story by definition is linear. It can only go forward in the one direction that time moves. Strictly speaking, then, hypertext lexia are simply a new twist on an old narrative condition. That they permit readers to some degree to arrange the narrative discourse, and to distribute its parts differently in different readings, does not in itself violate the essential narrative condition, so long as there is a story to be recovered. In a hyper­text novel like Michael Joyce's Afternoon, a Story, which makes extensive use of hypertext possibilities, the experience of many, reading it for the first time, has been that they are every bit as much in quest of the story as readers of Faulkner's modernist "hard copy" novel Absalom! Absalom! (1936).


Can a story go backward ?


In 1991, Martin Amis published a novel, ^ Time's Arrow, in which everything goes backwards:

First I stack the clean plates in the dishwasher.... So far so good. Then you select a soiled dish, collect some scraps from the garbage, and settle down for a short wait. Various items get gulped up into my mouth, and after skillful massage with tongue and teeth I transfer them to the plate for additional sculpture with knife and fork and spoon.... Next you face the laborious business of cooling, of reassembly, of storage, before the return of these foodstuffs to the Superette, where, admittedly, I am promptly and generously reimbursed for my pains. Then you tool down the aisles, with trolley or basket, returning each can and packet to its rightful place.4

But even here, I would argue that the backward representation of events is an extreme version of Chatman's "chrono-logic," or a kind of deranged narrative discourse (indeed, it baffles even the first-person narrator of this novel). Notice how, in reading, your mind automatically sorts out the forward motion of the story. In fact, much of the curious appeal of this writing depends on this automatic reconstruction. And this reconstruction of the story is required, too, for the overall effect of this novel. As we go further along in our reading -that is, further backward in the life of the central figure - we become aware of early events and actions that cast a devastating moral light on his later opinions and behavior. I won't give away what we learn, but the point is that the novel depends for its full effect on our reconstructing the true temporal order of events.

To sum up the discussion so far, just as the presence of narrative within a Hoes not qualify a text as a whole as narrative, so the radical departure of narrative discourse from the linearity of story does not by itself disqualify a text as narrative. Rather the key element in answering this question is whether story predominates. Nelson Goodman argued that if you twist up the narrative discourse sufficiently, a text can pass from being a narrative to being either a "study" or a "symphony," arousing respectively either a state of meditation a state of pure aesthetic enjoyment.5 Here is one of those gray areas I promised at the end of the last chapter. It's gray because determining when the twisting is enough is a subjective judgment call. People also use the term "poetry" to describe a predominating impact different from that of narrative. In Jonson's "Song: To Celia," the stories we teased out of the poem do not dominate but serve as metaphorical expressions of the lover-poet's state of mind. In the opening lines, the micro-narratives of looking and drinking combine in a witty and complex metaphor of erotic yearning. So, too, in similar ways, Robert Kendall's hypertext A Life Set for Two (1996) and Michael Joyce's hypertext Reach (2000) generate a more poetic than story-oriented frame of mind. Attention in these texts is focussed not so much on figuring out the story (though some of the narrative fragments are certainly tantalizing) as enjoying the way the lexia play off against each other. George Landow goes so far as to argue that the hypertext link itself enables poetic effect: "the link, the element that hypertext adds to writing, bridges gaps between text - bits of text - and thereby produces effects similar to analogy, metaphor, and other forms of thought, other figures, that we take to define poetry and poetic thought."6

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