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And the Envelope Please"
Prize-Winning Hypertext Fiction
William Gillespie, Scott Rettberg,
Dirk Stratton, and Frank Marquardt
The trAce/Alt-X Hypertext Competition
The first trAce/Alt-X prize was awarded in 1999. I had the good fortune to first encounter The Unknown , the co-winner that first year, at a live reading/performance at the HT '00 conference last year in San Antonio. The live reading had much to recommend it. The authors took turns reading aloud; each time they read a piece of text that was linked--"William T. Vollmann", "smoking crack", etc.--another author rang a bell, one of those little thingies that used to be more frequent on hotel desks or, in my time, the desk of my 4th grade teacher, who rang it to distraction to get us all to shut up and get in our seats after lunch. It also called to mind The Gong Show and, guess what, The Unknown Comic. The audience was free to call out to the authors to click any link that had had its bell rung, so to speak. Perhaps the association with the bell was what I found increasingly hilarious about the live reading, but in any case it added much to the text (as did, in particular, William Gillespie's portentous monotone), so much so that when I began to read it online I still heard that bell ringing in my head and people calling out links to follow. It was an inspired auditory parallel to the visual effect underlined text has on the screen--ding! Numerous Real Audio clips of other readings give online readers a vague idea of what this was like, but they do not really capture the spontaneity of the live presentation.
The Unknown is the most meta of metafictions: its text is the story of the authors touring to promote the very text that we are reading. It comprises some 1000 spaces and some much greater number of links--more than 10,000 I would guess. It is mainly text with occasional photos and the Real Audio clips already mentioned. All this tells, in a fragmented way, the story of the genesis and writing of The Unknown, the worldwide (mainly American) tour to promote it, and sundry adventures along the way. The "tour" is a wild amalgam of today's ubiquitous author tour, the rock band tour, and the road trip buddy movie. Imagine Bob Hope and Bing Crosby on the road again, but with Keith Richard along, the lot of them drunk, drugged, and at the center of a cult, throwing up and passing out in bookstores and roadside diners, and quoting Baudrillard and praising Barthleme, and you'll begin to get the picture. This is not a put-down, nor really much of an exaggeration; you can't make fun of The Unknown anyhow, since its authors will already have beaten you to the punch. Tons of celebrities appear; there is a mind-numbing plague of namedropping-- place names, postmodern writers, controlled substances; and there are more pomo and litcrit in-jokes than anyone outside a literature program could possibly get. Or want to get.
The text is dense with links, which run the gamut from the useful to the frivolous. These come in two places, either in the navigation bars at the bottom of each space or the underlined words within the text, which may number anywhere from five to fifty or more in a single space. Most useful are the various categories appearing at the bottom of each space, both as text and as icons, in such categories as "People," "Bookstores," "Metafictional Bullshit," and so on. Many of the links within the text are pertinent as well as insightful, such as this discussion, "Some Thoughts on Writing Hypertext." But on the other end of the spectrum are a number of links the authors seem to have put in place, well, simply because they can. A prime example is the various links that, by all pointing to the same space, imply some (indeterminable) relationship between Saint Louis, Louis Farrakhan, and Louis L'Amour and another character named Louis (and, for all I know, to Louis Agassiz, Joe Louis, and the Spirit of St. Louis). Obviously, the authors can put in whatever links they want; my concern is that this is just the sort of time-wasting cuteness that puts off would-be readers of hypertext. And to what good end? There's no real relationship, is there? And although it's absurd, which is easy to do, it's not funny, which is hard. They have taken Randell Jarrell's famous dictum about reading and changed it slightly: "Link at whim! Link at whim!"
Is it successful on its own terms? Often; maybe as often as not. The authors set out to lampoon the nascent world of hypertext literature--which they themselves are helping to create--as well as such tangential targets as the litcrit machine, the author-as-celebrity phenomenon, TV and other pop cultures, drugs, and so on and so on. Many times they hit their targets, but more often they miss. A case in point is the node The Unknown FBI Files: Released through the Freedom of Information Act. While not an original idea, it is still a good one, but it is not carried off with enough panache. For anyone who has looked at an FBI FOIA file (which can be done easily at the FBI's web site), it is clear that this is not an attentive parody. For example, the struck through text at the bottom--in the real thing this would be completely obscured. It would be easy to make fun of this with rollovers--a blacked out text that revealed some unexpected joke when you passed the mouse across it. As it stands, it's more like a song parody that doesn't scan properly according to the original--it just sounds wrong to the ear, forced. This may sound like nitpicking, but it's not just the devil that's in the details--the art is there too.
We come to a very different piece in "Kokura," an honorable mention in the trAce/Alt-X Competition. There are a number of things to praise in this short fiction of some 120 brief nodes. First, its basic concept. In a short prologue we are told that Kokura was the primary target for the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki on the morning of August 9, 1945, and that it was passed over due to weather conditions. In a spare frameset we are then presented with a story we can navigate either along three parallel tracks or from a map of nuclear test sites. Two of the three tracks are really one story--a "he" and "she" reverie of a relationship that often centered around political activism against nuclear proliferation. The third track is a series of "found" texts, many relating in some way to the bombing of Japan. Some of this found material is, unsurprisingly, quite moving, such as this, the eleventh item in the series:
Meanwhile, as we read, a frame at the top uses a client pull technique to load new text every few seconds about various nuclear tests in the 1980s: place, time, size of detonation, and so on. Cumulatively this data, which proceeds of its own accord--the reader cannot stop it--builds an ominous mood.
The narrations of the two characters are essentially monologues, each addressed silently to the other. But your navigation can make them seem like dialogues, depending on whether you cycle through all of one narrator's story first or cut back and forth. Or you can follow all the way through one cycle from beginning to end, then go back through the other two the same way. I don't know that the three track structure was picked for this reason, but it's an interesting fact (not noted here I think) that three runs were made by the bomb squadron over Kokura that fateful morning before it was written off as a target in favor of Nagasaki.
While it has much to recommend it, I do not find "Kokura" a wholly successful piece. The main problem is not the story per se or even the language or navigation, but rather its juxtaposition with the story of Kokura invoked in the title and explanatory prologue. Frankly, the story of the nearly-bombed Kokura--and looming behind it, the eternally linked stories of the actually-bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki--tower over the story of the no-nukes activist couple presented here, dwarfing it into an insignificance it doesn't deserve. While it is easy to see certain connections between them--the theme of nuclear warfare, potential or realized; the road-not-taken story (the mission to bomb Kokura veered in another direction, just as these characters' potential future relationship did)--their conjoining comes off as mechanical rather than organic, claimed rather than earned. I expected something grand when I read the prologue but I clicked through with a gradually waning enthusiasm.
One important thing not found in "Kokura" is any discussion of hypertext. No wondering how it is or is not like life, print literature, film, or anything else. It is not mentioned or acknowledged in any way, in the text, prologue, or credits. Any time this is absent from a hypertext I am profoundly grateful--I take it as a sign that the field is maturing and that its practitioners are ceasing to fret about it so much. There are other topics to turn these wonderful tools upon, and Arnold and Denby take up the challenge without looking over their shoulders at print, critics, postmodernism, or anything else other than their subject.