By Julia Keller
Tribune Staff Writer
October 4, 1999

Here is a delicious thought: During some stultifyingly dull concert, play, lecture or literary reading, when the boredom begins inching across your limbs like a wobbly wingwalker and you feel a yawn tugging insistently at your jawbone, imagine if you had the right -- nay, you were even encouraged -- to rise in your seat, face the offending artists and say, "Hey! You're losing me! Do something else -- pronto!"

No longer would the folks on the stage rule. The power, my friends, would be in your hands. You would control the performance -- without, that is, the annoying necessity of actually having to possess the talent or guts to perform.

A test run of that scenario was on display Saturday at the Harold Washington Public Library, where a trio of writers performed an interactive reading of their hypertext novel "The Unknown" (www.soa.uc.edu/user/unknown).

Only about 25 people were on hand, many of them friends and relatives of the authors. Yet there was, faintly perceptible in the air of that nondescript room in the library's lower level, the distinct whiff of the future.

The event was raw, uneven, a trifle disorganized and initially a bit confusing. But no matter: The "Unknown" reading perhaps heralds a new kind of performance art, one that puts audience members in the front seat alongside the artists, instead of sticking them in the back and telling 'em to shut up and enjoy the scenery.

Here's how it worked:

William Gillespie, Scott Rettberg and Dirk Stratton (the fourth author of "The Unknown," Frank Marquardt, lives in San Franciso and was unable to attend), nattily attired in suits, stood alongside a screen upon which was projected the Internet connection to "The Unknown." In a hypertext novel, certain words appear in a different color than the rest of the text, indicating a hyperlink; if you click on the link, you're whisked to another site. In "The Unknown," the new site is either another story entirely or ironic commentary about the story you were perusing.

The authors took turns reading aloud from their rollicking, devilishly eloquent novel. Gillespie, a webmaster at the University of Illinois who lives in Champaign, had a self-mockingly authoritative tenor. Rettberg, a Chicago resident, had the grizzly tone of a wisdom-spouting fry cook; you could imagine the cigarette bobbing on his lip as he muttered aphorisms and called out, "Tuna melt's up!" Stratton, a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati, was the best vocal performer; he sounded like an old-time radio announcer, with an oaky baritone that rose and fell in dramatic scallops as his narrative pace accelerated.

Each time the reader came to a word marked as a hyperlink, a small bell, like the kind a hotel clerk uses to summon a bellhop, was smacked into life.

"If you're bored in the middle of a scene," Rettberg explained to the audience before the reading began, "shout out a link."

And so the teensy but involved audience did. If the rambling, occasionally incoherent fiction of four fun-loving guys traveling across the country, drinking to excess and arguing about literature, began to grate -- which, understandably, it did -- one simply waited for a hyperlink and then called out the link word. Instantly, another reader would take over; another story unfurled.

While it sounds disjointed, the reading had a kind of crazy internal consistency, a sort of patternless pattern that was surprisingly captivating.

Before launching into "The Unknown," the authors briefly read selections from their topical poetry Web site (www.newspoetry.com), whose motto is, "A poem a day until Y2K."

The poems proved one thing: Hypertext gimmicks aside, these guys can really write.