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Lines of Flight

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 3, March/April 2013
pp. 27-28 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0046

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Michael Joyce is one of the pioneers of hypertext fiction. In 1987, he produced a CD entitled afternoon: a story (1992), an interactive chamber of narrative events that the reader can explore, either by simply clicking the “return” button, which leads one through a fairly conventional piece of storytelling, or by clicking “y” or “n” on the bottom of the screen to visit other dimensions of the “default” narrative, which stops rather than ends, leaving one with an open form to be expanded by chance operations. Clicking words at random, for example, defeats narrative convention by producing something like a collage experience, as when a snatch of dialogue appears out of sequence against the background of empty space:

He asks slowly, savoring the question, dragging it out devilishly, meeting my eyes.

<How… would you feel if I slept with your ex-wife?>

It is foolish. She detests young men.

A common complaint against a work like afternoon is that its technology is innovative but its writing is commonplace. In his recent work, Michael Joyce has finessed this complaint by folding the nonlinearity of cyberspace back into print. For example, Was: annals nomadique, a novel of the internet (2007) is a work of parataxis in which juxtaposition replaces composition to produce an assembly of fragments that is closer to certain forms of contemporary poetry than to what usually passes for a novel. It begins as follows:

was thought not were the yellow irrepressible ever who said who said ends Ashtoreth one Wednesday, one Wednesday in June the damp the dampness in everything (light, profusionist, no I mean heat)

forty times now, bowing, clogs along foggy bottom news from the front, wooden boxes neatly in rows

the last the lost wandering allées (lips pressed to the neonate’s skull, powder scent) wills all now gone from their ripeness

Years ago, a reader of Maurice Blanchot, the philosopher of interruptions, might have described this text as a Rieman space in which amorphous pieces accumulate without forming attachments. Joyce updates us to the world of hypermedia, in which bits of information (proper names, narrative snatches, random facts and electronic gadgets) migrate through a global heteroglossia:

in her purse a five inch by two inch electronic translator with 28 languages, including phonetic hebrew, arabic, chinese, Japanese, korean, thai, and Indonesian over 580,000 words (20,000 per language) and 58,000 useful phrases, 8 currency conversions and 6 metric conversions, world time in 200 cities and calculator on 2 line x 14 character LCD display.

It follows that one does not so much read such a text as pursue its lines of flight, citing like a digital scribe whatever seems worth saving:

Joyce’s new work may seem to some readers a step back into the logic of traditional narrative, but in fact, the novel is made of a serial plot that swirls, drifts, reverses, pauses, and finally ends with what might best be described as a double turn of the screw. The narrator of Disappearance is a nameless “wayfarer” whom grief has deposited on the back streets of a city every inch of which is under video surveillance. Fans of William Gibson will recognize the lowlife metaphysics of cyberpunk, in which differences between the virtual and the real are without force. And the shade of Kafka fills the place with a distinctive malaise (“You are on trial in ways you cannot imagine and by forces beyond your ken”).

A street kid named Franky Ali, who steals money, food, and cell phones on which to play video games, attaches himself to the narrator, but then mysteriously disappears, thus setting in motion the novel’s system of complexities. (Coincidentally, “Franky Ali” is the name of a real person, an “interactive developer” who operates out of Washington, D.C.) The narrator goes looking for Franky via a computer at an internet café, The Egyptian, owned by a gypsy named Irina, whose friends, Candido and Rosaria, try to catch the narrator up in a game of their own (and eventually do). But suddenly, the narrator is arrested and interrogated in an “observation car” whose video screens display holograms of himself, Franky, and others, including an old man...

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