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  • A Response to Twelve Blue by Michael Joyce
  • Greg Ulmer

Michael Joyce is well known as a theorist, teacher, and creator of hypertext fiction. His most recent composition, authored in StorySpace for presentation on the World Wide Web, may be found at Twelve Blue thus demonstrates the strengths (but also some of the limitations) of StorySpace as an authoring environment for the Web. Its great evocative power also shows off the craft of Joyce as a creative writer.

The epigraph makes explicit the intertextual relationship between Joyce’s hypertext and On Being Blue by William Gass, a tour de force of poetic prose. I have long admired Gass’s meditative essay, for which Twelve Blue provides a narrative counterpart. Gass’s text demonstrates what I now call writing with the choral word (derived from a strategy often used by Jacques Derrida)—the inventio and dispositio are governed by the principle of blue (every possible usage) rather than by a thesis statement or a story (although the text both argues and narrates). I anticipated then that Joyce would continue this experiment, testing its applicability as a way to design a hypertext (and I was not disappointed). The introduction explains that the hypertext includes 269 links in 96 spaces. The reader is offered a definition that turns out to be a phrase from the work: “12 Blue isn’t anything. Think of lilacs when they are gone.” It so happens that I have never stopped thinking of the lilacs that grew in the backyard of my childhood home, the very scarcity of flowering bushes in Montana making their brief but fragrant appearance all the more impressive. I am hooked.

The layout includes two frames—a narrow column on the left displaying a field of colored threads or yarn, spread horizontally from the top to the bottom of the frame. We are given to understand that these threads, mostly of a dark color except for one line of yellow, represent the StorySpace network. Indeed, each thread is a link to a document in the web; running the cursor over the frame shows the range of URLs available. Clicking on these threads moves the reader through the web in digital jumps. Since the URLs are numbered in sequence the reader might be tempted to move through the hypertext in a linear fashion by entering the document addresses in consecutive order. This effort will not produce a linear path, however, for the work is nonlinear in both conception and execution. The large righthand frame displays the prose segments printed in light blue on a dark blue background. Each cell offers at least one link within the prose, motivated this time by formal or aesthetic motifs derived from the attributes or properties of objects, places, events, persons.

The effect of spending a couple of hours browsing Twelve Blue is the literary equivalent of seeing an interlaced gif assemble itself, passing from an unintelligible array of diffuse shapes into a fully coherent representation. This experience of initial disorientation and confusion that modernist fiction labored so hard to produce is more or less inherent in the nonlinear linking of hypertext. Some of John Cage’s experiments anticipate the potential of a different mode altogether of reading and writing, such as those in which he attempted to produce in prose the effect of working the tuners of numerous radios to pass in and out between noise and speech. Part of the craft of authoring in hypertext masterfully manifested in Twelve Blue is this gradual passage in and out of focus of the diegesis or imaginary space and time of the narrative world. As the reader moves through the cells of prose in a random order of selection, a recognizable world emerges—even a world of verisimilitude reflecting qualities of realist fiction (psychologically deep characters with complex inner lives)—but assembles itself fully only in the reader’s imagination.

The style of the prose is mostly indirect, with the actions, thoughts, and speeches of characters being reported for the most part rather than dramatized. We meet a group of characters entangled in melodramatic domestic stories of sex, fatal accidents, and murder. We are not expected...