by Sharyn Peacocke

October 2004

Robert Coover was in his 70s, committed to books of the old-fashioned print variety, and relatively unfamiliar with hyperspace, when he attended a series of university workshops in hyperfiction. Although not entirely enamoured, he found it a revelation. "This is a technology that both absorbs and totally displaces," he reveals in his essay The End of Books. (Coover, 1992) "Hypertext is truly a new and unique environment .... With its webs of linked lexias [and] its networks of alternate routes [it] presents a radically divergent technology, interactive and polyvocal, favoring a plurality of discourses over definitive utterance and freeing the reader from domination by the author." (ibid)

For the uninitiated, this may seem an extravagant claim. But for readers of Stuart Moulthrop's labyrinthine hypertext, Victory Garden, Coover's conviction is validated. This is a text that is indeed "radically divergent ... interactive and polyvocal" (ibid). With its multifarious points of view and extraordinary array of narrative paths and voices, it offers a liberating and provocative reading experience. Does it, however, provide the ultimate in freedom of choice for the individual reader to encode meaning? In exploring various aspects of this argument, the topic of closure, somewhat paradoxically, provides an appropriate starting point.

In How Do I stop This Thing? Closure and Indeterminacy in Interactive Narratives, author, critic and academic, J. Yellowlees Douglas, reminds us that, when it comes to both life and literature, we have an expectation of closure. "Endings", she says, "either confirm or invalidate the predictions we have made about resolutions to conflicts and probably outcomes as we read stories, watch films or speculate about the lives of others." (Douglas, 1994, p.161)

Perhaps we also seek the constraints of closure because, generally speaking, we fear the freedom of the unknown into which we may be thrust if there are no definitive boundaries. If so, this compounds why, as Douglas contends, literary critics like Brooks, Kermode and Benjamin "insist on closure as an essential component – perhaps the essential component – in narrative poetics". (ibid, p.160) At the end of the story, we want the satisfaction of saying to ourselves: 'So that's what it was all about!'

In this respect, Coover's hypertext workshop experience left him somewhat perplexed. "How does one resolve the conflict between the reader's desire for coherence and closure and the text's desire for continuance, its fear of death?" he asks. "Indeed, what is closure in such an environment? If everything is middle, how do you know when you are done, either as reader or writer?" (Coover, op.cit.)

It's a fair question, but the answer is not necessarily a simple one. Hypertext and narrative resolution may seem incompatible, but hypertext's authors and readers still need some form of closure – a time, a place, to stop and be satisfied that they have reached an ending of sorts.

Douglas provides a possibility. Referring to Moulthrop's Victory Garden which contains almost 1,000 nodes accessed by 2800 links (Douglas, op.cit., p.164) she suggests that, unlike their print fiction counterparts, hyperfiction readers "must supply their own sense of an ending" (ibid) which they achieve by satisfying themselves "that they have experienced the full range of the narrative's possibilities" (ibid) through the exploration, to whatever extent they choose, of the text's links and nodes.

From my own perspective, this is easier said than done. Despite extensive readings of Victory Garden (Moulthrop, 1991), I am not satisfied. I remain unconvinced that I have viewed every screen, despite zealous experimentation with defaults, links, responses to questions, and menus. I have also worked from the Victory Garden map, checking off each major event and scene and yes, I have formulated my own sense of closure in many instances. But certainly not in others. For example, I am left wondering who is the narrator – Thea's lover and the co-author of her book – in the 'Postwar' sequence? Indication that Thea may have been in love with Emily, along with various esoteric references to lesbianism, including a throwaway comment about a Sandra Bernhard video in the 'Mourning' node, begs the question, is it another woman? (For what heterosexual couple would actually seek out a Sandra Bernhard performance?) I have learned that this narrator is slightly younger than Thea, and that it is not Harley, Urquart, Veronica, or Emily, because they are mentioned in conversation, but his or her identity continues to elude me. As for Emily, is she still alive? The 'Down in the Dark' node suggests she may not be, while in 'Reality Based', she is. Or maybe, given Urquart's paranoia or drug dependence or, perhaps, his alternate incarnation in a parallel universe – whichever of sundry possibilities one chooses to consider – Emily's return from the Gulf is actually Urquart's dream, in the literal sense. Is she 'Down in the Dark' – dead – after all?

"When I read Victory Garden, I can never be complacent about sequence, precedent and antecedent," explains J. Yellowlees Douglas (Douglas, 1991, p.24) providing a few clues for hypertext novices in an article entitled 'Are We Reading Yet?' contained within the Reader's Manual on the Victory Garden CD. "Even in two places which follow one another by default, I can never be completely certain that the 'he' or 'she' I may encounter there is the same in both places." (ibid)

Douglas's comments provide some comfort to the hypertext newbie. They confirm that I must become accustomed to falling, like Alice down the rabbit hole; never quite sure where I am headed or where my journey will end. Readings one and two may leave me feeling satisfied and even somewhat sanguine, but by the next I am likely to find myself disorientated and insecure. What was it I read several sequences ago? And if I try to return there now, for the purpose of cross-referencing, will I find my way back? More likely, my curiosity will lead me so far along another path that I'll become engrossed in a storyline which will not necessarily bear any obvious relationship to the one I've left behind.

In 1941, Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short story called The Garden of Forking Paths, a compelling spy thriller which challenges all the usual conventions of its genre. The Garden of Forking Paths juxtaposes two complex fictional narratives: a main autobiographical thread by the protagonist Yu Tsun, a spy about to be executed, and another – a story-within-the-story – involving the spy's ancestor, Ts'ui Pen, and his monumental novel (also named 'The Garden of Forking Paths'). Ts'ui Pen's novel is described by one of the main story's characters, Sinologist Stephen Albert, as a "riddle, or parable, whose theme is time". (Borges, 1970, p.53) Elaborating, Albert says about Ts'ui Pen:

He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time. We do not exist in the majority of these times; in some you exist, and not I; in others I, and not you; in others, both of us. In the present one ... you have arrived at my house; in another ... you found me dead; in still another, I utter these same words, but I am a mistake, a ghost. (ibid)

So, as is the case with a hypertext such as Victory Garden, endings in The Garden of Forking Paths are illusory. The main story may appear to conclude with Yu Tsun murdering Stephen Albert as a cryptic communication to his superior in Berlin that the city of Albert should be bombed, but we know it is merely one possibility; that other endings may well exist in parallel times and space. "The hand of the stranger [that] murdered" (ibid, p.48) Ts'ui Pen so long ago, may have been that of his great grandson, Yu Tsun, in a parallel universe – the same "stranger" (ibid, p.54) who killed Stephen Albert.

One of the more obvious examples of alternative endings in Victory Garden appears in the 'Fugitive' sequence where, driving Harley Morgan's Porsche, Urquart is convinced he is being chased by Madden. The chase takes us through 'Stop and Go', 'Take Off, 'Line of Flight', and 'No Obstructions' before appearing to reach a crescendo in the 'Time and Violence' node. "Urquart saw the truck for perhaps three seconds, long enough to think about impact and pain. Not long enough to react." (Moulthrop, 1991) Then, at the end: "Time and violence. Inevitable outcomes. The two tracks closing, too close to call. The future already exists. But which one?" (ibid) Which one indeed? A variety of parallel scenarios follow, and by the time we get to 'Wait, Watch', Urquart is feeling "disoriented, giddy". (ibid) So, too, are we!

George P. Landow, who Coover refers to as a "hyperspace walker", (Coover, op.cit.) postulates that "as readers and writers we have long learned to live (and read) with more open-endedness than discussions of narrative form might lead us to expect" (Landow, 1992, p.112) This may be true, but it is worth considering that most print literature – and there are, of course, many well-known exceptions – has encouraged readers to be 'cave dwellers' of sorts, snugged down in the familiar linear territory of beginnings, middles and ends. The rhizomatic (Moulthrop, 1994) nature of an expansive hypertext, especially one such as Victory Garden, rigorously challenges this notion more than is possible in print literature, forcing its readers to be 'tent livers' instead, nomads always at the ready to pick up and set down as the mood strikes or the wind changes. A journey through hyperfiction thrusts readers into a labyrinth of lexias and nodes, concurrent strands involving a multitude of characters, plots and points of view, containing a seemingly endless array of clues and information – where following an intertextual link may likely result, instead of answers and endings, in another macrame-style expedition containing a fresh storyline, a new mystery, an extra character, more questions and possibilities – and thus a greater sense of 'getting lost'? This helps to prove that not only does hypertext provide the ultimate freedom of choice for the individual reader to encode meaning, it insists upon it!

There is little doubt that 'getting lost', and the subsequent sense of disorientation, is a key component of the hyperfiction reading experience. For the reader this can be frustrating or enriching, depending on their perspective and their degree of willingness to find new ways of encoding meaning. Perhaps it is that very feeling of being lost that makes hyperfiction so compelling. Tess Brady, in her paper on 'Interrogating Authorship: Students Writing Hypertext', points out that Moulthrop believes so, which is why he prefers not to use "overt signposts and navigational aids" (Brady, 1999) – in his opinion, they inhibit narrative possibilities. "For Moulthrop, this new writing thrives on the tension generated between the cornucopia and the ordered menu, between the predicable and the unexpected," writes Brady. "Even a certain disorientation can only help to excite and stimulate the reader's interest." (ibid)

The disorientation involved in navigating a maze is, of course, at the very core of Borges' narrative, The Garden of Forking Paths. Part way through the story, the protagonist, Yu Tsen, meditates on his great-grandfather's disjointed novel and missing labyrinth:

I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars. Absorbed in these illusory images, I forgot my destiny of one pursued. I felt myself to be, for an unknown period of time, an abstract perceiver of the world. (Borges, op.cit. p.48)

Could these not be the thoughts of a reader in the process of navigating the hypertext Victory Garden? Engrossed, yet disorientated – taking a leap of faith into the unknown and, in so doing, detaching to whatever degree possible for each individual, from expectations and outcomes.

One of the 'fathers' of hypertext, Mark Bernstein, makes an interesting point about disorientation claiming it is, on occasions, "common in all kinds of serious writing." (Bernstein, 1998, .../Beyond_Navigation.html) He goes on to say that his own early hyperfictions contained clear navigational tools – "bookmarks, compasses, and bread crumbs" (ibid, .../NavTech.html) – to assist the reader in their journey. However, he later realised that, as George Landow had been arguing, "scholars and teachers often need to induce a measure of disorientation in order to make readers receptive to new arguments and difficult ideas" (ibid) – in other words, increased opportunities for the reader to encode meaning.

The more complex and ingenious the hypertext, the more the reader must come to terms with the process of 'reading', as opposed to 'having read'. If hypertext authors have any expectations about their readers, it is that their focus must be on the journey rather than the destination. In this respect, hypertext correlates with a subjective 'feminine' text, such as soap opera, in that it is more concerned with process than climax. A thread may end, but the fabric continues. Barbara Page, in discussing feminist discourse and hypertext, puts it succinctly by stating that "the conscious feminism of the writer animates her determination not simply to write but to intervene in the structure of discourse, to interrupt reiterations of what has been written, to redirect the streams of narrative and to clear space for the constructions of new textual forms congenial to women's subjectivity." (Page, 1999, p.130) Although her statement refers specifically to female authors, Page also makes it clear that "among contemporary writers, women are by no means alone in pursuing non-linear, anti-hierarchical, and decentered writing." (ibid, p.111) So, no matter what the gender of writer or reader, subjectivity and the encoding of a hypertext's meaning go hand-in-hand. As a reader, there is little chance of standing back for an objective view because, by its very nature, hypertext is concerned with the multiple points of view associated with feminine discourse, rather than a single, set (masculine) perspective.

Jay David Bolter confirms that hypertext is oscillatory and mutable. "They say things, then take them back," (Bolter, 1996?) he points out in reference to the hyperfictions Afternoon and Victory Garden. "They challenge the reader to question repeatedly where the narrative is going." (ibid) Continuing, Bolter insists that hypertext authors must not only jettison linear structure, but also leave the doors open for reader experimentation and interpretation. "Hypertext suggests a new sort of Nietzchean assault on the law of the excluded middle. In hypertext a statement can both be and not be true, because every statement is subject to revision, to being called back into time and modified if not contradicted." (ibid)

In conclusion, it appears that hypertext's subjective, multidirectional, multivocal characteristics ensure that its readers co-author the narrative experience to a far greater extent that has ever been possible with print literature. "We are always astonished to discover how much of the reading and writing experience occurs in the interstices and trajectories between text fragments," says Robert Coover about hypertext. (Coover, 1992, op.cit) "The text fragments are like stepping stones, there for our safety, but the real current of the narratives runs between them." (ibid) For the individual reader of hypertext, it is determining their own sense of what constitutes this "real current" (ibid) that provides the ultimate freedom of choice to encode meaning.



Bernstein, Mark (1998): Hypertext Gardens: Delightful Vistas. http://www.eastgate.com/garden

Bolter, J. David (1996?) Degrees of Freedom, Georgia Institute of Technology, http://www.lcc.gatech.edu/~bolter/degrees.html

Borges, Jorge Luis (1970): 'The Garden of Forking Paths' in Labyrinths, Penguin Books, UK

Brady, Tess (1999) 'Interrogating Authorship: Students Writing Hypertext' in in TEXT Vol 3 No 2 October 1999. Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady (eds.) http://www.gu.edu.au/school/art/text/oct99/brady.htm

Coover, Robert (1992): The End of Books, http://www.english.buffalo.edu//faculty/conte/syllabi/370/EndofBooks.htm

Douglas, J. Yellowlees (1991) "Are We Reading Yet? A few pointers on reading hypertext narratives" in Victory Garden - Reader's Manual. Eastgate Systems, Watertown, MA, USA.

Douglas, J. Yellowlees (1994) '"How Do I Stop This Thing?" Closure and Indeterminacy in Interactive Narratives' in Hyper/Text/Theory, Landow, George P. (ed.). The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, pp 159-188.

Landow, George (1992): Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Johns Hopkins University Press, Maryland.

Moulthrop, Stuart (1994) 'Rhizome and Resistance: Hypertext and the Dreams of a New Culture' in Hyper/Text/Theory. Landow, George P. (ed.). pp 299-319. (Refer Writing in Cyberspace Reader)

Moulthrop, Stuart (1991): Victory Garden. Eastgate Systems, Watertown, MA, USA

Page, Barbara (1999), "Women Writers and the Restive Text: Feminism, Experimental Writing, and Hypertext" in Cyberspace Textuality, Marie-Laure Ryan (ed.), Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, pp 111-136.

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