Observing: A Commentary on 'Afternoon'

Faizah bte Zakaria, "Telling Stories in Cyberspace," University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore

"If this world makes you crazy and you have taken all you can bear You call me up Because you know I'll be there."

Afternoon ends with the above verse. I am using the word "ends" here with some reservations as the story does not appear to have an ending. The lexia quoted does not bring the reader to a new lexia when the reader hits the enter key, therefore I took it to be the ending. The ending verse seems to emphasise that Afternoon does not merely tell a story or an event but is an attempt to re-create a small intimate world. One might say that, most novels and stories are attempts (whether successful or not) to bring readers into a created world. Afternoon differs from these conventional stories in that there is little attempt to lead the reader in a tour of the story-world by following a specific plot line.

As a result, readers (especially first-time readers) might find it difficult to navigate through the world created by Joyce. Each lexia appears to have its own focus and glimmers of a plot which are separate yet, not entirely unconnected. To make matters worse (or better), the pronoun "I" could represent different characters as one moves from one lexia to another. Each lexia has its own narrator who could either be predetermined by the author or could be determined by the context of the plot path chosen by the reader. For example, the lexia "For the Ordinary" clearly indicates that "I" refers to Lisa (as it is mentioned that Andrew is 'I's son and the narrator is a woman.) The initial lexia 'Begin', however, starts with a male narrator. The story becomes extremely confusing when, without the reader's knowledge, the narrator changes with the click of a mouse. It takes some time to adjust to the notion that there is no continuous narrator in the story.

In some lexias, the content could be relevant to all plot paths leading to it. Depending on the context, the narrator 'I' could easily take on the role of many different characters in these lexia. With the change in narrator and context, the perspective provided by the lexia changes and it contributes in different ways to the plot. A reader might encounter the same lexia two or three times but each time, it tells a message. An example of this is the lexia "Calm" which begins with "I am sorry but I will have to end this for you now. 'I' could refer to many different characters, on my first reading, I took it to refer to Lisa, on my second, it seems to refer to Nausicaa. By assigning 'I' to different characters, the complexion of the plot changes. This was one of the most fascinating aspects of the story. It was interesting to see how the same words could carry a different meaning when approached from different angles and indeed, that there were many angles to approach it from. This is, in a way, similar to how the same event viewed from different perspectives in real life could have a different meaning.

In a way, reading Afternoon is like being an observer in real life. In real life different events happen simultaneously in a non-linear manner, just as in Afternoon each lexia provides segments of different events which the reader would have to piece together to form a coherent whole. There are many different stories running concurrently within the same framework. The possibility that Peter might have seen his wife and son die, Nausicaa and Lolly's relationship, the possibility of a love quadrangle between Nausicaa, Peter, Lolly and Werther, the story of Peter and Lisa's marriage are just some of the plots I uncovered in my reading. There could be more. Each story was not delivered in an easily understandable linear fashion but in a dizzying unstructured sequence where each plot overlaps once in a while. Similarly, in real life, an observer will have to discern from many unconnected events he witnessed and the information he receives what forms a coherent tale and what should be relegated as a peripheral event. In this way, Afternoon is truly a "writerly' text as the reader will have to piece together the stories himself. The story runs on "divergent, convergent and parallel" lines (from the lexia "The Garden').

Is this effect possible in print? After all, various subplots and concurrent plots could also be found in print books. However, I believe it is the presence of links which enables a reader to feel that he is just gathering pieces which he himself will have to put together for them to mean something. The enforced linearity of print media forces the author to lead his reader rather than let him find his way on his own. Joyce does provide some clues on how the story should be read. For example, in the lexia "When I Woke", he wrote "There is no mystery, really about the truth. You merely need to backtrack or take other paths. Usually the silent characters yield what the investigator needs to know." These clues, however, do not lead the reader on a specific path, it merely points out the possible optimum way of reading which the reader can choose not to follow. The reader, therefore, is given much more freedom.

Although literature can never provide a true reflection of life as it works within the constraints of a medium, hypertextual fiction such as Afternoon shows that it might be possible to create a more multi-dimensional world where readers are more free to roam in than what print fiction can provide. The reader might never be able to participate in events described, but he could at least be a more active observer.

Afternoon Discussion overview Hypertext Cyberspace Web