I read Michael Joyce's Afternoon twice. Ploughing through lexia after lexia, I reached the supposed ending (which contained a small picture of a woman's private part) via Nausicaa's, Peter's, Werther's, Lolly's and Lisa's narrations. Along the way, I encountered different lexias of poetry (Robert Creeley's "Pieces", Basho's haiku), passages taken from philosophers and scientists (Borges, Bolter and Giambattista Vico) and Michael Joyce's own background in a lexia contained in the story itself. I was reeling slightly from the disorientation of the first reading, but slowly I began to formulate certain conceptions of the plot.
Wait a minute, did it have a plot in the first place? Am I right about those ideas about the plot?
Afternoon is a web of multiple storylines and lexias, weaving in and out of each other. Sometimes the connections are smoothly and clearly obvious between the reader's chosen lexias, other times the linked lexias create jarring dissonances, often creating disturbances before bringing the reader back to the narrator's storyline that the reader had been previously following. My disorientation and confusion seem to only reinforce the effect of the bleakness of the winter landscape and the tragedy of the characters in the story as they meaninglessly interact with each other, engaging in their dysfunctional relationships. The lexias seem to explore dichotomies of heat and coldness, the substantial and the insubstantial, understanding and the lack of understanding, detachment and involvement (withdrawal and intrusion), sensuality and intellect, bodily pleasures and emotional pain (sex and love), expanses of emptiness and the claustrophobic knotting of relationships (the cast of Afternoon is a small group of people who are interconnected in the most intimate of ways: they are simultaneously lovers and friends, ex-wives and ex-husbands), jumping to and fro (like the storylines) from one end to the other, simultaneously exploring the space in between these opposites. These ideas (similar to leitmotifs in music) are conveyed constantly in the lexias through imagery and characterisation, providing a slippery but nonetheless familiarly coherent framework the reader can rely upon amidst the almost surrealistic process of navigation and comprehension, should the going get too tough. Through fragmentation of time, geography and reality, the meaning of the text is constantly questioned and I am left to formulate relations and question the truth of statements on my own. Constantly I am on my feet, wondering who is speaking next and to whom the speaker in the individual lexia is addressing, emphasizing Foucault's idea of the "plurality of egos"(from "What is An Author") in the text.
Afternoon relies heavily on the concept of memory; like the process of memory, the lexias present an abstract picture of constant repetition, insertion and deletion, moving from one speaker to another, one event to another. Like memory, the narrative jumps back to the previous thread of narration again once the newly remembered (connected) detail has been noted. Like memories, the events that are narrated exist, yet they do not. The essence of the story is gleaned from its fragments, what is said and what is not, in between the lexias. Joyce writes, "This was the essence of wood, these fragments say" in the lexia "begin". There is a strange fluidity to my process of reading -- from one lexia to another, like a dream, I enter into different environments and intimate thoughts at the most unlikely moments, questioning and yet at the same time unquestioning. When the speaker in "her hand" says, "Everything begins there, you see?" I doubt the sentence and yet I continue onto the next lexia without protest. Eventually, the text begins to repeat in familiar cycles, yet each cycle is different in detail, it is the same and yet not the same. In the lexia of "The Garden", Joyce takes a quotation from Jorge Luis Borges: "He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times." I believe Afternoon is similar in structure. The storylines and imagery are divergent, convergent and parallel simultaneously.
During my second reading of Afternoon, I latched onto the thread called "fragments" and noted each "fragment" down: (each slash indicates the end of the lexia in each of these lexias, there are often only one or two words)
blacktop/do/echoing/the/emotion,/blacktop/ essence/into/exploding/crystal/far/octopi/fear,/and/ palms/f e n c e l I n e/ of/ five/ice--/f r a g m e n t s/rivers/freezes/and/ hear/horizon,/ continents/ice--/beset/ice./by/fear,/in/and/into/we/walk/is/out/it?/the/like/car,/melt/moaning
/our/not/snow/out/oaks/moaning yes. yes. yes/palms/octopi/beneath/recall/of/our/relics,/ of/boots/in/rivers/off/series/say./on/along/says,/one/the/says,/one/fenceline/series/sets/or/ settling/she/ and/she/horizon,/shrapnel/signify/ the/shrapnel/snow/oaks/sun/settling/the/exploding/ the/relics,/the/the/the/echoing/echo echoing echoing ing/ echoing echoing echoing /the/thundering/off/ the/far/ ice/the/the/these/this/essence/thundering/to/the/wood/to/these/f r a g ments who's music?/walk/say./want/And/this/was/darkness/way/ is/way/air/we/Poetry/without/she/wood,/says,/yesterday?/without /you/emotion,/one/way/or/another/Do/you/were/winter./want/to/hear/about/it?
These words, which are snatches I have seen in the previous lexias, do not form coherent sentences and the words often repeat themselves in a schizophrenic fashion. The words "moaning" and "echoing" intrude at specific moments; the different nature of their presentation seems to emphasize their meaning ("moaning", pertaining to the sexual theme and "echoing", a reminder of the pervading emptiness in the story). One by one the words appear before me in an endless stream until they lose meaning, yet each word forces me to think about its relation to the other words and forces me to recall the other lexias at the same time. Towards the end of this entire stream, I catch phrases of familiarity and yet I am not given them straight away -- "Do/you/were/winter./want/to/hear/about/it?" The phrase "Do you want to hear about it?" is seen in the lexia at the start of my reading. Apparently, as we can see from the intrusion of the words "were" and "winter", the beginning is inherently influenced by the future lexias I would encounter and the past lexias that I have read when I reach the same lexia again or in the lexia "false beginning". (So would it still be the beginning?)
I am confused, yet enlightened and yet ambivalent towards Afternoon. Such is the nature of the piece that it is, it isn't and it is -- simultaneously.