Reading Michael Joyce's Afternoon, to me, is a bit like groping through a forest. It is impossible to follow any particular path and come out on the other side -- there are so many twists and turns and branches that you could get completely lost. If you're lucky, you get a pretty good idea of what is going on. (Otherwise, you might find yourself babbling like an idiot, trying to make sense of the seemingly chaotic structure.) And even then, you cannot be sure that the story you encountered is identical to the one someone else did. There is not only one, but several, stories, each of which may take you on different journeys every time you start reading.
Did I say "read"? No . . . reading is when one finishes a page and finds some continuation on the other side. You don't have such a luxury with Afternoon. Joyce makes the reader a part of the story, in the sense that you have to keep making choices in order to progress. For example, in the very first lexia, you are given a choice as to whether or not you want to hear about poetry. Then, too, the story could be about an apparent car crash involving Peter's ex-wife one minute and about a steamy extramarital affair the next. It is this sort of disjunction that creates both discomfort and curiosity in you, a kind of masochism, as it were. On the one hand, you want to stop going through it simply because the text is so volatile and abstract, but on the other, you want to find some semblance of order out of all the disorder. So the so-called power given to the reader is really a farce, because you are unable to escape the almost maze-like pattern (a paradox, of ever I heard one) of the story. You cannot force the various lexias into making sense Joyce is the only one who determines what appears on the screen.
But maybe it isn't Michael Joyce at all; maybe it's the way we were trained to read. From the time a book was first put into our hands, our minds were moulded into thinking that a story should be read straight through. Our teachers often talked about being coherent, that arguments should hang together. Even as I write this essay, I have those thoughts in mind. Afternoon, though, is a totally wild ride. The first discovery you make is that all those conventions have to be thrown right out the window when dealing with Joyce's work. An apt description would be Jacques Derrida's notion of deconstructing the text, or more precisely, the author who originates it. What Joyce has done is to cook up several stories running on intersecting lines, which are actually parts of himself, and broken them up into small pieces, so that we only get limited information at any one time. This tempts us to find out more, and before we know it we're sucked into trying to complete the picture. Again, the traditional idea of a story having a beginning, middle and end is made utterly ridiculous, since there doesn't seem to be any closure at all. (Or, it could be that I just haven't come across it yet).
Which brings me to the point that you can never really confirm what happens to the characters. Was the car crash real? Did the ex-wife and son die? You are not told. There is none of that happily ever after business, even for the couple in the love affair. Perhaps this is Joyce's way of tantalising you and making you guess as to how things turn out. After all, in real life, we often never know how people end up. So maybe Afternoon is a real never ending story . . .