An Afternoon's Roller Coaster Ride

Chew Yong Jack, CCST02, "Telling Stories in Cyberspace," University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore

Judging from the title of my critique, one could probably not help wondering whether my views on Michael Joyce's Afternoon were positive or negative. Not everyone likes a roller-coaster ride -- some find it nauseating, others find it exciting and yet others do both. While reading Afternoon will not get you motion-sickness, one could never say that it is entirely without discomfort -- at least at the beginning. However, like one good puke after the roller coaster comes to a stop, one will be struck by the sobering experience of the aftermath (still a little dazed but more comfortable nonetheless).

While reading Afternoon, a reader would be confronted by four choices. He could hit the return key, click on Yes or No on the Storyspace toolbar or even check out the lexias link to it via a button on the same toolbar. While the Yes or No options make sense in the first lexia ('Begin') which has a Yes or No prompt, it clearly gets a bit disorienting with other lexias which does not. After trying to hit Yes and No for the 'I want to say' lexia, I found that it was not merely unhelpful in doing so but extremely counterproductive. As a result, I gave up using Yes or No altogether and stuck to using the return key and the check-links button. While these two options still left me plenty to worry about, I have gone down the first slope and have had my first puke.

Second slope, however, is the no longer a mere matter of a technical difficulty. It involves choosing your paths carefully and comprehending them. In this, I chose not to go into the Yes or No path after 'Begin' but instead hit the return key. In this instance, I was not letting Joyce take me for a ride again. If I wanted him to "tell you about it" I would no doubt have been given useful snippets of the background of Afternoon but this would only be in hindsight. At that particular moment in time knowing who Lolly and Naussica were made absolutely no sense since the "Begin" lexia makes no mention of them. If I do not want him to "tell you about it", it gets even more surreal -- what with allusions of heat to emptiness and how man "because of air-conditioning" thinks he could transcend emptiness. What was Joyce trying to do by asking us whether we want him to "tell you about it". While I could definitely see a use for answering 'Yes', answering 'No' seems to have no intrinsic use. As such the only thing left to do is to get going with the return key. Another puke on the way down.

The return key path which brings us to the 'I want to say' lexia opens somewhat shockingly and dismaying to a reader. The reader at this junction is gripped by a startling possibility of the death of the narrator's son. I have to confess at this point that I have not taken the Yes/No path in the 'Begin' lexia precisely because of the suspense created by the author by making such provocative statement. The first thought I had (I am sure many others did too) was whether the narrator really did see his son die. The "might have seen" (quoted from the lexia), leaves a gaping hole in the narrative. This hole is probably designed to suck the reader's mind into a state of doubt so that he or she might want to explore further to fill this gaping hole. This is probably also designed for the 'Lazy reader' like myself who would not be bothered to explore every possible channel once he or she bumps into a wall of incomprehension. Seeing this as an escape-hatch, I jumped in. Less puke this time and my stomach almost cleared.

The escape-hatch which I thought it was turned out to be another prettily packaged deadend -- at first. This was so because the lexia immediately preceding the 'I want to say' lexia is named 'No.1'. How descriptive is the heading 'No.1' when the lexia mostly describes the narrator taking a walk. Seeing this as probably a minor distraction by the author, I hit return again and arrived at something resembling a narrative which could fill the hole at the beginning. 'I want 1.' alludes to the image of auto-accident death and this was reinforced by 'I want 2.' which recounts of the narrator's friend's fatal accident caused by the latter's multi-tasking behind the wheel. This image of death by auto-accident while not directly tying in to the possible death of the narrator's son gives the reader a useful hint of what is to come. By now, I thought that the worst of this roller coaster ride (the roller coaster is back in neutral position and I have stopped puking).

Like all well designed roller coasters, however, just when you thought you were home safe, another up-slope confronts you again. This time a departure was made on the main theme of death. In the lexia 'I want 2.' a new element, love, is introduced into the narrative. This comes in the shape of the narrator's wife or rather his ex-wife as the phrase "in those days" suggests. The lexia preceding it 'ask' hardly augments this departure as we were pulled into another theme which is lust. In this lexia, the narrator was asked by his friend Werther whether he minded him having a sexual relations with his wife. In this half-cheeky query, we are confronted with the question of whether Werther did have sex with the narrator's wife or was he merely kidding. It turns out that this might have been a device by Joyce for two possible purposes. As I have discovered from later lexias, the narrator have had sexual relations with both Werther's wife Lolly and Naussica at the same time. Furthermore, we could also discover that Werther's relations with Naussica might be more than a platonic. As a result of this, Joyce might have intended Werther's joking query to the author either as an irony or as a way of signaling to the reader the undercurrents of promiscuous sex or it could even signal the reader of Werther's awareness on the matter. The theme of sexuality was to be further explored in the narrator's detestation of his ex-wife's 'rebound lover' Desmond. Another steep slope here and another round of puking.

The lexias describing sex and sexuality of course did not come together in sequence - sandwiched in between is the theme of death. The first of such is the lexia simply titled 'Die'. In it there was a description of a Buick getting into an auto-accident and of a woman in white "sprawled on the ground" and "a smaller body" beside her. This brings us back to the "I might have saw" narrative gap which a reader could not fill until this lexia. It turns out that the narrator's wife drives a Buick and that the stretch of road leads to the same county school that his son attends. Strangely enough, because the author never tried looking at the victims of the car crash, the reader would again be left stumped as to whether he 'might have seen his son died'. Again we are left with a doubt here, which no doubt help play us into Joyce's hands and lead us to keep exploring on to find the answer. The trouble is that Joyce lead us through one bump after another with the author first calling at his son's school, his ex-wife's office, his ex-wife's lover's office and finally the hospital all to no avail of answering the question. In the end, instead sparing no efforts to confirm his son's and ex-wife's physical wellbeing, Joyce made our dear narrator take care of his own psychological wellbeing by seeing the therapist Lolly (perhaps even for sexual gratification as well). I puked tonnes after this.

At about the time I made a loop back to the lexia 'Begin' I felt like seeing one myself, it suddenly dawned on me that this process of getting one dizzy so that one can get back to the same spot is the very concept of the roller coaster. The fun is in appreciating the convoluted twist in plots and not in getting an answer or a solution like in the rather perverse way which we enjoy roller coaster rides even though they leave some of us with major bouts of motion-sickness in doing so. Puking anyone?

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