Afternoon, a commentary on Power

Chua Pei-Lin, CCST02 "Telling Stories in Cyberspace," University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore

Afternoon was a nightmare initially as I am someone who is rather immersed in print culture. Print allowed me tremendous freedom as a reader; I could read or stop at any point I wanted. Furthermore, the textuality of the paper on which the words were printed gave me a sense of assurance that the story/poetry truly existed, and I can go back and reiterate the experience of reading a particular paragraph, ponder and think of connections that would serve the deep seated desire I have for linearity and a story that made sense logically.

It is no wonder then that I so detested Afternoon initially. Afternoon could only be read in the school computers, therefore I had to read at a fixed time. I admittedly resented what I perceived as the author having more power over me. I could no longer take the approach I used for books, reading as and when and wherever I liked. It was almost like I had signed over my rights as a reader in an unspoken contract, just so that I could read Joyce's story.

However, putting my gut reaction aside, I think that Joyce's short story does raise a lot of pertinent questions. I think one of those issues, which Afternoon explores, is that of power. As mentioned above, Joyce, in choosing the medium of story space, may actually be consolidating his power as an author. Print culture does empower the reader in that readers can choose to pick up a novel as and when they wished and fall asleep over the book. In story space, Joyce is setting the conditions for reading his story. Readers are expected to be more active and play a bigger role in his story. This reinforces the way his story is structured; as readers play a part in deciding which narrative they want to follow up on. I suggest that what Joyce is doing is to force the reader into becoming an "author", as readers now have to make the choice of ending a story whatever way they wished, unlike a typical novel such as Middlemarch where the author gives one ending, and the reader can only dissent or agree but never find a different ending. As I was cycling through the stories, I found that it was strange that by different combinations of links, I had two diversely different stories. In one reading, Lolly rejected the "I" narrator's advances because she had "loyalties", despite the fact that her spouse was having an extramarital affair. Eager for a different ending, I retraced my steps and tried a different link. Voila! Lolly and the "I" narrator were now engaged in a steamy sex scene. This suggests that readers are now like authors, in that they can choose to end stories, depending on what links they clicked.

Furthermore, I think Joyce does raise the question of the act of reading. In any novel, readers have to make the logical connection from one sentence to another, as it is not possible to include every single detail. For example, the connection between "He fell down" and the next sentence "He cried" depends on the reader making the connection between the physical pain and reaction. However, the fascinating thing about Afternoon is that while most lexias link logically to the next, sometimes one lexia links to another with no apparent logic and I either have to think of a connection for myself to sustain my need for linearity or go back and find a word/image that would link the two lexias. I started to realize that I am the who is piecing together the story from seemingly disparate sources, therefore not only am I an author (in choosing materials to weave a narrative) but that without me as a reader, the story would fall apart. This seems to support reader-response theories, and it seems that Joyce's story is particularly effective in proving that it is the reader who makes meanings.

However, I am not quite sure that it really would be the definite hypertext fiction. Joyce does suggest beautiful images and descriptions of things such as winter. He is good at description. His use of words/imagery to link different lexias together is proficient. But one thing about hypertext fiction is that links and reader choice are very important. When typing in words found in the text leads to the lexia which clicking the "enter" key would lead to for half his lexias, I start doubting if this is genuinely a hypertext fiction as I am led to only one or two possible lexias. It was rather exasperating. It seemed more like an illusion than a reality of reader choice. And even though I suggested that Joyce's story could be used to support reader-response theory, my gut feeling is that the abrupt shifts in narrative when I decided to type a word in the lexia to go off in a different direction was not meant by him to support reader response theory. Sometimes, the strange spinning off into different narratives told by different narrators confused and infuriated me. While it may be avant garde, I think that unless he is consciously trying to support reader response theories, the conclusion I reluctantly come to is that he does not really think about the implications of disorientation due to abrupt changes (sometimes caused by his suggested links) in narratives might scare off readers. I felt that it was because he had not fully understood the implications of writing in such an environment. This is because only when I stayed with the limited choice of links that Joyce provided in his lexias, could I derive pleasure from spinning off into different narratives and yet enjoying continuity Yet, in a hypertext environment, readers like myself will expect full hypertextuality and linking, where clicking on any word in a lexia will lead to different narratives. If this expectation is dashed severely, which was the case for many of the lexias as they led only to one lexia, I begin to suspect the quality of the fiction.

Because this is a hypertextual fiction, I think for me, I tend to lower my standards as a reader. My expectations of multiple linking, giving me choices of different narratives, which as mentioned earlier, has not been very well fulfilled. There are pieces of strong imagery and use of classical allusions, as well as use of different styles reminiscent of other well known authors such as James Joyce (the same interest in banality and sex) and Eliot's fragmentary poem, The Wasteland. I also applaud his effort in writing lexias that can fit into different reading paths, thus allowing the same lexia to mean different things according to the reading path. Any serious fictional writer studied by literature students will generally have allusions to other books, which Joyce here does to, in referring to Homer's works and Lolita. He does that, and he uses those traditional literary devices such as allusions, word repetitions simply to link his stories, which is good. The illusive, tantalizing "I" narrator who can never be pin down allows for different short stories which could be linked plausibly simply because of the fact that the identity of "I" narrator is so fluid, one can never be sure whether "I" was female or "male". However, I have to admit that I am non too impressed by neither the writing nor the content. It is always easy to critic creative work when one does not write creatively, I acknowledge that. Still, I am not impressed with his subject matters such as sex, death, computers and marriages. His treatment is rather clichéd and I think uses them merely as a cheap thrill to hook the reader. Unless he can use sex and death as creatively as a writer like Milan Kundera, I am afraid I think that I accept his fiction only because it is in a hypertext environment.

Furthermore, I question his decision to use a reader and the story space format he used. It is rather annoying as a reader, to want to go back and check what was said six lexias ago and realize you cannot. Print culture readers are simply too used to repeatability, to accept this. It may be done to illustrate that the story, like life can only be read and lived through once. But I still find it annoying because his use of imagery sometimes is sufficiently complex such that is not easy for me to remember everything. I too, enjoy annotating my novels. I cannot annotate, record my reactions to certain lexias, which again make me feel frustrated because I feel that the text is always slipping through my fingers. I also cannot see how many lexias there are, which again reinforces the sense of powerlessness because I will force myself to cycle through the story just because I am obsessive enough to want to know how many lexias there are. It seems a little akin to oral culture. Oral culture forces speech to be simple and memorable such as the Beowulf, as the audience are not supposed to ask the narrator to backpedal and read the part they miss. I too seem to have problems backpedaling to the previous lexias, because of his choice of guardfields and because I am not given a menu to see what type of lexias are available.

So is Afternoon really revolutionary, being one of the first few hypertextual fiction ? I really do not know. It has its good points. And yet, I think Joyce has not yet truly mastered the art of hypertextual fiction if readers like myself are left feeling that I have simply read through something rather interesting but cannot recall or refer directly the lexias because he refuses to show me all the lexias or to help me remember. All I can say is "There is no simple way to say [what the whole experience of reading Afternoon is about nor Afternoon's essence]".

Afternoon Discussion overview Hypertext Cyberspace Web