Reinventing Hypertext

Chua Ping Tzeun, CCST02, Telling Stories in Cyberspace," University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore

Once upon a time, I read books. I was used to the idea of sitting back in my chair, and getting absorbed in the reading of a mystery novel, horror story, fantasy novel, or autobiography. I believe I knew what the authors of all those works were up to. They always crafted their stories in a particular way. Linear plots, characters, chronology, settings -- and I was accustomed to the sound of the author's authoritative, ventriloquistic voice speaking in various forms—but most frequently as the narrator, be it an internal or external one to the story.

After taking up a course on hypertext, I realized that I'd have to learn to read again, this time in a different manner. Hypertexts mark a shift in authorial power from the author to the reader. The reader makes his own choices in the reading of a hypertext; he decides on the rhetoric of his own arrival as well as departure. Now this was something new. But soon enough, I came to realise that the idea of hypertexts was not such a radical thing to me after all. Had I not, as a kid, been so caught up in those "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" and "Lone Wolf" adventure/fantasy books? Computer games of the day are no different. The programmer creates a world in which one is immersed, and gamers are given the freedom to traverse and explore the fantastical, fictional world of the game. Multiple paths can be followed in many of today’s games, leading to multiple possible endings in some even.

Therefore my mind was at ease again. All was well, for a while.

Then I came across the hypertext fiction, Afternoon, a story. Just another hypertext, I thought. I'd gotten accustomed to reading such things by now; after all, I'd even created my own Storyspace webs, right? Well, not so."Afternoon" poses a whole new challenge to readers of hypertext, in that it attempts to stretch the limits of our understanding of hypertexts, the limits to which we are willing to accept the seemingly discordant elements of this hyperfiction, and the manner in which we come to view them, as coming together in a way that creates an enjoyable reading experience—for isn’t that what reading fiction is all about?

I embark on my first reading of Afternoon with what I think to be the proper mindset when it comes to reading hyperfictions. In Derridean terms, I remind myself that the reader is the center. Do not stick to any linear path; create my own. From this path, I am to make own meanings and derive my own understanding of the story.

I feel that the main obstacle that keeps one from having a smooth and enjoyable reading experience in Afternoon comes in the form of the extremely disjuncted nature of the different lexias , as well as the manner in which they are linked. Perhaps due to our normal reading habits, one would hope to expect different reading paths in a hyperfiction to branch out in an orderly manner and yet held together, in the least, by one strong thread, be it in the form of characters, genre, narrative voice, chronology, setting, or any other main elements of the narrative. However, this is not the case in"Afternoon". Very often, the lexias are vastly different from each other in one or more of the abovementioned narrative elements. From one character speaking in a particular lexia, one may suddenly find oneself reading of the thoughts of another character, looking at a piece of poetry, or put into another time frame via prolapses and analapses. The problem with this is that we are never given any warning about such shifts, and are largely left on our own devices to find our own way around.

There have been comments that the story of Afternoon becomes increasingly cogent and cohesive the further one reads into the hyperfiction. I accede to the fact that I may possibly not have spent enough time in this web to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. However, I would like to pose the question, of whether the ends justify the means—would it be truly worth the frustratingly huge amount of time and mouse-clicks spent in obtaining a little nugget of understanding?

To me, therefore, the irony is obvious. Written in 1987, Afternoon is cited to be the"granddaddy of hypertext fictions". If this is so, then why do I find that the reading experience of this hypertext differs so vastly from what I have always come to expect from a hypertext? Reading Afternoon, in fact, feels like an exercise in reinventing my own notion of the boundaries and precepts of a hypertext.

Afternoon Discussion overview Hypertext Cyberspace Web