Reconfiguring Reading?

Dave Lichtenstein, English 111, Autumn 1997

Readers of Michael Joyce's "Afternoon" are bound to experience disorientation. Joyce employs several techniques to create such a feeling. First, the narrative moves in loops--in some cases where a reader could see the same two or three lexias over and over again. In other cases, one sees merely differing arrangements of the same lexias, again producing wonder and confusion on the reader's part. Second, the individual lexias of "Afternoon" frequently contain pronouns--including "I"--rather than proper names to identify characters. Thus often a reader gains a character's history or personal details without knowing the specific identity of the character. Finally, due to the great variety of choices that many lexias present, and the consistently changing connections between individual lexias, it becomes increasingly difficult to perceive the relationship between connected lexias. Combined with the lack of specificity of characters, this makes following any sort of story quite difficult.

This disorientation raises several questions for a reader. What is the work? Who are the characters? What happens to each character throughout the story? In truth, the answers to some of those questions become more apparent the longer that one reads through Joyce's hypertextual fiction. But due to my own confusion, and the radical ways in which hypertext (as evidenced specifically by "Afternoon") changes the concepts of narrative and storytelling, an even more basic question emerges: what is reading, in the hypertextual world?

Many have made claims of the active, aggressive, empowered hypertext reader--one who chooses his or her own path through a text. George P. Landow describes a hypertext reader as "an active, even intrusive reader" ("Hypertext 2.0", p. 90) who has absorbed some of the traditional author's power. But to me that appears as merely a characterization of a traveller moving from one reading unit or site to another. Such descriptions lack a prescription for the creative or interpretive powers of a reader. There is no mention of how a reader is to proceed, what one is to look for, in encountering a hypertextual work. There is no model laid out for the way in which a reader could answer some of my initial questions of "Afternoon".

How then, does one proceed? Is reading hypertext merely the experience of disorientation combined with whatever sensations individual lexias produce? Is there any notion of the unity of a work--even with regard to consistent (or identifiable) characters or developed themes? Should readers attempt to synthesize all that they read into a coherent story? Or, following the democratic model that hypertext systems are supposedly based on, is it up to each reader to pursue whatever goals she wishes in a hypertext work?

I must note that democritization, at least in Joyce's case, seems dubious. On the one hand the reader is free to move anywhere, to read in virtually any order she chooses. On the other hand I have never felt so powerless as a reader as when reading "Afternoon". Perhaps in time I'll grow accustomed to hypertext and discover my own standards of reading. Perhaps in time, as works proliferate in hypertext and the field develops, reading will be reconfigured--as writing and authors already have been. For now, the questions remain.

Afternoon Discussion overview Hypertext Cyberspace Web