Detective Story

Pearl Maria Forss, CCST02, "Telling Stories in Cyberspace," University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore

Reading Joyce's hypertext fiction was like reading a detective story only the detective is myself. On the one hand, like an ace investigator of a scandal of sex and death, the reader is excited by every new clue and satisfied with every mystery solved. On the other hand, for the less wise investigator, Afternoon is enigmatic because of its ambiguity, disorientating because we jump off to new lexias not understanding the strange environment in which we land, and tremendously irritating because after 5 hours in front of the PC, one only encounters 154 lexias of the 538 lexias with the same lexia popping up over and over again in a looped sequence (for lack of better vocabulary because there is no sequence).

This repetition might be necessary as it triggers memory of events we have encountered in the thread we follow, providing useful "flashbacks" in understanding the story. Also, rereading it gives interesting new insights into the meaning of the lexia because where one enters the lexia from, determines how one interprets the lexia. As Joyce himself says "paragraphs on many different pages could just as well go with paragraphs on many other pages, although with different effects and for different purposes"(Of Two Minds) But oftentimes, this repetition is yet another disorientating factor. What I thought was the voice of one character turned out to be the voice of another. The "I" in narration is continually changing with the result that the reader no longer know who is speaking. This is something employed in Calvino's If on a a winter's night a traveler, but unlike Calvino, who offers us a clear sequence in which we can pinpoint when the "I" in narration has changed, Joyce just leaves us in confusion.

The mental sequence I have built of the events is rearranged continually because a scene takes place now in the end and not the beginning. Relating this to what I said earlier about flashbacks, we don't know if one scene is a "flashfront" or a "flashback". There is no arrangement in terms of time, everything that happened just happens, we don't know when. As Dave Lichtenstein, an earlier student wrote, "I have never felt so powerless as a reader as when reading Afternoon". I cannot agree more. Some might define power over the text as the power to determine how the events occur and having one's own say in what is called the writerly text. There is something wrong with this interpretation because despite making a choice to the flow of events, the ending is still determined by the author. He might write maybe two or three endings but the ending is still his. To me, power over the text is when the reader fully understands the text in order to make an interpretation based on his own judgment. What power can we have when we are in a state of quasi-blurriness stumbling into different lexias trying to make sense of fragmented pieces? Indeed, hypertext "has the potential to dramatically confuse and confound readers" (Hypertext 2.0)

To make matters worse, there is no ending. To Joyce, "when the story no longer progresses, or when it cycles, or when you tire of the paths, the experience of it ends". This is directly against the Aristotle concept of endings in which after that there is nothing. In this way, Hypertext, particularly Afternoon calls into question "the conception of unity or wholeness" (Hypertext 2.0) As the diligent reader, well trained to finish everything I do, this is very vexing. I cannot walk away from a text knowing I only know part of it. Yet no matter how much time I spend on it, I know I will never finish exploring this infinite world of signifiers. I will never solve the mystery, walking away from Afternoon is like walking away from a bad cinema film where you know the producers have hid some secret from you and want you to come back for a sequel. Only Afternoon maintains one's interest not with rich visual impressions (which we find impossible to build in our minds as it is too fragmented), or a hopeful uplift (we never get this sense of catharsis) but with themes of death and sexuality that sometimes border on the sordid. We always have an appetite for scandal.

Criticisms aside, the disorientation factor that is vexing to me can also be seen as "pleasurable, even exciting" (Hypertext 2.0) to some. Since Afternoon can be considered as a literary avant-garde piece, it is no surprise it conforms to the art form in that "the artist's role is to create occasions for disorientation, and…the perceiver's role to experience it" (Hypertext 2.0). And like an art piece, only a few trained eyes can decipher it and relish it for all its weird beauty. Beauty that lies in the working of the mind to form an intricately woven web of sensual language, deep images, provocative stories and characters that merge with the reader. The multiple "I"s are no longer discomforting. For the person who understands it, the multiple "I"s are an invitations to identify with each and every character for a richer understanding. "Reader-viewers assume the position of protagonist and their reward comes in the form of experience, not as a reward one might attain" (Hypertext 2.0). There is more than reader empowerment happening in Afternoon, there is an intimate feel of the story. This is because the story is made by us, in all its ambiguity the reader has coauthored Afternoon with Joyce. Like Joyce says in the lexia Read At Depth "the real interaction, if that is possible, is in pursuit of texture -- there we match minds."

Ultimately, the reading of Afternoon depends on what one takes to the reading with one. The clues are all there but to solve the mystery, one must draw on past experiences to interpret it. How much we get out of Afternoon is how much we make of it, not how much it makes of us.

Afternoon Discussion overview Hypertext Cyberspace Web