Journey of a Hypertext Reader: My afternoon reading Joyce's Afternoon

Lam Koi Yau, CCST02, "Telling Stories in Cyberspace," University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore

Who narrates and who listens? The narrator is Peter, or rather he is the main narrator as we learn after more reading, there are more narrators.

Who listens? The Reader.

First-person narratives with multiple narrators are common. However Afternoon is obviously not a common piece of fiction. In the first lexia, for example, a question is posed to the reader 'Do you want to hear about it?' -- and there is actually an option to answer to this question! By clicking Y or N, the reader is whisked off to a lexia of his or her choice. One is reminded of the choose-your-adventure series of books catered for the young readers of fantasy of yesteryears. Such yes or no answers dummify the reader, or at the very least assume the reader is limited to only binary responses -- a major failing in these fantasy books. The questions offer a false sense of control of the story. This failing is evident when the reader reflects on his or her limited choices.

When the narrator asks a question and the reader must respond, many questions flood the mind of the reader. What is my relation to the narrator? What is the point that the narrator is driving at? Am I supposed to come to a decision about something? This raising of consciousness of the reader is reminiscent of Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller. Raising these questions made me feel distanced from the narrator. This might be because of a sense of guilt arising from before I knew that the narrator 'knows' me. I had been listening to him speak much like a voyeur looking for the juicy parts. And I can imagine being him and therefore empathise with the narrator. And now, after the narrator directly addresses me and expects a response from me, I am at a loss as to how to react.(which all depends on my relation to the narrator, Peter, which is not mentioned in the novel). The questions, bring to an abrupt stop the voyeuristic journey of the reader.

For me, I was to never to retry to establish the empathic link with Peter. There appears to be a justifiable reason: the story seems to be about Peter. Later in the story, I was to learn that are other narrators that would discuss Peter. This detachment frames the character of Peter. And Peter's name might have been left out of the title and not explicitly implied because of the author's desire for the reader to build a picture of Peter from the various lexias that are akin more to pieces of a jigsaw puzzle then parts of a narrative.

The plot is changeable in Afternoon. Given that I have only made a few readings, I would still like to suggest that Afternoon lacks a fabula. Time is only suggested and is very relative. We know that he might have seen his son die in the morning and from the title, the events taking place after which are in the afternoon (most probably in the same day). Peter's episodes of flashback take place before the day (perhaps in years). In narratives, it is important that the timeline be established to avoid anachronies, the order in which the events are revealed to the reader need not be in chronological order(its change might actually bring focus to certain events). Yet in Afternoon, Joyce has managed to give very vague time cues to introduce Peter as the Protagonist. I find myself dividing the time into roughly equal halves of before 'today' and 'today'. From my readings, I guess that the story really begins when he was still married and ends about 5pm 'today'. The effect might be to replicate our own human sense of time where we only feel time and not measure them in discrete units.(which we do with the help of calenders)

Afternoon has two other systems to encourage the interactive reader: the first is the links, the second the 'keyword' system. The latter allows a word to be typed and a lexia appropriate to the word is brought to the screen. Rather akin to directing a conversation towards an area which interests me. Even so, at times I felt as if I was being forced to sit down and listen to a extremely boring person ramble on about his past. Sometimes the person would repeat himself and I find the conversation going in circles (coming back to a text that I have encountered). I detest this in a conversation; it implies that either I am not listening or that the person is so obsessed with himself/herself. However, in Afternoon, it appears that the repetition has a meaning. The text appears to reinforce our memory of it and after having advanced temporally (reader time), the old lexia has new meaning after reading other lexias.

There is an amazing economy of words in Afternoon. Each lexia takes as long to read as a short chapter in a print novel. I have to keep reminding myself that I am no longer reading a print fiction but a hypertext one. Old habits die hard. In a hypertext fiction, connections are the easy thing to establish. By a few links in a whodunit story stringing the clues together would give the game away. Now, it is the gaps which are becoming the rare elements of fiction writing.

The plot

The plot is decided by the reader, or is it? Yes, no answers have little control. The word links often have very little connection with the lexias (the first minutes, I spent looking for a solid clue as to the fate for his son however, I find none.) It makes for particularly hard reading for those who still read as if they were reading print novels. Here we squeeze every drop of meaning from the words that Joyce artfully puts together in a lexia no longer than a paragraph often, yet reads as long as a chapter. In lexias where he aims for impact he reduces to only one or two sentences like ' I want to say I may have seen my son die this morning'


just as frustrated as the main narrator Peter. We also share Peter's confusion but as a reader not empathy with Peter. In most of the lexias it is Peter speaking and when it is not him, we require to scan the text for clues. Like in the sentence

Sometimes a trick wants to come on you, spread his semen across your breasts, or face, or ass, or have you collect it in your hand...

Evidently this not something that Peter would say (previously, at least in my readings, I have yet to encountered a crass side to him). Later in the same lexia we learn that it is a 'she' who is narrating – '(she laughs)'. This is a common pattern while reading Afternoon. Events click together as information gleaned from separate lexias make sense from recognition and repetition

Unlike other hypertext webs especially of the educational genre, Afternoon's use of links do not have a strong connection with the words that is clicked on. That it borders on being an absolute stranger to the lexia or word from which the link is formed. This heightens the feeling of confusion and in a way makes the puzzle bigger (by providing additional pieces of the jigsaw that do not yet fit in the picture).

Afternoon Discussion overview Hypertext Cyberspace Web