After this, what's next?

Lee Wei Bing, CCST02 "Telling Stories in Cyberspace," University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore

I guess that most people will respond saying that Afternoon is unlike any work of print fiction that they've ever written. They will gush over its revolutionary ideas, etc. I noticed that Afternoon was written in 1986.

In Janet Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck, there is a central theme of reader participation in deciding the flow of the narrative, especially for works of fiction. There is perhaps a suggestion that the original idea of reader participation (for works of fiction) was first developed and put to use through role-playing games (which were first developed in 1979). The whole point of such games is that the players (readers?) essentially take on the roles of the characters in the story and take an active role in developing the storyline. It's their story! This would eventually lead to the development of gamebooks. The name of this particular genre of books suggests a game, but they are essentially hypertextual fiction existing within the confines of the trusty old book before the Internet Revolution. They provide non-sequential reading, with multiple plot lines for the story to develop depending on the choices made by the readers. For example, the protanganist saw a robbery in progress and the story may allows three separate links to different lexias, depending on how the author decides the story to progress. Should the protagonist confront the robbers himself, call the police on his mobile phone, or simply act as if nothing happens.

This is particularly satisfying for readers who had always asked what if another course of action was taken. However, what is perhaps lacking in Afternoon, is that though it allows for multiple reading but the reader is essentially choosing a link at random, for he has no idea where the links are leading him. Similarly, the names of the links themselves are not of much help. On the other hand, others might argue that that's the whole point of the equivocal links, the off-balancing approach being the central theme of Afternoon.

Because hypertextual fiction of this genre has a longer history than 1986, Afternoon cannot claim to be the classic work. What it can claim, is perhaps, that it is the first work to incorporate so many differing discourses into it. It is perhaps in disowning that I regain.

The way Michael Joyce wrote his story clearly challenged the way we have been reading print fiction (except for the minority weaned on role-playing games). He is in effect, helping the reader decenter the act of reading, very much like what Italio Cavino was trying to achieve in his postmodernist classic, If on a winter's night, A Traveller. By constantly keeping the reader off-center, he kept making the reader self aware of his act of reading the story. In Afternoon, the uniqueness of allowing for multiple reading of the same story from different viewpoints encouraged the reader to get actively involved through his ability to control his choice of links. This forced the reader to keep a distance from the story and think about what a story is really all about.

"If there's nothing to learn, why do we keep reading" -- Barthes. I answer that we, the readers, derive pleasure from figuring things out ourselves or more likely, we remember things better when you have to actively think about it. Of course Afternoon was a difficult story to follow, but that is the whole point, it limits the audience to those who can appreciate the subtler points the story is trying to make. Surely, the loose ends in Afternoon are more than simple oversight on the part of the author? Gaps, omissions, metaphors, "silences" within the text are just as important in conveying meanings as the content is.

What we can say is that Michael Joyce had given us a tool to see the unnatural in the natural, very much akin to Derrida giving us a vocabulary to that can explains what nobody really understood yet through Deconstruction. This is made evident by the lexia, "Closure, as in any fiction, a suspect quality, although here it is made manifest. When the story no longer progresses, or when it cycles, or when you tire of the paths, the experience of reading it ends". This links back to what Barthes had been arguing about, where does the story really start? Even in the first paragraph of every story, there are unmentioned events that had transpired earlier on. As he puts it eloquently, it's the "experience of reading" that ends, not the actual reading itself, which we clearly see, has no start nor end. Did anyone in the class claim to have finished reading Afternoon? I've yet to find anybody who made such a claim. The fact Michael Joyce had aptly titled his last page, "Work in Progress" as well as the links leading out of it, reiterated the point that there can be no end to the story.

The fact that the story can develop in any direction as the reader reads along highlights the infinitum of the simple act of reading. This is perhaps indicated in the lexia, "And sometimes what seems like a loop, like memory, heads off again in another direction." Is reading really as simple as it had been made out to be?

Afternoon is either a theoretical work masquerading as a work of fiction, or a work of fiction with blatant theoretical undertones. Maybe I'm be wrong, after all, there's always the danger of applying critical theory and literary analysis to look for discourses that are does not exists and are not even implicitly suggested by the author. Maybe this entire work is written by an artist purely for the appreciation of its uniqueness and given no thoughts to its implications. Maybe I don't know?

Afternoon Discussion overview Hypertext Cyberspace Web