Before, during, Afternoon

Ma Shaoling, Telling Stories in Cyberspace," University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore

On some days, an afternoon passes you by when you can't seem to remember what you did. But just as the recollection begins, you can't stop remembering. Michael Joyce's hypertext fiction is one of those afternoons.

To say that Afternoon is a story is both true and untrue. In the first case, Afternoon is after all about fictional characters and plots. On the other hand, Afternoon deviates from fiction because one cannot fathom what was exactly being told. As seen in the quotation below, this confusion is certainly not an accidental creation by Joyce but a purposely crafted style that eventually convinces the reader to give up trying to reach a confirmation.

I am not sure I have a story. I am not sure that everything is not my story or that whatever is my story is anything more than pieces of others' stories.

The word afternoon is a specific period in a day. Used as a title, it apparently boxes the setting of Afternoon within an afternoon -- rigidly in between two other timeframes. Meandering through the loops of conversations and thoughts, however, one loses the track of time. Yet, the sentence "I think I may have seen my son die this morning" jolts the reader back into recognition that Afternoon presupposes a condition in which important developments had happened prior and will happen after. This condition, however, does not assume that these developments will be duly exposed to the reader. In any case if the reader is determined to find out --

There is no mystery, really, about the truth. You merely need to backtrack, to take other paths. Usually the silent characters yield what the investigator needs to know.

Hypertext as a medium encourages such investigation by tracking to and fro the various links and choices. George P. Landow describes a hypertext reader as "an active, even intrusive reader" (Hypertext 2.0, p. 90). However, as I read Afternoon, the reverse took effect upon me. I constantly felt as if there was something else that I missed out, exactly because it was impossible to go through every single link. There was a fear that Peter and Wert were discussing about something important just as I was trying to figure out what Lolly was thinking. Chancing upon "false beginnings", the sentence "Do you hear it?" gleefully emphasised my insecurities as a reader. By using the word "hear" instead of "read", Joyce included me in the characters' lives. Yet, I felt as if I was being intruded upon (as opposed to being an intruder), with words and complications that I could not fully grasp.

I have in mind a non-sentinent, transitory creature, nothing more than memory embodied, yet infinitely sadder than handwriting, photograph, or the preserved sound of another's voice.

Now as I conduct in my memory a search for Afternoon, or at least trying to before this afternoon creeps into evening, I realise that I may have missed out on the morning. There is still more to go back to. "Closure is, as in any fiction, a suspect quality."

Afternoon Discussion overview Hypertext Cyberspace Web