Joyce's intimate hypertext

Courtney Rowe, English 111, Autumn 1999

Reading Michael Joyce's Afternoon is like sitting down for a tea time chat with the author. Because of the freedom given the reader -- not only the ability to chose which word's link to follow, but even to answer the author's direct questions and receive a "response" -- the narrative seems self-conscious and personal, almost too intimate at times.

For example, in my reading, the first person's story I encountered was Lolly's. The blend of her "spoken" words and the narrator's read like a normal, linear text, giving information when needed but little more. At the end of Lolly's section, I was presented with a choice: "Me or Nausicaa?" The offering of this choice made me, as a reader, feel as if I had intruded into a conversation where I didn't belong. After that, I was almost embarrassed to hear the very personal and private details that Nausicaa shared. When I was finally able to work my way back to "Me or Nausicaa?" and chose "Me," I found myself not listening to the narrator speaking, but actually inside his head, hearing his confessions about making his son into a "little man" and his worries that he might have seen his son die. The constant jumping of the hypertext, as well, contributed to this feeling of really being in the narrator's head, following the memex trails in his mind.

The set-up of Afternoon drags the reader in much closer than would a linear text. It is, as I mentioned above, much more like sitting down with the author and carrying on a two way conversation than laying back and letting the author's words roll past your ears. First of all, you become personally involved in the story by making so many choices. The story (and in some sense, therefore, the characters) responds to these choices. You are constantly made aware that this story would not truly exist without you to string its links together, to chose "Me or Nausicaa." Also, the story's non-linearity, its jumps into mythology or taxonomy, force you to constantly be on your toes, making connections, finding reasons for the set up of the links or the inclusion of seemingly non-related texts. Not only is are your fingers active in moving the story along, but your mind is also needed find the underlying significance of the links (since each is too much of a jump to be passed off as nothing more than a device to keep the story progressing.)

This results in a very personal text, a feeling heightened by the nodes in which Joyce himself analyses his work.

At Shelly Jackson's reading last week, Robert Coover mentioned that texts in a new media are often self-reflexive, as they test the waters and try to find out not only how to produce good writing within this media, but what the change means to writing as a whole. There are nodes in Afternoon which certainly show Joyce, as a writer, trying to deal with hypertext as a medium.

One of these self-reflective nodes is "work in progress." Here, Joyce steps out from behind his narrator and speaks to the reader directly. On one hand this node is apologetic, admitting that the story has no "real" end (and perhaps also apologizing, in advance, for having a link which then tosses the reader right back to the beginning.) Yet on the other hand, this node challenges you, the reader, to rethink your notion of what a text should be. Joyce tells you that the end of the story (for you, one particular reader at one particular setting) comes when you no longer get anything out of it. Though this is perhaps less comforting that having the author lay out his conclusions for you and tie up the package neatly, it creates yet another level of reader control. You can choice where and when you have discovered enough to make the story whole in your mind -- this is when the story has reached its end. And, as Joyce promises, if you chose to return at some point, there will always be more to discover.

Afternoon Discussion overview Hypertext Cyberspace Web