Sex, Death, Fragmentation

Sim Joo Jin, CCST02 "Telling Stories in Cyberspace," University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore

At the heart of Michael Joyce's Afternoon is a concern for relationships -- the things that connect people. It is, however, essentially a story of disconnection. Sex, death and divorce derail the connections between characters. The relationships between the characters in Afternoon form a tangled web that the reader himself must unravel if he is to make sense of what exactly is going on. The idea of disconnection, therefore, is developed both in the plot and the reader's unraveling of that plot.

Afternoon is a story of relationships gone awry. Divorce, death and sex wreck the stability of relationships. For example, a segment of the story features two men in a scene typical of men -- they are in a cafá and they are talking about women (a fact which symbolizes distance from a desired object, since talking to women -- instead of about them -- would be more helpful in bridging gaps); we proceed to the supposedly homoerotic world of Lolita and thereby see two worlds apart, each bounded by gender; we recognize familiar ideas associated with communication -- marriage/divorce (between Werther and Lolly), the life/death of a son and a suggestion of perverting the usual channels of communication in Werther's questions about exchanging each other's former sexual partners. That sex and death become perhaps the two most readily apprehended tropes in the story is significant in this respect, since sex represents the deepest level of intimacy (hence, connectedness) that people can attain, while death represents absolute departure, infinite distance, absence and a gap across which no man may cross.  Sex, popularly understood, stands for perfect communication; death divides.

In Afternoon, however, even sex is disturbed, and in some sense, disruptive itself. The story occurs in a moment where division between sexual partners has already occurred -- Werther and Lolita are divorced. Lolita has relegated herself in her own sphere, populated with women; Werther has only the narrator, another man, for company. They have fled from a previous state of perfect communication to one of mutual alienation. The disruptive force of sexuality is realized in the figures of Werther and Nausicaa, whose sexual dalliances permeate the action of the plot. The flirtations and affairs that these two set in motion complicate the relationships between all the characters. Thus the plot of Afternoon demonstrates the potential for disconnection between people.

The sense of disconnection is reinforced by the form of Afternoon. The structure of Afternoon, comprising of a galaxy of lexias connected with multitudinous links and populated with the voices of several narrators, foregrounds the possibilities of mis-communication. This mis-communication complicates the relationship between narrator and audience, reinforcing the reader's appreciation of the theme of disconnection.

'I' is not a reliable indicator of narrative source in Afternoon. A chorus of voices cries out at the reader, vying for attention, and he is never certain if Lolita, Werther or any other character is that elusive 'I'. There are clues to guide him, of course -- the masculine voice of Peter in the caf´ can no longer exist in the lexia where 'I' contemplates the possibility of putting on black stockings. Yet the clues only he         lp the reader make better guesses -- he is never sure. And these voices are the only sources of information from which he hopes to re-assemble the plot of Afternoon, for it is as if an originally linear plot has been shattered and scattered into dislocated fragments, each connected to one another with the most tenuous of links.

This sense of dis-connection is reinforced by the independence of lexias -- each lexia can stand alone as a properly defined unit, though only imperfectly, hazily understood. Each lexia offers a stand-alone vista into the characters' worlds -- the description of Lolita's homoerotic world is in a separate lexia from the men's world in their caf´. This reinforces the sense of mutual alienation that Lolita and Werther afflict on each other. The story, however, cannot proceed with each lexia remaining independent -- they must be connected, or the story cannot exist. The connection between lexias that the story requires, therefore, symbolizes the communication required between people; the disconnection they are in signifies the derailment of that communication.

The way lexias are linked in Afternoon closely mimics the free association that human minds employ. Among the challenges facing the author of Afternoon would have been how one might translate the effortless and intuitive nature of that free association into a hypertext environment. Though hypertext is supposedly pre-adapted for such mimicry, certain conventions (such as obtrusive links and menus) reduce its efficacy as such an instrument. In order to create the effect of seamless passage, Afternoon experiments with two chief devices: moving between lexias by clicking on words, and a search engine. Both work on the premise of poetic association: a word's connotations provide the basis for its linking two lexias. In the case on clicking on words, having no visible marks demarcating links leaves the reader free to make his own choices as to which words genuinely interest him; links that call attention to themselves (such as the blue underlined ones) affect the reader, creating a bias that is not his own. The search engine, though imperfect in operation, is a device of great potential -- this offers even greater freedom for exploration, for then the reader is not restricted to words that catch his interest for his passageways; he can, by articulating those ideas that interest him in his own words, truly follow the paths best suited to his wishes.

In Afternoon, connections are threatened by fragmentation -- these connections, however, are not merely those of the characters in the story; it includes the connection between reader and writer. It is a relationship founded on the need for communication -- the writer must send his message to the reader. Yet the writer has deliberately presented his message in the form of a puzzle; Afternoon is something of a jigsaw puzzle in its original state: a nebulous multitude of fragments, awaiting assembly. It is in the assembling of these fragments that we finally read Afternoon, and only then do we realize that, like a jigsaw puzzle, staying connected can be a tricky business indeed.

Afternoon Discussion overview Hypertext Cyberspace Web