Commentary on Michael Joyce's Afternoon, by Izel Sulam

Izel Sulam, English 111, Autumn 1997

Michael Joyce's Afternoon, a pioneer in hypertextuality in terms of both narrative and technological concerns, constitutes a valuable contribution insofar as it illustrates how hypertext should be, and should not be, written.

The premise is delightfully ambiguous, a brief conversation in snow-covered woods leads to a variety of plots whereby extramarital affairs, knowledge engineering software companies, and author-reference (self-reference is not good enough for a hypertext by Michael Joyce, it seems!) abound. The lexia employ enough details to keep the reader engaged, yet still leave out quite a bit of information to make them feel more natural when they are reused. This does not detract from the enjoyment of the piece, however, the missing information is immediately constructed as assumptions or extrapolations based on the previously read lexia and attached to the lexia currently being read, this construction will, in turn, motivate the reading of further lexia. This is one of the most critical milestones which define the boundary between linear and hypertextual narrative, the cohesive element is no longer conventional chronology. In hypertext, patterns serve to keep the text as one whole unit for the reader, the reused lexia supply said patterns. In this respect, Afternoon excels - the repetition of lexia seems comforting, orienting, at times enlightening, rather than being annoying or boring. The vagueness takes on various stylistic preferences (poetic or lyric prose, literary references highly open to diverse interpretation, minimalist prose, dialog etc...) and provides variety in its employment of this technique.

All is not well, however - the associations between lexia have been presented in a way that can only be expressed as 'less than rewarding' if one is to be subtle about it. A very honest judgment would have to assert that the links simply do not make sense when they do not appear to be based on specific words or ideas embedded in both the source and the target lexia. Links that are attached to a specific word clue the reader in as to what to expect (which can well be used to surprise the reader by unleashing a perfectly viable yet highly unexpected interpretation or association). Links that lead to a specific word suggest which words or ideas in the previous lexia may be applicable. However, all the links in Afternoon appear to be lexia-to-lexia links, except cases where answering yes or no makes sense due to a question at the end of the lexia. In more than one instance, I found myself thrown into a new lexia which had absolutely nothing to do with the previous one, as in the case of a lexia exploring a sexual episode between Lolly and the narrator leading to a lexia concerning Irish poetry. Unjustified associations, rather than serving up a challenge for the reader, simply end up being annoying and pointless. I would have wished for links to be based on words, as is done in most hypertext systems these days.

In short, Afternoon works wonders with its prose although, in its Storyspace form, it still needs a lot more technical tweaking to constitute a masterpiece. Its HTML version can well be considered alongside the likes of Hamlet, Great Expectations and the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, though - unprecedented in bringing together so many elements which work so well together, and therefore an instant classic by definition.

Afternoon Discussion overview Hypertext Cyberspace Web