Overcast Afternoon

Elbert Ventura, English 111, Autumn 1997

Reading Michael Joyce's afternoon was a bit like trying to learn how to swim again. This was my first exposure to a fiction so extremely and insistently hypertextual. Five minutes into the reading, I realized that I was in the wrong mindset. For instance, I noticed that all the clicks I made had been on the last words of each lexia. The meaning is obvious--I was still in a conventional reading mode. I was literally trying to turn to the next page after getting to the page's last word. I was driven by the need for a linear narrative. End of page, go to next one. I wasn't actively engaging the text. I wanted to be under the control of a storyteller. It didn't occur to me that the medium's point was to engage the reader on a more intriguing, innovative, and challenging level.

An oft-repeated mantra in my Storyspace project is "Old habits die hard." We are taught to read a certain way. Hypertext, a new medium, provides us an outlet and a means for expression and communication which approaches the ideal (the writerly text, as Barthes would call it). Problem is--and it is I feel an understandable one--we have to condition ourselves now to play by these new rules.

afternoon had me groping. For a bit. I went through a couple of readings, each time intrigued, puzzled, and thwarted by any efforts at gleaning coherence. At some point, however, everything clicked. My insistence on adhering to a rigid linear narrative weakened with each new reading. I couldn't say that each and every lexia--and the logic behind their sequences--made sense to me. But somehow, it proved to be a strangely liberating experience. Going through the different stories reminded me of a line from Italo Calvino's "If On A Winter's Night a Traveler..." Early in the novel, the narrator describes how it is the reader's expectations that impels the author to talk about a woman at a bar. "afternoon" I feel plays with that convention, just like "Traveler" did. Joyce repeatedly subverts reader expectations, which I guess accounts for my floundering early on. It is not a spoonfed text.

I must admit that as a story, I was a tad underwhelmed by afternoon. (This is the part where I put on my little critic's hat and bash the darn thing.) "A postmodern classic," says so-and-so, and other similar plaudits had me expecting the greatest thing since sliced bread, I guess. I found Joyce's prose to be somewhat disappointing. It had that fiction-workshop-feelmypainplease-poetry feel about it. Granted, there were flashes of inspiration--I particularly liked the spiky cynicism of the dialogues involving Wert and Lolly. For the most part, I found the prose uninspired and trite. The world needs one more pseudo-poetic, world-weary, self-absorbed narrator like I need a root canal.

So there you have it. An intriguing, even illuminating, experience that is unfortunately marred by its mediocre content. The whole time, I kept thinking, "This gig's pretty cool. If only it was about something I could care about."

Afternoon Discussion overview Hypertext Cyberspace Web