Understanding the Act of Reading: the WOE Beginners' Guide to Dissection

J. Yellowlees Douglas

"Begin at the beginning," the King said gravely, "then proceed straight through to the end. Then stop."
Alice in Wonderland

Reading WOE strikes me as being a little like watching yourself undergo an upper G.I. Empty stomach, lurid pink barium cocktail, ultrasound monitor. You peer at the display, uncertain exactly what the map of light and shadow represents, then you notice the tube of your esophagus rippling with long swallows as you tip the stuff down your throat. You roll onto your left side and the gritty image shows you an inert bag filled with liquid, like a haggis; you flip onto your right side and behold the whole thing coming alive: the pylorus squirting, liquid sluicing right off the screen. You never knew digestion looked like this. All the diagrams and dissecting fetal pigs in high school biology prepared you for the mechanics of human digestion, of course. You just never imagined exactly how your peristalsis looked—you find yourself twisting uneasily from your left side to your right when piling into bed after a late-night meal, the grainy, shifting form etching itself on the insides of your eyelids.

Reading WOE is like that. Ordinarily, reading is virtually undetectable, apart from delicate twitchings of the eye and the odd subvocalization here and there. Reading is a black box. Opening a reading log in WOE I see its movements crystallized, understanding where conjecture begins, each little synapse the text obligingly leaves for me to leap. It's like gazing into the back of a watch, seeing the whirrings of the clockwork fluttering there like the beating of a wren's minute heart: I understand how the mechanism measures out intervals in time, but time itself remains a mystery. So do the delicate machinations of interpretation, the tiny subjective strokes and colorations we use to shade in detail. The rest is visible, its motion arrested like the sequences of still-motion frames captured by the rudimentary movie camera of Eadweard Muybridge, where he proved that galloping horses really do take flight and become airborne—at least at every third step.

Acts of Reading

Even in theory, in the treatises of reception aesthetics, reader-response and phenomenologies of reading, the act of reading has never been more than a hazy outline. The theorists are all succinct enough for varying reasons about the time having arrived for the spotlight to be turned upon the transaction between reader and text. The picture, however, becomes more than fuzzy when the time arrives for creating anything like a schematic view of the process of interpretation. Take one of the earliest proponents of reader-response, Jean-Paul Sartre. "Reading," Sartre declares, "is directed creation:

Raskolnikov's waiting is my waiting which I lend him. Without this impatience of the reader he would remain only a collection of signs. His hatred of the police magistrate who questions him is my hatred which has been solicited and wheedled out of me by signs, and the police magistrate himself would not exist without the hatred I have for him via Raskolnikov. That is what animates him, it is his very flesh....the words are there like traps to arouse our feelings and to reflect them towards us.....Thus for the reader, all is to do and all is already done... (Sartre, 1971.)

Sartre's version of the reading process is not unlike the transaction between child and coloring book: all those thick black lines and inviting white spaces prompt us to animate the scenes we find by supplying the right shades, the touches of emotion texts can only describe, the color of a killing rage, the hue of despair, the tinge of angst. The rhetoric, you may have noticed, is more romantic than the actual stuff of the theory itself, which begins with the grandeur of "directed creation" and ebbs into the diminuendo of providing the feelings that breathe life into the lines of the text. Surprisingly, Sartre doesn't take this further, never insisting that we must envision into being an entire world from the sprinkling of black ciphers and empty spaces on the page. Like Barthes' narrative striptease (Barthes, 1975), Sartre's collection of signs wheedles and solicits, tricking our emotions out of us like an escort posing as a date, but the theory is all metaphor: an egalitarian effort to place the creative laurels at the feet of the lowly reader, as well as at those of the already celebrated figure of the creator.

More than twenty years later, Wolfgang Iser arrives at a similar conclusion for more tangible reasons than those supplied by Sartre. The act of reading, he argues, forms an asymmetrical interaction between reader and text, depriving readers of the feedback loop by which they might test their understandings of the words they read or of the author's intention—both of which normally exist in typical face-to-face communication. In other words, to paraphrase Plato in his Phaedrus, no matter what we ask the text, it just keeps saying the same thing. In the end, Iser outlines a system by which the text guides and checks reader responses to it, powered primarily by something slightly more sophisticated than Sartre's wheedling traps.

Earlier, Roman Ingarden had introduced the concept of Unbestimmtheit or indeterminacy, which flourished in the upper strata of the literary work, provoking readers to supply details which had not been determined as they read. The first layer in any literary work consisted of words and their sounds, and the second included words, sentences and paragraphs—both determinate as Ingarden saw it, in that language in these dimensions is seen simply as language and not as referring to "real" objects; these two levels exclude the referential or signifying purpose of language. The third and fourth dimensions, however, consist of represented objects and their placement in the text—which are both indeterminate. In other words, they require us to supply a context, physical place and often additional details to complete what cannot be completely defined.

Returning to Ingarden's spots of indeterminacy, Iser uses them as the animus of the text, a sort of lever propelling us through the pages of print, calling forth from us a "spectrum of actualizations" with which we complete the text (Iser, 1978). Nothing here as romantic as Sartre's idea of directed creation; also no neatly defined categories separating indeterminate quantities from the determinate. Instead, Iser's concept of the blank is more than a little blank itself:

...indeterminacy is an extremely undifferentiated category and is therefore at best a universal of communication theory. To define it, however, would eliminate it as a universal that determines communication (Golub, 1984).

Sometimes Iser's gaps seem merely to connect narrative segments, cropping up between shifts in place, time, action or perspective. At other points, they surface in a larger, more abstract sense as readers pursue certain elements in the text and temporarily ignore others to complete the abstract framework they have mentally constructed of the narrative. Blanks are the bricks of Iser's theoretical wall—using them, he builds an intricate and fairly admirable theory accounting for how readers create consistent interpretations of literary works. But he never actually defines blanks, gaps, or determinacy. Blanks are Iser's black box—after all, how can you define something that resists definition by its very definition? Perhaps more to the point, how can you define something you cannot see, let alone record?

We are all thoroughly accustomed to blanks and gaps, of course. Watching anything from Rocky V to Chinatown we have no difficulty whatsoever knitting in the spaces between shots, which are, after all, blanks in at least one of the senses Iser intends. The essence of cinema, after all, is the cut. When we watch a film cut from a high speed chase scene to a man slurping soup from a spoon in a poorly lighted diner to a woman gazing pensively out of an ice-encrusted apartment window, we assume that their lives are, or are about to be, somehow connected. We also believe that a rough continuity is at work and that we are dipping momentarily into these three narrative strands at roughly the same time even though we view them sequentially. These blanks don't completely separate the sequences we see: instead, the cuts foster in us the expectation that these strands are interwoven, more or less paralleling the function of blanks in print narratives.

But if we continue this analogy, we notice that cinema includes a virtually limitless collection of cuts and edits that remain nearly transparent to us. Compelled to create films from existing footage because of a shortage of raw film stock in the Soviet Union, Pudovkin sliced a long take, consisting of a closeup of an actor's neutral face into three segments; between these, he spliced in shots of a bowl of steaming soup, a dressed-out corpse, and a child playing. When he screened the film, Pudovkin claimed that members of his Soviet audience praised the actor's ability to convincingly yet subtly portray the emotions of hunger, grief, and joy. The grammar of shot / reaction-shot is so firmly entrenched in our perception of films that we would find it difficult to accept that actors in reaction shots frequently blanch, weep or conjure up looks of apprehension and astonishment at nothing more than a handful of bored crew members standing off-screen, waiting to set up the next shot. Even though we know that the real Death Star doesn't exist, we're still somewhat ambivalent about learning that Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher are really gazing bug-eyed onto a blank, blue screen, or that it wasn't Julia Roberts' body poured into those cut-offs and designer gowns during her scenes in Pretty Woman but that of a body-double, artfully shot from behind or the neck down. It's disconcerting to discover that the holes or gaps which we subconsciously believe to join two things and the gaps that we didn't know existed are alike the stuff from which illusions are made.

The cinematic parallel becomes instructive when we turn to WOE. Open up the places in Relic and you'll notice a profusion of references to "he," "she," and "it" that on first reading seem strangely free-floating due both to the relative brevity of each narrative segment or "place" and to their separation from one another. Even in novels such as Tristram Shandy and Hopscotch—the ancestors of interactive fiction—the basic unit is the chapter. Discontinuity in time and place, and changes of narrator or subject or massive ellipses in time may separate one chapter from the other, but in print narratives, conventions dictate a seamless continuity between paragraphs within each chapter. Pronouns have traceable, evident precedents; the events have a setting in place and time which remains continuous, with any shifts explained.

Interactive fiction—at least at the moment—has no such conventions. There is no hierarchy of yields, no grammar of paths signifying which links preserve continuities in time and space, nothing which situates me before I make my foray into each place. As I begin the place it, I'm not certain of the identities of the "he" and "she" who lie talking in bed: are they Filly and Steve, or the unnamed protagonist and his partner? The nature of the medium has the narrative hurling down a gauntlet the moment I begin: no gentle induction into the narrative flow, no subtle introductions of the dramatis personae, no suggestive unravelling of the diegetic ball of yarn. Instead, I am confronted simultaneously with the necessity of discovering the characters, their identities, situations, and how I can expect the narrative to come together with a sense of temporary bewilderment rather reminiscent of what composition theorists call the "all-at-once-ness" of the act of writing, the distinct sensation of cognitive overload from tackling too many textual strata at once. The experience of reading interactive fiction—or at least Michael Joyce's narratives—seems to me like a cross between writing, translating, and reading Robbe-Grillet.

Both Robbe-Grillet's screenplay for Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad and his novel In the Labyrinth are anti-narratives: they tell us more about our expectations, nurtured by the conventions governing the consumption of cinematic and literary narratives, than they do about the characters who wander aimlessly through them. Transgress the unities of time and space across the familiar grammar of the shot / reaction-shot, or transfer the narrative action from snow falling outdoors to a description of a framed picture hanging on the wall and then reach through the frame as if it were Alice's looking-glass and settle the action decidedly inside it with the captured images stirring to life. Then watch the casual readers drop like flies, bewildered, puzzled, angry, lost. During my first screening of Last Year at Marienbad, even the normally napping winos eventually struggled out of the warm auditorium and lurched into the arctic night air outside.

I think of Robbe-Grillet often as I work my way through WOE, each place fostering a forest of questions which I must consciously work through: Does the place a follow the place it? Are the two people in conversation the same in both places? I can't assume that the path creates a link across time and space, but I sniff for clues. "Rubes like your friend Filly" in the place called they means that the woman there is the same unnamed woman who appears to be married to the narrator of WOE, and the reference to "her sad, sterile friend" seems to also refer to Filly; therefore, unless there are other women players in this particular narrative strand, the two "she"'s must refer to the same person. My prickliness as I read pays off as I proceed: although the places Their and his both feature post-coital conversation between two lovers, there is no similar neat identity between the actors in each. I realize that the first woman is not Filly when she stuns her partner by revealing that she believes he's fantasizing about Filly. The second, I discover as I read through the place, is Filly, listening to her husband's voice on an answering machine joking with her lover about the conquests which he is—her husband alleges—no doubt, chalking up while his wife is away.

My uncertainty over the identity of the lovers in each place heightens the irony of the second scene in a way no print novel ever could. Its rough equivalent would be parallel scenes in a film where we watch two sets of identical actions, assuming the actors to be the same in both, but are startled to discover deception in intimate territory as we witness hubby fondly performing the conjugal embrace on an anatomy that definitely doesn't belong to his wife. Our brains, Iser would have it, churn feverishly, beavering away in the service of consistency-building, and the jolt we receive when we discover our assumptions have led us down the garden path is, nonetheless, more instructive than the confirmation of our little heaps of gestalten. Our shock places us closer to the sensations we might expect of the wife discovering a similar adulterous scene; it is the frisson which begins to coax and wheedle from us the emotions the narrative needs to live.

afternoon—Joyce's Narrative of Possibility

If I seem an overly cautious reader here, consider my qualifications: I have spent three years reading Michael Joyce's first interactive narrative. I spent a year strolling through the text, charting the reactions of a reader confronted with arguably the most radical shift in media environment since writing evolved from cuneiform gouges tallying stocks of cows and goats and into something Plato could complain about. The second year I spent mapping every single place, path and yield afternoon had to offer. It wasn't until the third year that I realized there was all sorts of monkey business percolating behind the scenes, the knowledge dawning on me, I imagine, the way it might have on the hapless narrator of afternoon who hadn't yet discovered that both his mistress and his ex-wife were involved with his boss—at least, they weren't the last time I read afternoon.

From its modest beginnings as a "test file" Joyce created for the interactive reading/writing application Storyspace, afternoon blossomed into an intricate web of narratives, places, paths and yields to fulfill Joyce's vision of a book "that would change every time you read it"—a sort of computer-driven version of Borges' Book of Sand. In the short story of the same title, the Borges narrator exchanges a rare copy of the first English Bible for the Book of Sand, an infinite book which never offers the same page to any reader more than once. In the end, the narrator, feverish with insomnia from sleepless nights attempting to chart the book's limits, slips the volume into the bowels of the Argentine National Library—presumably, the same collection of 800,000 books over which Borges himself had presided during his term as the Library's director.

In afternoon, you can trek across a single place four times, as I did, and discover that it possesses four radically different meanings each time. It wasn't until I had encountered the place more than twice I realized that the words themselves had actually stayed the same, although their meaning had been radically altered. The lunch-time conversation between protagonist Peter and employer Wert—where Wert casually asks Peter what he would think if he, the boss, were sleeping with his ex-wife—can fit neatly into any number of scenarios spun out in the maze of narrative strands. In one, it underlines the immaturity of Peter's rather precocious boss; in another, it slots into an odd triangle involving both Wert's analyst wife and Nausicaa, her client and Peter's mistress, and what Peter sees as the odd Freudian possessiveness Wert feels for her. Seen in another context, the question could be Wert's means of gauging Peter's reaction to the news that he is also sleeping with Nausicaa. Or it could, in fact, be a very real question, since Wert also appears to be keeping company with Peter's ex-wife.

The place remains the same each time I face it: the words don't change, and they are not indeterminate to the degree that we find among the places in some of the narrative strands ofWOE, for instance the one beginning with the place Relic. Although there is a "he" without a tangible precedent in this place in afternoon, each time I read it, I know that "he" is Wert. But I have only a vague context supplied for the conversation the first time I cross it, and I focus on details in the places that follow it which suggest Wert is acting the part of a true friend and attempting to cheer his employee and calm his fears about the whereabouts of the wife and child who Peter fears may have been victims of a serious traffic accident. The second time my path links me into it, I see the query cropping up to fill an awkward pause amid the desultory conversation of business partners who lunch too frequently together. No effort to distract Peter from his worried thoughts here, just a certain childish, malevolent glee. In each of my completed readings of afternoon, I suddenly realize, I have been actualizing mutually exclusive versions of reality. The narrative world in which Wert saucily bombards a waitress with sexual innuendo before tormenting Peter with his query cannot exist alongside the world in which Wert relieves the tedium of a habitual lunch date by trying his hand at a few mind-games on his silent employee. Each reading of afternoon breathes life into a narrative of possibility which momentarily obliterates the other possible, but yet to be actualized, ghostly versions of reality. During my third and fourth encounters with the same place, the immediate context remains the same as in the second: what changes is my understanding of the larger picture of adultery, deceit, and (as another possible reading suggests) the guilty panic of a man who has probably caused the accident that injured his wife and child.

The indeterminacy Joyce uses here to such powerful effect is the sort described by Ingarden: given a few sparse details here and there, we readers knit together settings and context and significance and the result is the successful realization of the sort of enterprise attempted by Lawrence Durrell in The Alexandria Quartet. There, the books Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea gradually expose different strata of the complex and often secretive lives of Darley, Justine, Nessim and Pursewarden, a story told

so to speak, in layers....a series of novels with "sliding panels."..or else, perhaps, like some medieval palimpsest where different sorts of truth are thrown down one upon the other, the one obliterating or perhaps supplementing the other (Durrell, 1960).

The questions raised in one of the earliest scenes in Justine, where Darley and Nessim rush to a brothel in the Alexandrian red light district and rescue an anguished Justine, is resolved gradually over the space of nearly eight hundred pages. Is Nessim having Justine followed and why—out of jealousy, or political intrigue? What is she doing in the brothel? Why the emotional frenzy? Not until we reach the last pages of Clea do we discover that the brothel is where Justine's missing daughter has just died. The quartet of novels continually reveals layer after layer of "reality" but the nature of the print environment requires that Durrell do so by relying upon a combination of ellipsis and supplement, as in the two representations of Justine's engagement to Nessim. In the first version, the proposal is powered by romantic sentiment, by the forcefulness of Nessim's feelings for Justine, concluded by Nessim's triumphant announcement that he has at last succeeded in winning her:

After a long moment of thought, he picked up the polished telephone and dialled Capodistria's number. 'Da Capo' he said quietly. 'You remember my plans for marrying Justine? All is well.' He replaced the receiver slowly, as if it weighed a ton, and sat staring at his own reflection in the polished desk (Balthazar, 249).

Later, however, we learn that Nessim is a key figure in a plot to oust the British from their positions of power in the Middle East. Hence his union with Justine develops as a pragmatic solution to Nessim's plan for protecting the interests of Egyptian Copts by buttressing the Jewish presence in Palestine and altering the balance of power in the Arab states:

...after a long moment of thought, [he] picked up the polished telephone and dialled Capodistria's number. 'Da Capo,' he said quietly, 'you remember my plans for marrying Justine? All is well. We have a new ally. I want you to be the first to announce it to the committee. I think now they will show no more reservation about my not being a Jew—since I am to be married to one. (Mountolive, 555)

The ellipsis in the earlier account sets us up for the later revelations created by the supplement to that scene. But in the print narrative, both the segment and its greater context must change in order for the revelation to retain its impact, whereas in afternoon only the context changes.

Both here and throughout the series of novels Durrell's aims are more or less the same as Joyce's: both have produced a web of narratives which may be taken as complete in themselves (in fact, Durrell's quartet of novels are sold both singly and under a single cover and more than five years separated my first reading of Justine and the other three novels in the Quartet ), but the totality of the narratives is far, far greater than the sum of their discrete parts. In the end, print defeats Durrell's enterprise: the seamless continuity of printed space cannot accommodate multiple voices or marginal additions to an earlier script—such as those affixed by Balthazar to the manuscript of "Justine" to create Balthazar—or the strata of different voices, of mutually exclusive layers of "reality." But where Durrell fails, Joyce succeeds. Using the interactive environment of Storyspace, he creates in afternoon a narrative we might call stratigraphic, richly banded with singular versions of reality that must be undercovered and analyzed, in geologic fashion, one layer of strata at a time. In WOE, Joyce digs still more deeply into the possibilities of hypertext narrative space and moves beyond even afternoon, splitting the act of creation wide open to reveal the different forces and voices behind the genesis of a narrative.

WOE—Reading Where Writing Begins

Reading the printed word has become like a function of the autonomic nervous system. After that first gulp of air as we emerge from the womb, none of us can choose not to breathe consciously—at least not on a permanent basis. So, go ahead, try it: try not reading. Turn a blind eye to ads, traffic signs, the placards borne by the homeless stretched out by the johns under Penn Station. Register neon as a splash of flickering color, the signs on storefronts as long slabs of fluorescent light, graffiti as splatter from a spray can. Go ahead.

You can't.

The problem with getting inside the act of reading for writers and theorists alike is its ubiquity—there's no escaping it, and, like any environment with which we are overly familiar, we no longer see it. So take it all away: all the familiar trappings, the pages and their numbers, the binding, the heft of a book, its cover, the chapters, table of contents, the dwindling supply of pages that lets you know you're nearing the end. And we're left with something more basic than soliciting and wheedling, blanks, gaps, or spots of indeterminacy. We're left with what constitutes the act of reading, and what we read for, why we stop reading, and ultimately, why we bother to read at all. The concrete act of reading itself does not necessarily seem tied to why we read in any larger sense, which is probably one of the reasons no theorist in the schools of either reception-theory or reader-response has actively pursued any inquiry into why, for example, we read fiction. Reading the printed word is one of the things we do: reading for pleasure (as opposed to reading in the pursuit of, say, specific knowledge for end-defined reasons) is something that we cannot explain in terms of Iser's schematized aspects or Sartre's directed creation because we are never thrown back on such primary resources when we read. When we read print narratives, we arrive already equipped with a full repertoire of reactions and strategies, including turning to the last chapter to find out who really knocked off Roger Ackroyd or skimming over all those huge chunks of exposition in Bleak House. We never come face to face with the ground zero of reading—just why the hell we do it. But we do reach that ground zero in reading narratives like afternoon and WOE. Here the question becomes one of your resources, if only when you acknowledge it.

When I read Ford's The Good Soldier, I don't need to hover momentarily between paragraphs or chapters wondering whether Dowell's inability to detect any of the emotional turbulence swirling around him derives from a nearly complete lack of feeling, a fear of losing self-control, or from simple, utter stupidity. Even though I know Dowell is a profoundly unreliable narrator, I'm not obliged to make any overt decisions at all in order to continue with the novel: I can simply read, draw my conclusions gradually, or postpone reaching any holistic judgment on Dowell's character until after I've finished the entire narrative. Unlike Ford's paragraphs and chapters, however, WOE contains narrative segments arranged in hierarchies, chains and configurations represented through spatial relations laid out in virtual, electronic space. Like a Greek rheotrician who strolls through the imaginary spaces of his elaborate memory-palace rehearsing and rearranging his text, I experience Storyspace narratives by navigating through virtual space, by traversing places and the paths that link them. Of course, while reading WOE I can travel anywhere I want—I can even abandon the neat paths and yields awaiting my investigation and simply browse through the whole structure. But without an investment in the text, I become lost. The sheer amount of indeterminacy lurking in many places as well as in the spaces between them demands that I fill in enormous chunks of detail as if I were wrenching a three-dimensional image from something supplied to me in a line drawing. In order to make any real inroads into WOE I have to acknowledge that I'm looking for something, and I need to have a reasonable idea what it is—otherwise, I have no real raison d'être for moving from place to place and no means of gauging whether I should continue reading or give things a rest.

But when I plunge into WOE, I am almost immediately sucked into the ménage à trois joining Filly, the narrator, and his wife through intriguing little flashes of intense activity here and there, like picking up the odd remark from a colleague about his brother's murder or the time his old man spent inside for embezzlement, sandwiched between remarks about the Chicago MLA and Jerome Bruner's latest work. As I arrive at the place calledwe I recognize the mountains and ribbon of highway corresponding to the description of a similar scene at the end of the thread that begins with Mandala but I don't read "a happy ending" as anything of the sort. For me, suspense hovers over this place: I've begun to grasp the intricacies involved in the sexual configurations that have preceded we, and I'm convinced that some sort of disaster has been precipitated. I sense something lurking just outside the edges of the frame, as when the closeup of a woman cheerfully putting groceries away in the midst of a horror flick lulls us into a temporary sense of normality only to make the shock of the approaching attack still juicier.

That sense of narrative tension is heightened as I stumble across the references to Innocent and the father murdered in his presence, which seems like the shadow text inspiring the scenario played out in the Relic sequence. As I proceed through WOE, however, I discover that the tension isn't in the text—it's inside me. Curious about where I am in the overall structure of things, I zoom out to examine the cognitive map of WOE and discover that I've exhausted the narrative strand in Relic. The tale of Filly and Steve, the unnamed husband and wife and their children, looks neatly linear, all of its places laid out inside a single, confining space, all neatly linked in a chain proclaiming "a story" which ends with the placewe. The nature of my task undergoes a sort of sea change: now instead of reading to learn more about the quartet of partners and resolve my sense of suspense, I place this narrative strand at the center of a textual mosaic with the fragments of the other narratives, commentary and memory I encounter, all arranged according to their bearing on the events in Relic.

The moment I finally stop searching for a resolution of the tensions still active in we, I understand what has given birth to my sense of narrative tension. I'm not so doggedly pursuing the neat enclosure of all the anxieties, jealousies or desires welling up between the spaces in Relic: I'm not waiting for the knife between the shoulder blades, or the spark that touches off the annual mass murder in Arkansas, or even a rough paraphrase of Nora's exit line from A Doll's House. What I'm after is the proof or disproof of my vision of the narrative. My sense of its development has encouraged me to form certain hypotheses about what has happened that can only be borne out by my reading about further developments in this bit of diegesis involving the four friends. But in WOE, I can only understand that particular narrative strand by comprehending the forces that gave rise to its genesis—disparate elements represented by journal extracts, remarks on the creation of the WOE narratives, and the distant memory of violence between another husband and wife. I tell myself that I'm looking at a mosaic from the distance of about two inches so that it occupies my entire field of vision, examining the grain of each square, the way the mineral flecks embedded in it catch the light, but that I cannot expect to understand the overall design and see the place each piece plays in the image until I back away from it. The essence of this kind of interactive narrative is always best grasped in retrospect.

In WOE we can arrive at something like a point of retrospection, however, when we zoom out from the text and into the cognitive map: I use "zoom out" here because the action is reminiscent of the moment when the camera pulls away from the bowels of a scene to reveal the proportions of the thing its characters find themselves enmeshed in. Think of the moment in The Shining when the camera pulls us up and out of the snowy maze outside the lodge and shows us the dimensions of the labyrinth that has entrapped Jack Nicholson (an effect actually accomplished via a crane shot but since we lack any filmic verb to convey the dynamism of what the camera does here, I've appropriated "zoom"). The act of zooming out temporarily lifts us above the teeming movement of the narrative, interrupting its flow to provide us with a momentary, fleeting, Olympian perspective on life in the anthill as seen from above. Similarly, my jumping from the bowels of Relic to an overview of WOEgives me a glimpse of its overall structure and, more important, a sense of the places still awaiting my discovery. The cognitive map of WOE confers shape on my previously aimless wanderings through paths and places, and, like a topographic map of an unfamiliar island, suggests which directions might prove the most fruitful for dedicated exploration.

The granularity, or interruptability, of print documents containing tables of content or indices is fairly large; there is no granularity to a print narrative at all, really. It is, we might say, hopelessly non-interactive, a single long monologue which we quite literally take or leave. If I'm looking for specific references to "indeterminacy" in Wolfgang Iser's The Act of Reading, for example, I can dip into the book at the pages where indeterminacy crops up as indicated by the index and work my way backward or forward from its specific mention. Or I can seek out synonyms and related concepts and pursue them through the index or table of contents. But if I want to pursue Edward Ashburnham through the pages of The Good Soldier or pad after the burgeoning romance between Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby, ignoring Gatsby's passion for Daisy, I'm out of luck. I am more or less compelled to read these passages to determine where the scenes of interest to me begin and end. But in WOE the situation is different: by using the full Storyspace structure editor [1] I have access to a number of possible overview modes for gaining perspective on WOE as—to use Jay Bolter 's phrase—a "structure of structures" (Bolter, 1990). Reading WOE, I can chase down the paths and places of particular relevance to my interpretation of the narrative by getting an aerial view of the text, so to speak, by viewing the hypertext as a cognitive map, as a list of places and their descendents in a hierarchical schematic, or simply as a list of all place names in outline form. I can search for place and path names and even for specific names and words within places. If I find it relevant, I can even seek out the actual times and dates for the generation of each place and establish a rough chronology of what was written when.

This is both the concrete fulfillment of the concept of spatial relations in fiction first explored by Joseph Frank and a move toward a degree of interactivity inconceivable in print narratives. Where print narratives require us to construct a chronology and map of the actions unfolding in the novel, and to integrate our understanding of the novel's plot with the order in which it is revealed in the narrative—a sort of reading in two dimensions—WOE takes reading into a third. Using the cognitive map, I can actually see vertical and horizontal relationships between elements in the text; I can trace where the narrative strand in Relic begins and ends; the shape of the whole hypertext influences my interpretation of what I read. But the addition of the map and this third dimension do not necessarily increase the reader's cognitive load to the point where each interactive narrative reads like a cross between Finnegans Wake and the London A to Z.

After all, every time we park ourselves in a darkened cinema we are constructing in our heads a fairly sophisticated three-dimensional map from snippets shot in two dimensions and screened on a flat plane. From watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest once, it is possible to construct a plan of the hospital in our heads without being terribly aware of it—until it is violated by Billy being found dead across the hall from the room in which he sets out to kill himself (a point which apparently escaped the notice of the continuity person and nearly everyone else on the set). Even as children we bring a sense of magic "space" to the cinema which is far from primitive: on seeing his first film, Harry Belafonte reports, when a police car flashed by during a chase sequence, he and all the other children in the humid island cinema ran around the back of the screen to find out where the squad car had gone. Subconsciously, the act of watching any film involves filling in the space outside the edge of the frame, just as the reading of any poem demands we pay particular attention to the relationship between typography and white space on the page before us.

* * * *

Multi-value logics are now gaining currency, and these are quite capable of incorporating indeterminacy as a valid stepping-stone in the cognitive process. In this general intellectual atmosphere, the poetics of the open work is peculiarly relevant: it posits the work of art stripped of necessary and foreseeable conclusions, works in which the performer's freedom functions as part of the discontinuity which contemporary physics recognizes, not as an element of disorientation, but as an essential stage in all scientific verification procedures and also as the verifiable pattern of events in the subatomic world (Eco, 1989).

In the end, I think of WOE as a sort of double entendre on Eco's concept of the open work. My interpretation of its narratives, Eco would have it, explains WOE without exhausting its possibilities. One reading of it provides me with a single, momentarily satisfying version—which is why I leave off reading—but my awareness of its other possibilities makes my reading incomplete and draws me back again. WOE is Joyce's own Open Work—the structure which enables him to embrace in a single composition all those elements normally fenced off in print: commentary on the act of creation, the snatches of experience that become the grain that irritates, the core which we pearl over to become the stuff of fiction. It's all here: a convergence of voices, memories, influences, the process of production (normally present only in the posthumous archaeological expeditions into biography, criticism and the occasional stumbles into hagiography in an effort to resurrect those lost methods and intentions). They are all laid out before us: the genuine post-modern text rejecting the objective paradigm of reality as the great "either/or" and embracing, instead, the "and/and/and."

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. by Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.

Bolter, Jay. Writing Space: the Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Fairlawn, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1990.

Borges, Jorge Luis. The Book of Sand. Trans. Thomas di Giovanni. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

Durrell, Lawrence. The Alexandria Quartet. London: Faber and Faber, 1960.

Eco, Umberto. "The Poetics of the Open Work," in The Open Work. Trans. by Anna Cancogni. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Golub, Robert C. Reception Theory. London: Routledge, 1984.

Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: a Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

Robbe-Grillet, Alain. In the Labyrinth. London: John Calder, 1980.

Sartre, Jean Paul "Why Write?" in Hazard Adams, ed. Critical Theory Since Plato, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.


[1] The copies of WOE and IzmePass on the accompanying disk exist in a stand-alone or "reader" format which displays the text's structure in only one of the several modes Douglas mentions. The complete Storyspace program is available from Eastgate Systems, P.O. Box 1307, Cambridge MA, 02338—Ed.

[Back to the Writing on the Edge special section, 1991 index.]