About Montauk

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Montauk is a special case among the fiction I have published on the Web so far, for two reasons. First, it was born more or less full-blown, instead of being assembled from disparate stories like Kazoo Concerto or Brooklyn of Dreams. Second, it arose from a dream, like two earlier, traditional works of mine which have not yet appeared on the Web.

In my dream, I was pitching the actor Liam Neeson a script over lunch in Hollywood. He had come out just to be polite to me, and was looking for a kind way to tell me he was not interested, but I captured his attention by telling him that the story was about the rivalry of two brothers in the software business and that I had Aidan Quinn in mind to play his younger brother. In recognition of the dream where the story began, the brothers have retained the names Liam and Aidan.

From this beginning, the rest of the story fell into place so rapidly that I have little more to say about the architecture, save this: I incorporated a short story idea which I had been carrying in my mind for fifteen years, about a man who loves an unavailable woman and determines to wait until she is exhausted enough to consider him. When he finally has her, he is unfaithful. This became the story of Liam and Darcy.

Montauk originally was to consist only of the nine "realistic" parts, but when I finally sat down to write something I began the three fantasy stories, which are incorporated into the whole as the work of one of the characters, Jane Deirdre Molloy.

I have as usual used some material from my own life. As an attorney, I assisted one client in selling his company to Microsoft. The details of the computer industry, recruiting, and investment banking, are based on experience.

I enjoyed writing fiction about software development. Other works which touch on this world include Douglas Copeland's Microserfs and Po Bronson's The First Twenty Million is Always the Hardest, both of which take a more satyrical bent. Montauk considers a question about which I hope to write a nonfiction book someday: is software art or engineering? The flow of Jane Deirdre's creative process (for example, playing a game of solitaire and then incorporating a "shuffle" feature into her product) confirms that software is art.

Brooklyn of Dreams was the exposition of a single Yeats poem; Montauk is illuminated through-out by quotations from Eliot, some of which rang in my head for more than thirty years ("the trilling wire in the blood...") A line of poetry often lies at the intersection of a character and an idea.

Montauk is also a tribute to Samuel Beckett. In fact, the stark beaches of Hither Hills or Ditch Plains would make a fit setting either for Happy Days or Godot.

A note on Montauk's structure. Kazoo was a disorderly "narrative space" which the reader explored by following links. Brooklyn was a neat "wheel" of four stories linked to one another, which could be read in any order. I knew early on that Montauk would consist of segments concerning three people, which could be read in different sequences. I did not know how I would present these to the reader. I originally imagined a bit-mapped graphic, a spiral, with the stories in chronological order. The spiral would encourage readers to follow the links in other than time sequence, as did Brooklyn's compass graphic. After a number of unsatisfactory ideas, I ended up borrowing Jane Deirdre's card pile metaphor. This was by far the best way to present the stories while leaving the reader free to select different strategies for reading them--by year or character (card or suit).

From Kazoo to Montauk, I have come to understand that a hyperfiction requires a user interface, and that the latter needs as much thought as the major story elements do. Authors of printed fiction haven't had to worry about the user interface, which was determined for them hundreds of years ago.

The interface I ended up with for Montauk is the right one given the orderly structure behind it of twelve sections arranged by character and year. There is, however, a sad mismatch between the interface and Jane Deirdre's concept of an "idea pile". Montauk is too neat to be an idea pile, which was intended to be an assortment of wildly unlike ideas, linked together in a loose framework. Kazoo, my first effort, was an idea pile; it began as unrelated stories, which I connected to each other at a late stage. By contrast, Brooklyn was a little database with four records: each character was the primary key in his own story and the secondary key of the other three. And Montauk, to my shame, is a spreadsheet, with rows of years and columns of characters!

Still, I am proud of Montauk, because I believe it accomplishes what I set out to do: tell a story of two brothers and a sister in the software business, while breaking free of the usual print stricture of sequence and chronology. I am infatuated with the idea of stories that can be approached from any direction; separate sections each containing a piece of a riddle, where the pieces can be gathered in any order. In each of Montauk's three realistic time-slices, there are events that can be understood only by reading several sections: What happened that night at Roseland? Why did Emily Taft break up with Aidan? What was Liam's role in the Galacticorp approach to his brother and sister? And finally, what is the meaning of Darcy's note?

There are two "supported" strategies for reading Montauk. One is to read by year: the fantasy stories first, then the 1982 stories, etc. Within a time-slice, the stories may be read in any order. I suggest varying the order within each time-slice; if you began the 1982 sequence by reading Deirdre's story, begin 1987 by reading Aidan, for example. The other strategy is to read by character: all the Deirdre stories, then all the Liam, etc. To read by year, follow the suits: all of the hearts before reading any of the spades, etc. To read by character, follow the cards: all of the aces, then the jacks, etc.

Other "unsupported" strategies are worth trying: read the twelve sections in any order you wish. Each of the twelve pieces is intended to stand alone as if it were a short story. Similarly, any time slice, or any character slice, should leave you feeling that you have read a whole work. Reading an entire character slice is sufficient to inform you of all the significant events in the Molloy family between 1982 and 1997; the other character slices will simply fill in more detail and give different perspectives on those events.

A "navigation bar" at the bottom of each section allows you to move horizontally in the same time slice and vertically in the character slice. For example, from Deirdre 1987, you can move to Aidan or Liam 1987 or Deirdre 1982 or 1997. Or you can hit the back arrow and select another link from the bitmap.

All hypertext links within the text will take you out of Montauk and into Brooklyn or Kazoo, which have some characters in common.

Hyperfiction, whatever its other qualities or defaults, should be structured so that it cannot be successfully captured between the pages of a print work without being "flattened." Montauk is an attempt at a true hyperfiction work; please let me know if you think I have succeeded.