Fractured Fairy Tales

Hypertext as an architecture for fiction

By Jonathan Wallace

Hypertext is a perfect environment in which to create fiction which breaks the linear, chronological flow of most print work. To illustrate what I mean, I will pick a simple form of possible hypertext fiction, which I will call the triangle, and compare it to two print predecessors.

(Other shapes are possible too. I have written a hypertext square, Brooklyn of Dreams, and a "hypertextspace" disorderly as the Web itself, Kazoo Concerto. I pick the triangle for this essay because of its simplicity and because of its similarity to the two print works I discuss below.)

The triangle would consist of three hypertext stories with overlapping subject matter which could be read in any order. By reading all three, one would acquire as much insight into the subject matter as the author intended, but each reader would have a significantly different experience depending on the path chosen.

A perfect subject matter for a hypertext triangle would be a human triangle--two men and one woman, for example, with confusion and deception in their relations. Each of the characters would have only a partial view of the truth. A does not have complete insight into what each man knows or how he feels about her. B knows A is seeing C, while the latter knows B but does not know of his relations with A. The stories could cover a single day in their lives. Instead of using the God-like third person narrator, the stories would be in the first person or would at least be told from the point of view of each individual. Therefore, nothing will be revealed in story A that A does not know, etc.

The author now has the opportunity to create effects in each story for which the cause must be sought in the others. A looks out through her window and sees B and C talking. Later, B says he wishes to break up, but will not tell her why. In C's story, we learn what words he said to B in this conversation, but we do not yet know what thought process led B to act. We must read B's tale in order to find out.

This was the order A,C, B. If we happen to read the stories in the order B, A, C, we hear a man say he wishes to part and hear his thoughts why; a woman sees the conversation take place but is startled by his wish to separate; two men talk and we learn what words caused one of them to want to leave the woman.

If the stories are well written, there will be a little click of recognition no matter in which order they are read. We may read about a character committing suicide, then later feel satisfied to learn why. Or we may read about a character receiving some shattering news, and later feel catharsis when she kills herself.

In reading a hypertext triangle, the reader is effectively triangulating in order to discover the truth. Because each story will only bring some necessary clues but not the entire picture, the reader becomes a detective attempting to solve a puzzle.

All great works of literature (who killed Karamazov pere, will Molly Blooom be unfaithful to Leopold, what will make Emma Bovary happy) resemble mystery stories; even Godlike narrators keep some cards up their sleeves until the end. Fiction which does not give us a complete overview of events as they proceed more accurately mimics the real life process in which we play detective and elicit an explanation of something which happened from family, co-workers or friends. Since as "detective" one cannot know in advance the chronology of the events he is attempting to reconstruct, he may interview X, who tells him the end; Z, who fills in the beginning; then Y who reveals the middle. Thus, the investigation will tend not to follow the linear flow of the events as they occurred, but merely permits us to reconstruct them later.

Print works which follow this "detective" structure cheat us, because they promise us the uncertainty and fractured timelines of real life inquiry, then force us to follow our quest in a particular sequence. Edmund Wilson commented in 1931 that Ulysses was like a text space which one could explore in any direction; but the design requirements of the print medium almost guarantee that the reader will explore the work from page 1 through to page 933. A hypertext triangle would allow the reader to make her own choices as to the order in which to "interrogate" the characters.

Another possibility of the hypertext triangle is that it allows the author more easily to elide or even leave out some information where doing so adds to the effect the author is trying to achieve. Of course, print authors have long done so, especially in this century; commentators who have created timelines of Ulysses, for example, have pointed out significant gaps of Stephen Dedalus' day which are never filled in, but are alluded to later. Nonetheless, the dense structure of a book, with its mass of contiguous pages, leads to the inference that it tells us "everything" there is to know. Hypertext, with its sense of linking together disparate objects hanging some distance from one another in cyberspace, creates less of a presumption that every important detail will be included (just as it creates less of an inference that the work is "finished", either in the sense of being finally edited or of not being a work-in-progress to which more pieces will be linked later.)

I recently read two works which strike me as strong precedent in print for the hypertext triangle: Jean Rhy's Wide Sargasso Sea and Gene Wolfe's Fifth Head of Cerberus. The books have several things in common. Each is formed of three sections. The sections are dissimilar enough that they could be read in any order without disrupting the narrative, for each contains enough information to be minimally understood by itself without explaining all mysteries (a plain requirement of each piece of a hypertext triangle). In both books, there are two first person narrators; one section of the Wolfe book has third person narration as well. The first person narrators, of course, never tell us anything not known to them personally. Each work establishes much of its story by hinting rather than direct description. For example, we infer by the end of the Rhys novel that the narrator had an affair with her cousin Sandie; but he appears in less than ten sentences of the book, and they never do anything except talk and kiss (once). In Wolfe, we deal with questions of the identity (human or alien) of a planetful of people and also one of the first person narrators. Both books present the enigma of the unreliable narrator; Rhys' protagonist may be insane, and Wolfe's may be an alien without even knowing it. In both, we "triangulate" upon fragmentary references found in all three of the sections to get an overview of what has happened.

The similarities are so remarkable that it is possible Wolfe read Rhys: the island world of the one, the planet of the other, are both tropical, decadent, and inhabited by slave-owning societies. Almost any character from either book could turn up in the other without disrupting the narrative.

Both books leave you very unsettled, and do not resolve all of your questions. Ursula LeGuin's comment on Wolfe's book, reproduced on the jacket, applies to Rhys' as well: an application of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to literature. You cannot simultaneously track the position and the velocity of a thought. Joyce was the first to fracture our fairy tales, but until now the very medium in which these tales are printed forcibly put them back together. Today, along comes hypertext and provides the ideal architecture for fiction in the quantum era.