A Note on Hyperfiction

As a teenager, I read Huxley's Brave New World. There is a scene in which a technician, momentarily inattentive, fails to inoculate a bottled fetus against a tropical disease. As a result, Huxley mentions, a promising young administrator was cut down in his prime decades later. The scene started me thinking about how often the consequences of an act told in a story are part of someone else's story. The story-teller makes a decision, often arbitrary, to pursue this skein but not that one. A story is like a topiary cut from a shapeless bush. The equally interesting stories of the passersby and minor characters--and people who don't appear at all, but like the planet Pluto influencing Neptune, have an effect on the story-- are clipped away and abandoned.

A novelist who attempts to pursue all possible roads simultaneously will get lost, and produce a book as shapeless as that bush. (Proust's A La Recherche du Temps Perdu is nearly such a book.) Instead, the novelist must resist the temptation to spend time today pursuing the stories of marginal characters, but must re-interest himself in them later. And then suppose their stories are merely shards, of some interest but unable to stand by themselves? Or possibly their stories are only interesting or even understandable when placed in the light of the already completed novel. Then the novelist really faces a difficult problem: what to do about a character who does not belong in the main story but cannot live away from its substance.

Of course, when a character requires only a few paragraphs, one can insert them in the text of the original novel without too much harm. But if you do this too many times, you will lose the reader, like Melville with the alternating chapters of Moby Dick.

Authors like Balzac or Zola who produce a body of related work have the opportunity to work out the destiny of minor characters in an optimal way. A personage who plays a minor role in book A may be the protagonist of book B, or he may be a minor character there too. We may meet him impoverished in book A, rich in Book B, madly in love with a prostitute in C, and destitute again as a result in D. The total text devoted to him across these four novels may be no more than ten pages, ten paragraphs or ten lines. Now the author has solved his problem, but he has created one for the reader, who has no way of tracing the story of a minor character as a skein through a dozen books without reading them all in their entirety.

Hypertext solves all these problems. It is now the reader's choice whether to pursue the digression or not, and if he chooses to he will have no problem finding all the references to the character whose story he wishes to follow. Hypertext allows an author to annotate his whole body of work, with other stories, until every minor character referred to in a text may have his own story, or his own novel. And it allows the reader to step through the body of the author's fictions, pursuing only those skeins that interest him, as one cannot easily do with Proust, Zola or Balzac.

The Kazoo Concerto is my attempt to use hypertext to explode the traditional novella, like an engineering drawing which opens up its subject slightly and shows its parts. I wrote five stories which can be placed in a chronological order; the earliest, Something you Don't Know, begins around 1983, and the last, The Phaistos Disk, takes place in the early 1990's. I then wrote a few paragraphs or a page or two on a number of the subsidiary characters--a train conductor, a schizophrenic on the street, a bookstore clerk, a schoolteacher met in Crete-- and linked these to the stories in which the characters occurred. This was a very interesting exercise, because once you think of two facts about a person, you can come up with a dozen more that relate to these. For example, Keri the mad potter became a schizophrenic and a billionaire's daughter, when all I knew about her was that she was tall, a little strange, and made pots.

I linked each of these fragments to a second piece, usually one of the major five stories. In some cases, the link may feel forced, though in most it occurred naturally. For example, Keri's story is a natural bridge between the first Ken Copeland story and the last one.

The hardest thing I did was to eliminate the table of contents, listing the stories in the chronological order I imagined them to hold. Instead, I decided that the reader should find his own pathway through the material, rather than being encouraged or forced to follow the one I suggested. In order to make this likely, I created as many links among the various stories and shards as I could think of, though I am still scared that a reader will experience the Kazoo without finding one or another of the major five stories.

The fractured structure of the Kazoo allowed me to play a few enjoyable games, using the first person in a single fragment to make the author momentarily a character, while hinting elsewhere that one of the characters might be the author. But I can't stress too much that Kazoo is a very conventional tale opened up slightly through hypertext. It is not "experimental" hyperfiction, and I think most such fiction involves sterile tricks which do not require hypertext--and which failed when they were tried on the printed page.

For example: I think alternative pathways through the material are a fascinating use of hypertext, but alternative endings are not. Flaubert could have tacked three endings onto Madam Bovary, but it wouldn't have improved the novel or created a particularly interesting effect. There is nothing about the nature of hypertext which makes alternative endings more effective than they are in print fiction. Although the same creative energies may be used to create them both, games and stories are different things. Fiction may be playful, as Borges' and Calvino's work are, but it should not be formally gamelike.

A relationship exists between form and content, in that the hypertext links mirror or represent the links between people. One of the recurring themes in The Kazoo Concerto is the connections that exist even between people who do not know each other, or who do not believe their lives have any effect on those of others. For example, Paul Banner hardly notices a bookstore clerk, causing her to have a very bad day; a letter informing Keri Hayes of Ken Copeland's fate pushes her over the edge, though she no longer has anything to do with him.

Finally, I believe that hypertext collections, fiction or otherwise, better represent the way humans think than the conventional structure of the novel. For example, I think that I should throw out some jars of salsa and jam in my refrigerator; but it is distaseful to me to throw away jars. I imagine them piling up in a dump, or thrown in the ocean, causing me to think about the sheer mass of all the garbage disposed of by all the humans on earth. This leads me to think about the carrying capacity of the earth. And this is a particularly linear example.

Hypertext gives us a new way of expressing fiction in which we can preserve all that is strongest about print fiction, while adding effects of which print is incapable. Creating Kazoo Concerto started me thinking about several old-fashioned linear plots I have been carrying around in my head for years. I suddenly saw them all "explode" as well, resulting in new life for old ideas, and giving me a renewed desire to write. Watch this space.