Ponderings on Michael Joyce’s Twelve Blue
Near the end of Pressman’s (“Navigating Electronic Literature,” n.d.) essay, she states, “…emergent forms of electronic literature complicate the ways in which we think about and engage with literature” (para. 12). Almost every piece I have experienced thus far in this field has left me with the sense I’ve entered into a psychedelic tinged world, where time and meaning are vague concepts and everything is about experiencing and feeling. This is not altogether unpleasant. The nature of literature IS to be a gateway into a kind of timelessness that is all about experience.
That said, I agree with Pressman that electronic literature is complicated to engage with. It makes me feel uncomfortable. When I read, I like my role as observer on a familiar path where words, plots, and characters line up before me in neat, curated lanes. A piece like Joyce’s (1996) Twelve Blue does not fit well into this framework; I can not stroll down the linear path. Instead, I am like a bagger at the grocery, characters and lines being conveyed to me in wild and unorganized ways while I try to quickly form it all into a meaningful package. Before reading Twelve Blue, and a few other pieces like it, I did not know that I was such a boring and linear reader. As I engaged with Twelve Blue for the assigned hour (a strangely devotional way of reading, reminiscent of my days of diligent Bible study growing up – maybe a topic for a future post), there were several ideas that came to mind.
What initially struck me was how overwhelming the piece felt to read. The power of navigation being in my hands (the act of “producing” and “performing”, as Pressman (“Navigating Electronic Literature,” n.d., para. 12) puts it) was a burden. My process began a little like this:
Me: Ah, it begins with numbers.
Anxiety: How do I know what number I should pick first?
Me: Never go for 1… 4 is a solid middle choice.
Anxiety: Oh, no…but what if I was supposed to actually start at 1 and now I have messed it all up?
Me: Do you think I should go back?
Anxiety: [continues to worry about going back to number 1]
Me: Oh well, I am already reading…
“She looked out on the creek and measured out the threads…” (Joyce, 1996).
After I read the first ‘page’, I felt a little of the initial burden ease because curiosity grabbed me. I weaved in and out of a story that seemed to be about loneliness and longing in the lives of two doctors with teenage children; in the background, a deaf man’s death was threaded into each of their stories – “zeppelin dolphin” (Joyce, 1996). In the end, I found my way back to the woman by the creek, her ponderings now more meaningful, but still lacking any kind of conclusion to the story. The burden came back, and I felt anxious. I hadn’t navigated enough to understand – did the two doctors get together? How did the boy drown? Who was the little girl by the sea who “thought sperm was a shore” where she might be able to find her dead mother? Had I failed in my engagement of the author’s text, navigating in a way that didn’t capture what the author intended me to understand? Or was that the point – I was supposed to experience it in the way I experienced it, and that was okay?
Of course, I know from Pressman’s article that I engaged the piece in the way it was meant to be read; my haphazard navigation was part of the meaning making experience of the story. That said, to return to the idea of my “boring” and “linear” way of reading, I found myself thinking about the concept of what makes a story. Pressman addressed how electronic literature challenges the typical structure of story in her article, specifically when she quoted Jay David Bolter. Bolter (as cited in Pressman, “Navigating Electronic Literature,” n.d.) basically says story in hypertext isn’t just a one and done kind of thing. With each reading, what we experience varies and changes, and because of this, the reader could actually question if there is a story to be found at all!
The idea that something that calls itself literature might not even have a ‘story’ once again challenged my ideas around literature. I don’t think that Twelve Blue is without a story, but it is without traditional structure – and after spending the summer reading through The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop (Koch, 2003), this seems sacrilegious! In Koch’s words, “Good structure clarifies” (p.71). I would say Twelve Blue is anything but clear in it’s structure. But in this murky ‘story’ there is something more true to story telling than I think the traditional structure is fully capable of capturing. Twelve Blue feels like living, and what is life but one long story full of incongruities. What I mean by this is the imagery drew me into brief emotional experiences, not unlike the moments of life. Even if the scene’s context was confusing and didn’t seem to fit in the larger picture, there was something about the way I felt that made it okay if I just wanted to take it as it was or try to find more of the story. That feels like the way humans live in their stories. Sometimes they chase a plot to it’s end, but sometimes they let it drift off.
There is something completely chaotic to this whole process of electronic literature. Letting people author with you, having stories that may not actually be stories, never having people experience your piece in the same way, letting navigation dictate meaning, etc. But in that chaos is a type of freedom that I’m finding I am drawn to. Often the writing I have produced has been spurts of images and people and stories, but it never felt story-like in the traditional sense. Experiencing Twelve Blue and learning more about the theories behind electronic literature in Pressman’s article gives me the creative spark that comes when I recognize a path through the marsh of doubt I’ve been mired in around my writing. Maybe it is time to leave my linear ways behind – at least just a little.
Bolter, J.D. (1991). Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Lawrence Erlbaum.
Joyce, M. (1996). Twelve Blue. Postmodern Culture and Eastgate Systems. https://collection.eliterature.org/1/works/joyce__twelve_blue.html
Koch, S. (2003). The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop. The Modern Library.
Pressman, J. (n.d.). Navigating Electronic Literature. Electronic Literature: New Horizons For the Literary. https://newhorizons.eliterature.org/essay.php@id=14.html