In reading Twelve Blue, a hypertext fiction by Michael Joyce, the first emotion at the forefront of my mind was a sort of worry. What if I…read it wrong? Navigated through it wrong? What if I hit the wrong buttons in the wrong order, what if I skipped over something, what if I missed the story connections between things because I was getting wrapped up in worries about navigation? What if I wound up reading the story totally incorrectly? Jessica Pressman’s article “Navigating Electronic Literature” can do a lot to assuage those fears, so long as I really let myself trust it (which, I found out, wasn’t as easy as one might think!)
In her article, Pressman stresses how navigation through an e-lit piece helps to create the meaning of that piece, and how there is no “single” story in a piece but that each reading determines the story as it occurs. Going by that, then, there’s no way to read an e-lit piece incorrectly because there’s no solid, set story or meaning that you’re supposed to be getting out of it; the story is fluid, unique to each reader.
I will admit, as a writer, this idea doesn’t sit easily with me. When I write, I am trying to tell a specific story to the reader, even if the way they interpret that story differs. I know, of course, that an author cannot control the way readers interpret their work once its out in the world. There is Roland Barthes’ “death of the author,” the idea that it is the reader, not the writer, that gives meanings to words in a text. And, seeing as I wrote a paper for a class last year arguing the importance and validity of fanfiction as meaningful interpretation of a work that can extend the “life cycle” of a book, it would be hypocritical of me to say that writers have any big, final say in the way their work is interpreted after its publication or in what it all means. I certainly see the validity in texts being open to interpretation, and every story will have a different meaning for different people. Despite this, I suppose the extreme openness of e-lit pieces, the vagueness of their meaning (because of the sometimes vast amount of readings a single piece can have) just makes me…uneasy. But that’s probably a good thing. New experiences tend to be uncomfortable at first.
To continue more specifically with my one-hour reading of Twelve Blue, I noticed that the story immediately presents the reader with a choice: there are several different “beginning” hyperlinks to click on the opening page of the story, as well as an image. I began by clicking the image, though I was initially tempted to click the first link, my brain still telling me “well, that’s probably the right place to begin.” Even with Pressman’s article fresh in my brain, I found it hard to give up on the idea that there was a correct way to do this.
Throughout the story (at least, the parts of it that I experienced), I noticed that there were not actually an abundance of choices once you were already on a “thread”; each lexia seemed to contain only one clickable link. This is in contrast to one of the examples shown in Pressman’s article which presented a hyperlink story where there were multiple choices of clickable links on one lexia. Of course, in Twelve Blue you could have also chosen, at any point, to click one of the threads in the sidebar and go somewhere completely different (or so I assume. I followed each thread through to its end instead of jumping around in this way, so I’m not actually sure what clicking on a thread while in the middle of a different one would have done, if where it took you would have actually been “completely different.” And, of course, it seems everything in these threads is ultimately linked in some way, so…yeah. Maybe there is no “completely different” after all.) Speaking of that ultimate linking, all the threads I’d tackled (except for one, that finished on a dead end) seem to end on the same page, which spoke about how “everything can be read.” Very fitting. That page, in turn, contained a link to the previous page, creating an endless loop, not an actual ending.
Pressman’s article actually makes direct mention of these endless loops, stating “some hypertexts may not even contain a definitive ending but instead continue in endless loops of lexias; such works depend upon the reader to resolve when to finish reading the work.” In a way, Twelve Blue also notes this phenomenom: there is a story in one of the threads about a carnival ride that spins in a circle. A mother and daughter ride it while the father operates it. It is stated that the mother and daughter wave when they want him to stop the ride. Just as they choose when to get off of the ride, the reader of Twelve Blue chooses when they wish to stop the ending “loop.”
Initially, I found it hard to deciper who was who in each thread. It was only once I started getting through more and more of them that I began to make some connections between characters, names, events, and relationships. While reading, I found it helpful to take notes once I figured something out, such as noting that “Lisle=Samantha’s mother,” and later “Lisle (aka Lee) is the virologist.” The information is spread out all across the threads, so you’d have to finish them all to make some kind of coherent sense of everything. It would also be helpful to reread once you’ve finished it all once and figured out who is who, what is what, and so forth.
Besides this difficulty of knowing who was who, and a related difficulty of knowing which character was being talked about at any given time(both of which I feel were likely intentional on Joyce’s part), I noticed that the different blue color of an already-clicked link blends in with the background, making it impossible to see that already-clicked link unless you highlight it with your mouse. This creates visual gaps in stories where a link brings you somewhere you’ve been before. I wonder if this was intentional as well, but it makes it very easy to miss the link and therefore the connections on a page, so I’m not sure.
Something this style of hyperlink fiction does very well is build suspense and slowly add, bit by bit, to an unfolding mystery. I found myself wanting to know more about the boy who drowned, about how he was connected to these other people, and about how these other people were connected to each other. I think this medium is excellent for exploring the relationships between characters, using literal links to explore the metaphorical links between people. I enjoyed this read, and though I didn’t finish all the threads in this hour long session, I will probably go back and finish them on my own in an attempt to solve the mysteries I’m left with.