I know most of the writers here quite well, and yet the resulting portraits turned out to be fascinating. A biography presents a life, but how someone fits the thing it is that they do into that life operates like a windows onto their personality and their sense of who they are.
An oddly non-mythological fantasy novel that reminds me of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi (think The God Makers rather than Dune). It’s wonderfully, refreshingly good. So good in fact that my urge to read slowly and soak up everything mostly beat out my urge to race to the end to find out what happens.
- The back story and world systems (magic, politics, etc.) are effective, not exhausting. They suggest a large and fantastic world without belabouring details.
- The world feels human because of its limits. There’s no Marvel-style superhero healing. When people are hurt they have to heal and it takes time, leaves scars. Communications operate through mundane systems: letters, messengers. The delays and physicality involved create genuinely engaging tension and open spaces for the plot to develop.
- The plot is both complicated and complex but never plods as a means of suggesting scope or striking an epic pose. Instead, reversals allow an interplay between the slow and the fast that creates surprise. The war that characters are building for happens earlier than planned, off-stage and once news of it arrives, it has already failed catastrophically. (One character made a believably stupid error of judgment.) The intrigue intended as the set-up for greater intrigue later turns out to have been the real intrigue from the beginning. (The characters misjudged when planning.) Yet everything is built to and motivated. The first out-of-the-hat plot surprise that I can think of occurs in the final pages of the book and, because it’s the only one, is just great great great.
- The plot reaches completion. The centuries old, omnipotent despot is killed. There is no holding back, no attempt to defer across the de rigeur trilogy format.
- Story-wise, the book is a heist narrative crossed with a coming-of-age story and two non-sacred messiah tales. That’s a lot of story structure for a few hundred pages, but it’s all coordinated perfectly and develops with grace and clarity.
- The leader of the rebels insists on smiling when he can do so honestly and understands that there are always secrets behind any secrets he uncovers. The narrator does too, and it make this book really enjoyable to read.
Poetry is a Destructive Force
That’s what misery is,
Nothing to have at heart.
It is to have or nothing.
It is a thing to have,
A lion, an ox in his breast,
To feel it breathing there.
Corazon, stout dog,
Young ox, bow-legged bear,
He tastes its blood, not spit.
He is like a man
In the body of a violent beast.
Its muscles are his own . . .
The lion sleeps in the sun.
Its nose is on its paws.
It can kill a man.
Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.
–Stephen King, On Writing
Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written.
– Walter Benjamin
Mark Bernstein asks some basic questions of craft as he tries to write a hypertext page turner. Now, I don’t know Bernstein so it’s probably presumptuous for me to chime in on this and also foolish given how little I know of the hypertexts that have been written in the past twenty years or so. I’m also not a fiction writer. 1
But I do know a fair bit about traditional poetics and am interested in the problem. So I’m going to take a risk and share a few thoughts and ideas I’ve come up with as I’ve made my first stab at writing an argumentative hypertext, a different but I think oddly analogous task. 2
In a rough way, I think a page-turning plot (or argument) is one that creates a desire to know. But it is also a plot that delays or frustrates that desire in a measured, carefully paced, and pleasurable way. Hypertexts create a problem for telling these kinds of stories because they pass control of sequence and, to an extent, narrative focus off to the reader. How do you elicit desire to understand or create suspense without controlling what readers know and when?
I have three ideas.
“Why?” or “How?” may be more powerful than “What next?”
Mysteries, one of the most heavily plotted, page-turning genres around, introduce the corpse early and spend the rest of their time working to figure out what happened before the book began (i.e. when the victim was still alive). By the same token, three narratives that I have begun to think of as “proto-hypertexts”–Citizen Kane, Rashomon, and Absalom, Absalom!— all begin with the ending of the story. In each case, the narrative is driven by a desire to know why or how something happened rather than what will happen next. And the only way to find out is to get mixed up in and explore the stories of various standers-by. (Something similar happens in the otherwise very different Pale Fire, although it is less ferociously plotted.)
I think this same trick–starting with the end and working backwards–is suited to hypertext plotting.
We may desire most those things we can’t have
All three of my proto-hypertexts abstain from presenting the protagonist’s story except insofar as it is revealed through the smaller-scale “mini-plots” of the characters caught in its wake. All of them enforce this choice by making their protagonists dead before the movie or novel begins. In a sense this places the page-turning story in a black box, making it the only story that the reader can never choose to read, no matter how much they want to. They can only access it through numerous, equally minor stories that cling to its edges, each of which reveals it only partially and (perhaps) with bias.
Bouncing a protagonist’s otherwise inaccessible story off other characters seems like a good way to make readers want to click on links recounting minor characters’ lives.
Saying “no” to readers.
Much of the very limited commentary I’ve read about hypertext celebrates the fact that authorial control recedes and readers “make” or “create” their own reading. This is true in many, many ways. In the various collage, archival or a performance hypertexts that I’ve seen, writers seem to have abdicated authority and simply (!) to have created possibilities to be explored or enacted. Readers are left to experience insight or not, to draw conclusions or not. But there is rarely any “end” to be understood. 3
Plots and arguments cannot be so open-ended and cannot be left up to the reader; only the choice of which mini-plots they will read in order to understand the story as a whole can be. And because reader choice eliminates the distinction between foreground and background, all of the mini-plots they will choose from have to be written. This includes those mini-plots they will choose to read as well as all of the mini-plots that they will choose not to read! And all of these mini-plots have to, in their own ways, point toward the end we are “turning pages” to discover.
Creating these coordinated options is a lot of writing and a lot of work. To be successful, it seems to me there have to be limits. In fact, I’m tempted to say that the most important question related to plot or argument in a hypertext is going to be “what options are the readers not going to have?” followed closely by “This choice lets the reader get away. How do I close it without seeming to close anything?”
These questions strike me as contrary to the ethos of hypertext as I’ve understood it from the limited commentary I’ve read. I mean really: is there anything more authorial than “Thou Shalt Not!”? And yet, saying “no” seems essential to conveying story.
Ender’s Game and Aeon Flux are surprisingly similar films and stumble over nearly identical narrative problems: both want to be sci-fi epics with surprise endings. I’d never recognized this as a potential problem, but after seeing these films, I realize that sci-fi world-building and the generation of surprises or twists actually depend upon two very different approaches to providing narrative information.
World building is judged by how completely (and suggestively) an imagined world is explained. Exposition necessarily comes early and is extensive. In this, successful world-building seems to me a bit like a rocket trying to hit escape velocity: it roars full force early on, and if everything goes right, it can power-down and sail to its destination. The long and detailed voice-over narrations that open Ender’s Game and Aeon Flux but then disappear are examples of what I mean.
Surprise endings work in just the opposite direction. Viewers supply a probable ending that the narration cultivates (or at least permits) by providing only incomplete information in the early portions of the film. When at the film’s end the missing information is provided or the overlooked information is brought to the foreground, the surprise reshapes the details of the story into a different plot. In Ender’s Game, for example, Ender (and in the book, the readers) discovers that the game he has been playing in preparation for a war is in fact the war itself. In Aeon Flux, Aeon discovers that she and everyone she know is a clone and that the villain she’s been sent to kill is a hero attempting to save everyone’s life.
The problem these films run into is that no reader can supply an unsurprising ending against which the “true” ending appears a surprise because the initial world and any story outcomes have to be built by the narration. Stated differently, there are no viewers competent to provide an adequate starting point from which a twist can register as surprise. If you tell me Ender plays a game, he’s playing a game. If you tell me he’s fighting a war, he’s fighting a war. I have no basis to assume anything about what is normal or likely in this imaginary world. And if you tell me one thing is going on and then later reveal that that’s not the case, it feels like a cheat. (I think sci-fi novels have a few more easy tricks up their sleeves than films do to work around this problem.)
There are, of course, examples of how to get around this problem. The Matrix and Terminator both have it both ways by beginning in an imagined world that appears to be exactly like our own. As a result, this world needs little explaining and a set of audience expectations are built in. The surprise–which in both cases boils down to different versions of “things are not what they seem”–is also revealed early, roughly at the end of their first acts. In both cases, the familiarity of the initial world and the early presentation of the unexpected “ending” reduces the conflict between surprise and world building. In a sense, in both cases surprise is used as a tool for the world building.
(I also wonder–although I can’t come up with a good example right now–whether, generic expectations can offer a substitute for an initially familiar world as a way of getting around the problem…)
Whatever the case, judging by Ender’s Game and Aeon Flux, pulling off the late surprise in sci-fi is clearly tough to do. And when it fails to come off, the consequences seem pretty dire. It’s easy to wind up not caring. And then everything fizzles.
I decided to rematch Verhoeven‘s Robocop because I will surely see the remake, especially given how interesting I found the remake of his Total Recall. And when I was done, I was thinking about storytelling.
This film posits an complete world at its outset and develops a clear story with speed and economy. In part this completeness comes from the multiple contrasting points-of-view provided by the many flat, stock characters that populate the film. (This technique reminds me of Henry Fielding’s use of conflicts between what a character wants and what they do to create psychologies.) These multiple points-of-view are kept in check by a story structure that repeats locations such as the factory and the boardroom so as to create order and closure.
This is carefully controlled filmmaking. Even if the subject may not be everybody’s cup of tea.
Some References relating to the essay:
- The Wayward Essay
- Phillip Lopate’s reflections on the relationship between essay and doubt
- Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live
- An edited volume by Carl H. Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French called Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time
The Clippings File:
Essayism is predicated on at least three things: personal stability, technocratic stability and societal instability.
Below the author equates established print culture to todays emerging electronic media. I think he confuses ubiquity with stability. He writes:
Regarding technocracy, the maturation of print culture during the Renaissance meant that the great texts of Antiquity and newer philosophical, literary and scientific materials could reach a wider audience, albeit mainly composed of people of privilege. The experts of science and technology at that time siphoned some of the power that had been monopolized by the church and the crown. We could draw a similar analogy today: Silicon Valley and the technocratic business class still force the church and the state to share much of their cultural power. The essay thrives under these conditions.
I’m not sure that “essayistic” foundations are established on the interwebs. There are texts, yes. Blogs, tweets, status updates. But on the internet, the essay resides in the links, not the words.
Finally, essay and meditation:
I would argue that the weakest component in today’s nontextual essayism is its meditative deficiency. Without the meditative aspect, essayism tends toward empty egotism and an unwillingness or incapacity to commit, a timid deferral of the moment of choice. Our often unreflective quickness means that little time is spent interrogating things we’ve touched upon. The experiences are simply had and then abandoned. The true essayist prefers a more cumulative approach; nothing is ever really left behind, only put aside temporarily until her digressive mind summons it up again, turning it this way and that in a different light, seeing what sense it makes. She offers a model of humanism that isn’t about profit or progress and does not propose a solution to life but rather puts endless questions to it.