i s   i t   a   b o o k ?
"Poetry is indispensable -- if only I knew what for."
- Jean Cocteau
Flashback has been part of narrative technique at least since Homer composed the Odyssey three thousand years ago. Linear narrative is so integral to our idea of a 'story' that we sometimes fail to realize we are not reading a beginning, middle, and end. The books we will discuss here, written from 1760 to the 1990s, have a more complicated relationship to narrative, and to the reader's progression through it. They draw attention to their nonlinearity. Time becomes a character in these books.
In Time's arrow by Martin Amis, every action is related in reverse, as in a movie being rewound. This is sustained through the entire novel. The actions of the main character, a Nazi doctor, are changed completely by this reversal. Wounding becomes healing. Murder becomes resurrection. As the character goes back in time he becomes innocent of his crimes. In Julia Alvarez's How the García girls lost their accents, each short chapter moves forward in time, but the book begins in 1989 and ends in 1956. This allows for a different kind of character development - motivations and influences which shaped the characters are revealed as they grow younger.
Stories written using this technique are dynamic, and change depending on what the reader chooses to read first. Recently this form has become popular with writers of childrens' books, as exemplified by the Choose your own adventure series, and Milo and the magical stones by Marcus Pfister, which offers the reader a choice of split pages to follow a happy ending or sad ending. Jorge Luis Borges' Garden of forking paths is perhaps the most famous literary example of this type.
Most so-called hypertext fiction fits into this category. Each section is discrete, and there is no 'right' order in which to read them. Each arrangement has its own logic. Italo Calvino's Castle of crossed destinies, though it is printed in a fixed order, was inspired by the limitless permutations of a tarot card layout.
Afternoon, a story, a hypertext written by Michael Joyce, has 950 links, none of which are visible. The reader must click on a word to see if it leads anywhere. Some choices are conditional on the reader having made certain previous choices. It would be almost impossible to repeat any one reading. But this form comes with its own limitations. For the rearrangements to work, each section must be self-contained. Though this kind of work is easy to achieve with hypertext, it is by no means a new idea. Raymond Queneau, co-founder of Oulipo (or the Workshop of potential literature,) wrote Cent mille millards de poemes in 1961. It consists of ten pages, each containing fourteen lines. Each page is cut into strips, so that by flipping the page sections the reader can construct a sonnet with a combination of any fourteen lines. There are one hundred thousand billion combinations, an amount, according to Queneau, "sufficient to provide reading matter for almost two hundred million years (if you keep on reading night and day)."
We consider this more complex than most other nonlinear styles, because it depends for its effect on the interplay between the text on the page and the reader's concept of the story. Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy is sometimes considered the earliest ancestor of hypertext, though it itself looks back to Cervantes' Don Quixote as its inspiration. Sterne spoofs the conventions of order in his novel. He waits until his two main characters are asleep by the fire and 'off his hands' to write his preface (in Volume I chapter 21). He is constantly talking about time. At one point he promises to get back to the main story in half an hour if we will let him digress, then sees he has taken 35 minutes, and makes a list of all he must accomplish "and all this in five minutes less than no time at all." In Volume IV chapter 25, the book jumps from page 146 to page 156. Sterne explains that this is not a mistake of the printers' nor the bookbinders' but that he has torn a chapter out because the writing in it was so much better that it would show up the rest of the book. He then begins to tell the readers what we would be reading if that chapter were included.
In Epitaph of a small winner Machado de Assis creates a space outside of time, or a parallel universe. In the opening chapter 'The Death of the author' he begins "I hesitated some time, not knowing whether to open these memoirs at the beginning or at the end, i.e., whether to start with my birth or with my death." He then explains "I am a deceased writer not in the sense of one who has written and is now deceased, but in the sense of one who has died and is now writing." Italo Calvino's novel If on a winter's night a traveler begins anew with each chapter. In some sense the story is all beginnings.
In a simultaneous text, the reader can begin anywhere - all words are linked to all others. James Joyce's Finnegans wake is the supreme example of this. Its last line "A way a lone a last a loved a long the" is also the first half of its first line "riverrun, past Eve and Adam's..." The 600 pages form a circle. Joyce would have loved hypertext. His fans have established an interactive Finnegans wake notebook page to annotate his work.
This is only a start. Among other writers who have expanded the limits of nonlinear narrative are Margaret Atwood, Robert Coover, Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Thomas Pynchon, Gertrude Stein, and Kurt Vonnegut. Interested readers may also wish to peruse our essay on nonlinearity and Comix.
-- written by Karen Drayne, 1997
The literary works section of our Bibliography includes complete citations for the works mentioned in this essay, as well other printed works of literature, criticism, and links to websites that discuss the authors and works mentioned here. We have also inclued a section on surrealism, dada, oulipo, and the writers and artists associated with these groups, and one on the future of the book, which includes citations for hypertext and electronic literature.
Nearly into in: Tinny lone air, Only in retina, Yearn into nil
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