Published in nine volumes between 1759 and 1766, Laurence Sterne's comic meta-novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, remains one of the most engaging reflections on the nature of The Book. The text purports, as the title indicates, to set out the "autobiography" of Tristram Shandy, however, the birth of the hero, which the author sets about to discuss on the first page, does not finally occur until volume iv and he is not breeched until volume vi. Instead the novel largely concerns itself with events and personages from before the author's birth: his father Walter's obsession with the influence of the proper name on a man's character, his Uncle Toby's hobby of re-enacting famous sieges, the death of Yorick the Parson from the ill-effects of rumour--these are among the many, many little tales the novel tells.
What the story is about, however, is of secondary importance to how it is told. Tristram Shandy is thoroughly performative, not so much a story but an extended act of and meditation on story-telling. Sterne's narrative logic is one which favours the endless freeplay, the infinite possibilities of writing over the exigencies of plot, the logic of cause and effect and the desire for closure. Each time our narrator verges on a new event, or we think that we are about to pick up the thread of a previous storyline, the text suddenly veers off on yet another tangent. This is Shandy's logic of digression:
Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;--they are the life, the soul of reading;--take them out of this book for instance,--you might as well take the book along with them; [...] restore them to the writer;--he steps forth like a bridegroom,--bids All hail; brings in variety, and forbids appetite to fail. (95)
Sterne's self-reflexive commentary is an aspect of Tristram Shandy's critique of the book as a material object. Sterne employs a number of techniques to call attention to the materiality of the text and undermines the apparent "naturalness" of its faux conversational tone. A cross appears when Dr. Slop crosses himself, a black page "mourns" the death of Yorick, squiggly graphs indicate the progress of the narrative line, blank pages appear to represent pages torn out and a very different kind of blank page is offered to the reader for the purpose of composing his or her own description of Widow Wadman's beauty. Moreover, supposedly mis-placed chapters suddenly appear out of sequence--all of these are not only very funny, but insightful critiques of the illusion of linguistic transparency offered by the traditional readerly text.
With its heterogeneous materials, non-linear narrative, regular appeals to the reader, and self-reflexive commentary on the nature of the book, Tristram Shandy anticipates many of the techniques of hypertext fiction. Though it achieves its effects in part because the reader is still forced to proceed through the text page by page, from beginning to end (and thus its frustration of linearity becomes all the more apparent), Sterne's novel remains not only a rich resource of ideas and techniques for writers (and readers) interested in the possibilities of the writerly text, but a perfect meeting of formal innovation and comic genius.