The Electronic Labyrinth

Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse

Heralded by Robert Coover as "the most ambitious hyperfiction yet attempted by a single author" (11), John McDaid's Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse consists of the contents of one Arthur "Buddy" Newkirk's estate to which the reader has been made heir. Newkirk, it seems, has either died or simply gone missing, leaving behind a vast collection of personal memorabilia: notebooks, electronic mail correspondence, photos, sketches, cartoons, lyrics, music, posters and videos of rock bands, a personalized tarot deck, a parody of Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars, a screenplay and much more. It is a true "multimedia novel," comprised of not only a dozen large Hypercard stacks, but tapes of music and page-proofs of a short story.

Focussing on the life and mind of one man, Uncle Buddy's takes up anew the realist novel's fascination with interiority and psychological verisimilitude (one need only think, in this regard, of the number of novels which take the protagonist's name as a title). Vastly expanding the range of materials available to the author, hypermedia seems to make possible the realist's dream of capturing on the page the always already absent traces of a life lived, the ineffabilties of character that make a "person" into an individual, a proper name, a unique point of reference.

The material conglomeration of signs which once constituted the "body" of Arthur Newkirk, however, lack the coherence which the presence of their "author" might guarantee them. Confronted with this affront to his or her own sense of wholeness, the reader is presented with the challenge of reassembling from this vast range of signifiers, not only their signifieds, but the unique referent, the totality from which they proceeded. But it is precisely at the moment at which absolute comprehension comes into view that it slips once again through our hands.

The "home" card of McDaid's text, the screen to which the reader may most readily return and initiate new explorations, is an image of a house, each room of which represents a different Hypercard stack, a different repository of Arthur Newkirk's prodigious artistic output. The house is modelled, in part, on the hall of mirrors in John Barth's well-known short story, "Lost in the Funhouse." (McDaid makes Barth's story an explicit point of reference in the "Art Gallery" stack.) In this story, an adolescent boy ventures into a funhouse and becomes hopelessly lost among "the endless replication[s] of his image in the mirrors" (90).

The reader of McDaid's text quickly becomes as "lost" among the endless representations of Arthur Newkirk, as the boy in Barth's story becomes lost among the labyrinthine corridors of realist literary conventions. The "deep structure" of McDaid's text, the dense web of hypertext links that provide secret passageways from one room to another, lead the reader deeper and deeper into its hidden recesses, confounding any easy sense of "progress." Where the reader of the codex book may note his or her steady advancement through the pages, the hypertext reader, by contrast, has no "place," and thus necessarily experiences a sense of disorientation, the loss of proprioceptive coherence which the bound volume so carefully maintains.

Wandering among the rooms of the Phantom Funhouse, the ego's sense of itself as embodied, as comprising a discrete entity, is eroded, broken up and scattered as surely as is the textual body of Uncle Buddy himself. Arthur Newkirk is both everywhere in this text and nowhere; the very means by which we might, like Borges' infamous cartographers, produce a perfect map of his being, is also that which most dramatically attests to his absence, which, in effect, divides us from him.

This, however, is a productive loss, for it is precisely the absence of a determinable centre that allows the reader to discover pleasures other than those of closure and comprehension, to imagine bodies as something other than monadic. Its bricolage of text, graphics and sound delivers us to a world in which the body is no longer a fixed totality, but a mutable site of connection and change, consumption and production, being and non-being. A body which overcomes the paranoia attendant to the ego's sense of itself as a whole through the playful affirmation of multiplicity and otherness. A body which, through its relations, its hypertextual links to other bodies, approaches the infinite.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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