The Electronic Labyrinth

Afternoon: A Reading

It seemed entirely appropriate that the first computer on which I read Michael Joyce's Afternoon: A Story was located in the Classics Department of a major university. By the time I viewed the opening screens, six years after the text first appeared, Afternoon was firmly established as a classic of hypertext writing. The Whole Earth Review has called it "an information age Odyssey."

The latter comment is worth considering further. Eric Havelock has argued that the epic texts of Homer are principally didactic and that "the tale is made subservient to the task of accommodating the weight of educational materials that lie within it" (Preface to Plato 61). The oral poem exists in some sense as an encyclopedic repository of cultural knowledge. Committing these works to script results in the first western example of transitionary literature: an oral poem in written form. I would like to suggest that Joyce's Afternoon is also transitional literature: a recognizably contemporary, American novel in electronic hypertext form.

Despite its "experimental" form, Afternoon's syntax and descriptive language are untouched by modernist and postmodernist experimental techniques that would fragment or unsense the text. On the level of the node, there are no indications that Afternoon is anything other than what it claims to be: a story.

In its subject matter, Afternoon follows lines of traditional narrative. Navigating the space of the text, one also navigates the relationships of the central characters. In this way, returning to the story for a second reading is not unlike returning to a radio or television series instalment. Old tensions are resolved and new ones created. Familiar characters are reinterpreted in light of previous or subsequent actions. Returning to the same node a second time functions like the flashback, a technique often used to explain motives, or as a hook (quite literally a device for linking) to allow the reader to know more than the characters.

The text thus maintains an uneasy, but perhaps necessary, balance between its hypertextual form and its familiar prose style. If Afternoon has been successful, it is because Joyce found a way to marry traditional and reassuring narrative techniques with a potentially alienating medium. While opening the door to further hypertext experimentation, and helping to build a readership for the medium, Afternoon remains a transitional text.

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