Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Narrative, perception and hypertext

I've returned from a short spring break between quarters at Columbus State, a week I devoted entirely to editing a final working draft of my novel and putting it into the mail to several potential agents.

Writing this one has been an interesting experience. I consciously decided to create a traditional novel, one with a linear plotline. It was the structure needed for this particular story. I haven't taught any literature courses for almost a decade, having turned my efforts instead to technical communication and hypertext. Returning now to the craft of fiction, I realize how far I've wandered from the traditional plotline's Aristotelian assumptions about the nature of reality and perception.

In the world of the standard novel, experiences occur through chronology and causation. Characters hasten through a corridor of moments, constantly progressing forward. With each step, however, the corridor grows narrower, as one event or one decision limits the range of possibilities for all subsequent actions or choices. It's essentially a tragic perspective, although the novel often provides a comic alternative by revealing at the end that the characters' own perceptions were flawed or that a secret force has been at work to counter and alter what seemed to be an inevitable outcome.

So I was intrigued, one day after completing the manuscript, to find an article in the New York Times about anthropologist Mary Douglas' new analysis of the "ring composition" in narrative. Douglas concentrates on literary works and sacred texts that are characterized by their "lack of structure, repetition and episodic incoherence." The article's author Edward Rothstein mentions the Book of Numbers, Persian poetry, epics and unconventional novels like Tristram Shandy as classic examples. Douglas believes that these are organized according to an organizing principle of experience very different from the Western sense of narrative, but closer to living experiences when we make sense of events only through dawning realizations:

At first one event follows another. We may not be entirely sure where it is going. Is there a point at all? Then, with declarative emphasis comes the turning, where, with a shock, we hear a first echo. We connect these different moments; a pattern begins to take shape. Then, step by step, other similarities are heard — they too take on meaning — moving backward from the most recent to the earliest in time, until we return to where we began. This kind of narrative needs to be heard again, for it is only in the retelling that the full nature of its order is revealed.

One point I derive from the article is that we have legitimate alternatives available to the Aristotelian aesthetic of chronology and causation of linear narrative. The ring composition is one of those. Hypertext is another, since it operates through simultaneity and association, through an open space rather than a corridor, with options and alternatives opening with each act or decision, rather than closing. Hypertext fiction is still in its infancy, hampered I believe by the absence of tools to allow the full realization of its potential. But its comic aesthetic is promising, nonetheless.

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