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afternoon, a story notes

Here’s a summary: Sometime in the late 1980s, an enigmatic work of short fiction began circulating through a small subculture of writers and technologists. Entitled “Afternoon, a Story” and written by a then-community college professor named Michael Joyce, the piece wasn’t easily shared—not because of anything particularly radical or subversive in its message but simply because of its medium: the floppy disk. Written in a new authoring program called Storyspace, “Afternoon” was by many accounts the first work of true hypertext fiction: a branching path of overlapping narratives and detours that the reader navigated through the then-novel convention of clicking on textual links. A few adventurous fiction writers had tried to build branching-path narratives in print form, most famously Julio Cortázar in his book Hopscotch. But “Afternoon, a Story” was the first to take this approach in digital form. Each reading of the story could follow a different combination of nodes; “closure,” in this new form, was as obsolete as the printed page. “When the story no longer progresses, or when it cycles, or when you tire of the paths,” Joyce wrote in the introduction, “the experience of reading it ends.” By the early ’90s, Joyce and his hypertextual coconspirators had triggered a larger public conversation about the significance of this new form.


Parts of it are online here, but I’m not tech-savvy enough to make it work

Alice Bell – The Possible Worlds of Hypertext Fiction

afternoon: a story, published in 1987 by Eastgate Systems, was one of the first Storyspace hypertexts to emerge. Now, its notoriety extends beyond the field of hypertext studies to the canon of contemporary American fiction (Geyh et al., 1997a, 1997b). Its structural and narrative complexities result in an ontological indeterminacy which is perplexing but which resonates with its thematic concerns. Within the text, navigation is enabled by using ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ buttons displayed at the bottom of the window or by the convention of hyperlinks. The links in this novel however are hidden from the user interface so that readers must locate them by clicking experimentally within the lexias, seeking to find words that will provide access to others. As explained by the detailed instruction in the preface, only ‘words that yield’ {a hypertext} will allow access to other parts of the text. Further restricting the reader’s capacity for exploration, the reading paths in afternoon are limited by ‘guard fields’ which prevent readers from accessing specific lexias until they have visited others. Both ‘words that yield’ and ‘guard fields’ place temporary restrictions on the structure of the text and readers are often ignorant of the rules governing the reading paths. They represent one of the many ways in which the reader has limited power within and incomplete knowledge of the hypertext and the Textual Actual World that it houses. Utilising the potential of the hypertext form and structure, afternoon also offers a number of totally different events or versions of events, depending upon the reading path taken, so that particular events may or may not happen in the course of a reading. Similarly, different scenarios are detailed from alternative perspectives so that a definite series of events is difficult to decipher.

From Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology

Hamlet on the Holodeck, New edition

The literary publisher Eastgate Systems distinguishes its products from both pornographic “Web soaps” and games by calling them “serious hypertext.” The pioneering work in this genre is Michael Joyce’s Afternoon (1987), written in the Storyspace hypertext system, which he codesigned with Jay David Bolter and John Smith specifically for the purpose of writing narrative as a set of linked text blocks. Afternoon contains 539 carefully crafted lexias and begins with one (although it does not necessarily come first) entitled “I Want to Say”; this lexia consists of a single compelling sentence: “I want to say I may have seen my son die today.” From here the reader is sent clicking through the cardlike lexia to find out more. There is a lot to learn about the narrator, Peter, and about his ex-wife, lovers,and friends, but most readers are not able to determine whether his son is alive or dead or what Peter may have seen at the site of a roadside accident. Instead, the reader circles through a complex web of lexia, each of which has several possible links to follow, including a default “next” lexia, which appears in answer to a tap of the return key. There is no overview of the work’s structure, and the “hotword” links do not offer much of a clue to the content to which they lead. To complicate things further, Joyce has programmed some of the links to force the reader to return to the same lexia again and again in order to be permitted to go to new places in the story. This continual circling through a confusing and contradictory space, freighted with anxiety about the death of a child and irritation at Peter’s self-absorbed behavior, is reminiscent of a familiar Star Trek plot—the one where the holodeck malfunctions; the characters act out of role;and no matter what the crew members try, they cannot get out of the system.

But to the postmodernist writer, confusion is not a bug but a feature. In the jargon of the postmodern critics, Joyce is intentionally “problematizing” our expectations of storytelling, challenging us to construct our own text from the fragments he has provided. In the most praised effect of the story, he conceals a key section in a way that mirrors the protagonist’s self-deceit. Only after repeated evasions can readers reach the lexia in which Peter will call his therapist and face his memory of his own culpability in the accident. For readers who enjoy the textured verbal labyrinth of Afternoon, there is a particular pleasure in coming to this section, although it does not have the finality of an ending or of an unambiguous solution to a mystery. Instead it deepens the range of possible interpretations of Peter’s morning and afternoon.11 The architectural playfulness of Afternoon, its construction as a series of discrete lexia linked by overlapping paths, and the poetic shaping of its individual lexia mark it as the first narrative to lay claim to the digital environment as a home for serious literature in new formats.

Terry Harpold – Ex-foliations: Reading Machines and the Upgrade Path

Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, a Story (1987) is an artifact of literary hypertext’s first wave to which one seems compelled to return. As early as 1992, Robert Coover described Afternoon in an essay for The New York Review of Books as a “landmark,” and the “granddaddy of hypertext fiction.” Though it is unclear which fictions Coover meant to be Afternoon’s prospective grandchildren, one must take seriously the family romance anticipated by this now-famous designation. Its effects are evident everywhere in the theory, criticism, and pedagogy of hypertext, in which the work serves as a privileged model and counter-model: included in every course reading list, alluded to in every critical discussion, ranged among digital media’s most serious challenges to regimes of print, or offered (more recently) as the limit-case that illustrates how the first wave is something we have left behind. ÑN6.01 With the possible exception of Jackson’s Patchwork Girl Ñ5.31, no other literary hypertext can claim as secure a place in the genre’s small canon of acknowledged masterworks.

Jay Bolter – Writing Space (Second Edition)


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