‘The American Hypertext Novel, and Whatever Became of It?’ by Scott Rettberg
William Gillepsie, Frank Marquardt, Scott Rettberg and Dirk Stratton’s The Unknown was the co-winner7 of the 1999 trAce/ AltX competition (Gillespie et al 1999). A comic novel, it begins with the premise that the hypertext novel is itself a promotional stunt for a printed book, an anthology of experimental poetry and fiction. The hypertext is the story of the eponymous authors’ book tour, which takes on the character and excesses of a rock tour. As The Unknown authors tour venues across the USA and abroad ranging from small used book stores to the Hollywood Bowl, they have encounters with literary and cultural celebrities ranging from Newt Gingrich to William Gaddis, from Marjorie Perloff to John Barth, from Terry Gilliam to Lou Reed. Complications develop, as one of the protagonists becomes a cult leader before becoming a human sacrifice; another becomes a mean and withdrawn social outcast; and another a heroin addict enamoured of celebrity and its excesses. As their fame reaches its apex and a Hollywood blockbuster is made of their hypertext fiction, things generally fall apart. A picaresque novel with classic elements of a road trip novel, The Unknown freely mixes writing styles and forms ranging from prose to poetry, credit card statements to freshman composition writing assignments, pastorals to corporate typing tests. Many scenes of The Unknown are parodies or tributes to other writers: Scenes are written in the style of Jack Kerouac, Edgar Allan Poe, Cormac McCarthy, Nelson Algren, Kathy Acker and many other notable American authors.
Like many of the other hypertexts discussed, The Unknown tended toward expansiveness and embraced excess. As the project was written and distributed, the authors kept writing and adding new material, for several years after the novel was first published on the Web and announced. While the main component of The Unknown is a fictional narrative, a “sickeningly decadent hypertext novel,” the work also included several other “lines” of content including documentary material, “metafictional bullshit,” correspondence, art projects, documentation of live readings and a press kit (Gillespie et al 1999).
As the project progressed and after it had won an award, the authors toured in person to a variety of venues and performed interactive readings of the work in jacket and tie, ringing a call bell every time a link appeared on the page, encouraging readers to interrupt and shout out a link to follow whenever they encountered one they found particularly toothsome. The majority of these readings were recorded in audio and/or video, and those recordings integrated into the given page of the hypertext, so that readers could listen to the authors reading the text. These travels also provided further material and settings for writing. The Unknown was thus both a novel and a work of performance writing and in some respects also a constraint-driven writing game. Like Sunshine ’69, The Unknown made extensive use of hypertext links to cross-link scenes of the novel and provided other indices and apparatuses for navigation. The links were used in a variety of different ways: sometimes to guide the reader to the next section of a narrative sequence, sometimes to provide further referential information and other times according to a more whimsical logic: for example every time the word “beer” appears it is a link, taking the reader to another scene in which beer is mentioned. Readers can follow the links into the spiralling web of stories, or navigate via a “People” index of celebrities and literary figures in the novel, a list of “Bookstores” in which reading scenes took place, and a “Map” of the USA, providing links to
episodes based on location. The different lines also each have their own index. In including a series of web documentaries about the making of The Unknown, documentation of readings and performances, a press kit of links to popular media reviews of and scholarly articles about The Unknown as well as correspondence between the authors, The Unknown gestures toward a totalising encyclopaedic hypertext form. It is a novel that attempts to fully integrate its own publishing and critical apparatuses. As the authors’ statement published in the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume Two (only half-jokingly) attests, The Unknown “attempts to destroy the contemporary literary culture by making institutions such as publishing houses, publicists, book reviews and literary critics completely obsolete” (Rettberg et al 2011).