Samira Nadkarni is a doctoral candidate at The Centre for Modern Thought, University of Aberdeen, currently writing her thesis on changing theories of an ethics of reading and applications with regard to digital texts. Her publications trace her interest in postmodern poetry and performance, hermeneutics, ethics, neocolonialism, fan studies, Whedon studies, and digital texts. She served on the selection board of the creative writing publication New Writing Dundee (2008-2011) and has had her creative work published in New Writing Dundee, Grund Lit and Causeway Magazine.
Nanette Wylde’s Storyland (2002) is a digital work that produces recombinant narratives within a frame that seeks to evoke the ethos of a circus performance. Each story within Storyland opens with a black screen, the title of the work lighting up in a randomized configuration of multi-coloured letters to a shortened subsection of of Louis-Philippe Laurendeau’s ‘Thunder and Blazes’ (1910), a small-band reworking of Julius Fučík’s Opus 68 march, ‘The Entrance of the Gladiators’ (1897). The stories within Storyland follow a basic six paragraph template, and are refreshed each time the user presses the ‘new story’ button. Each time this button is pushed, the page refreshes by playing its music again and produces elements in a new combination in order to tell the user a different narrative, seemingly depicting a whole new performance, although elements of the previous tale are displaced and repeated within each new tale.
Rob Wittig’s 1999 digital text The Fall of the Site of Marsha chronicles the changes to the website of the narrative’s protagonist, Marsha, through the spring, summer and fall of 1998. The narrative opens with three narrative threads, each of which corresponds to the state of the website during the season indicated. The reader can click on each thread in order to view the website during that phase, and navigate it as one would have conventionally navigated any website’s homepage. Marsha’s website focuses on Throne Angels, a subclass of Angels that are conventionally associated with the Throne of God and therefore linked to divine justice and authority. Marsha’s original intent in creating the website is to produce these angels as beautiful and protective, asking people to share angel stories and linking these angels to her own performance of spiritual renewal. She intends to use the website to cheer herself after having been depressed due to the loss of her job and the death of her father. However, as time passes, Marsha’s website is vandalized repeatedly in order to reveal the unsaid buried beneath Marsha’s statements, and this vandalism is ascribed to the Throne Angels and their thirst for justice and divine retribution. Marsha’s invitation to the Angels to play on her website results in its vandalism and in Marsha’s own descent into depression and madness upon having to confront the events they reference or reveal.
As is characteristic of the gothic genre, Wittig’s tale plays upon the pervasive fears of one’s current society; that is, The Fall of the Site of Marsha reveals the societal horrors associated with current aging middle-class women – that of alienation, depression, affairs, and family secrets revealed. Wittig’s modern gothic tale allows for the reader to read the events chronologically and note the changes made to the website’s homepage and its various links as these reveal the larger narrative in play; i.e. Marsha’s complicated relationship with her father, her husband’s affair with her best friend, Elizabeth or “Bits”, and Marsha’s own depression and issues with self-perception. Playing with conventions of terror, unheimlich or the uncanny, death and the supernatural to advance its narrative, Marsha’s presumption of Angels being protective and nurturing is revealed to be false. Instead, they are shown to be vengeful and unrelenting in their pursuit of what they feel to be the “truth”. Yet despite the fact that these acts of vandalism are ascribed to vengeful Angels seeking justice, this claim cannot be verified and the reader remains aware that this vandalism could very easily be the work of Marsha’s husband, Mike, or an unknown hacker. However, given that the vandal is aware of events that are otherwise unknown by anyone other than Marsha, the events continue to seem uncanny and inexplicable, and linked to the supernatural.
The website moves from a relatively clear, ornate interface to one that is darker, largely unreadable, and has numerous additions that are then marked as strike-throughs, misspellings, and cut up or manipulated pictures. This movement of the website from seeming innocence to decay and ruin creates the gloomy and frightening scenery that is conventionally associated with the gothic genre. The image of the changed website thus not only recalls its origin as clean and thriving, but displays its downfall as the result of the hidden secrets that lay under its façade.
The Jew’s Daughter patterns itself upon a journey, moving between cityscapes of ports and trains, to internal monologues that outline mythical landscapes more closely aligned with nature. Positioning itself as a postmodern text that draws strongly on modernist roots, the novel plays not only with its self-reflexive embodiment – wherein the changing elements often attribute the same saying to multiple characters, shifting between first and second person, destabilizing the narrative and leading the reader to repeat the narrator’s question of “Whose horrible voices are these?” – but also evokes its own historicity and contemporaneity through multiple literary allusions.
For example, the novel’s fragmentary nature, its use of shifting narrators who are both male and female (who speak in both first and second person) while relying on a primarily male narrator, its constant moving landscape, the intercutting of a bar scene, as well as its play with popular tunes suggests a deliberate evocation of T. S. Eliot’sThe Waste Land. Yet, at the same time, the primary male narrator appears rather Prufrockian, hesitant and unsure in his relationship with Eva and longing for more; the text’s abruptly centered lines on the page of prose describe a woman in a pearly white dress that might be Eva and her distance from the narrator. The Jew’s Daughter returns repeatedly to the image of the city and dogs, the singing that seems unrelated to the narrator himself and occurs mostly around him. In yet another parallel, the primary narrator’s return home, his alienated and crumbling relationship with his partner, Eva, his status as an Irish-Jew, all suggests an homage to James Joyce’s Ulysses. The possibility of this homage is further strengthened by Morrissey’s choice to name the novel ‘The Jew’s Daughter’, after an anti-Semitic folk song from the United Kingdom that is quoted in part in Joyce’s book. That is, Morrissey’s text opens itself to multiple possibilities and multiple interpretations – its play with stylistic and narrative conventions emphasizes the need for a plurality in terms of its reading encounter, as well as in any attempt at meaning making.
The novel states, “When the sacred builds itself, it dismantles us and then it is up to us to reassemble the things that linger in its wake, the brine and feathers that it scattered when it left… This is because its wholeness is our own. The broken sum of its parts is a great agonist. What are we without our histories? The work exhausts itself against us, and in our impotence we become great.” The Jew’s Daughter thus opens onto not simply discussion of the work as lived experience within our own shared histories, but also the work as a literary and philosophical construct. Given the text’s homage to Ulysses and Joyce’s as well as the text’s own suggestion of a link to Homer’s Odyssey – the questioning of the horrible voices, the repeated singing, the references to sea-journeys and ports, the decoration of the house with small black ram’s horns and oriental anchors, his return to Eva and the troubles that await him – it’s perhaps worth reading TheJew’s Daughter alongside Maurice Blanchot’s essay ‘Encountering the Imaginary’ which is itself based on Ulysses’ encounter with the Sirens.
In the essay, Blanchot suggests that the narrative is like a siren that beckons the reader towards meaning, that the entire event is a movement towards the distance of its conclusion. However, this promise is never revealed for the ‘truth’ of the siren’s song remains a secret never to be revealed – sailors are unable to survive the encounter, or else can only complete their course by blocking their ears to its song. The narrator’s choice to suggest that the work should exhaust itself against us without reaction would almost appear to repeat the Ulysses encounter with the siren – lashed to the mast and unable to give in, yet willing to encounter the experience – allowing the work to maintain its mystery and learning no truth but that of his singular journey. At the conclusion of The Jew’s Daughter, the text refuses simple meaning-making. For all that the reader is brought full circle in their journey alongside the narrator, the novel retains its complexity and plurality of voices – historical, literary, and fictional.
The Jew’s Daughter(2000) suggests a postmodern interpretation of T. S. Eliot’s famous assertion in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ – a melding of the timeless and the temporal in order for the poet, or, as in this case, the writer, to observe tradition and his own contemporaneity. Judd Morrissey’s take on the hypertext novel suggests this observation of a “historical sense [which] involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order” (Eliot, para 3). The novel echoes this in its own way, stating, “Past things emerge discretely to sanctify a new system. Like fragments once written, they seek the wholeness of a new arrangement. They are ours, they want to be realized by us and to make us real, to make their wholeness ours – to claim us and be claimed by us. Things seek realization in new configurations.” Morrissey’s work thus locates itself to an extent within Eliot’s modernist framework of tradition and the role of the writer, while using hypertext’s digital landscape to self-reflexively indicate the fragmentary nature of literature and lived experience.
Talan Memmott’s 2003 work Self Portrait(s) [as Other(s)] situates itself within an art historical context by presumably introducing the reader to self-portraits of artists from between 1756 to 1954, allowing the reader to simply click through what might conventionally pass for a mundane educational presentation.
Shelley Jackson’s My Body – A Wunderkammer is a 1997 hypertext that allows the reader to explore a fragmented recounting of the narrator’s relation to their own body, and to the memoirs and accounts produced by the nature of this embodiment, whether textual, linguistic, social or physical. The text opens onto the image of a female body that is subdivided into sections of the body and the reader simply has to click on the relevant section that interests them to read an anecdote involving that section of the narrator’s body, which then includes further links to other anecdotes or body parts which are often only tangentially related to earlier sections.
Helen Sword’s 2009 web sonnet, “Arachne” is an homage to the mythological encounter of Athena and Arachne. The contrasting stances of human and mortal are set against visuals of green leaves and spiders, with language forming the webbed pattern between them.
The poem advances as the reader clicks on the spiders, the heart of the web, or hovers the cursor over their forms, thereby navigating between either Arachne or Athena’s points of view. For those who might have trouble traversing the poem itself, there are links at the bottom of the page that allow for a full text view of the work as well as an audio version.