Return to Twilight
Having been here once here now once again.
Twilight, A Symphony
To repeat evidently implies resemblance, yet can we speak of resemblance unless there is difference?
I was sitting on my screened porch in the afternoon sunshine, cocktail in hand, the LCD screen of my laptop casting a pleasant glare in my face. I had, for whatever reason, decided that my reading of Michael Joyce's latest hypertext fiction had come to a resting point, and it was time to mull over some recent criticism. Scanning through some online articles, my keyboard fearing for its life as my drink swept precariously over it, I settled on
Several paragraphs later, its author struck me with a sobering thought: "We really have to consider the question, if hyperfiction [has], in the ten years from Joyce's
come to the end of its road." I promptly choked on a mouthful of crushed ice. The end? Really? The comment was disconcerting, especially given all this hyper-rhetoric of open-endedness. Just moments before, the road had appeared to me to stretch infinitely into the horizon. And I was pacing myself. After all, what's the rush?
There is no doubt that we are in an incredible hurry to theorize our literature and our literary epochs in the same breath, updating discourse as we update software, and it is always entertaining to see how many "post's" one can pin on the postmodern donkey. Of course, hindsight was never handmaid to theory, but, in our haste to move on, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand what it is we seek to leave behind. As Diane Greco suggests in a recent Eastgate interview, "Defining a movement as 'over' is often just a way to control the terms of a discourse currently in flux." Meanwhile, as the idea of digitally inspired art forms grows ever larger than itself, we may be neglecting something of the works themselves.
Granted, in speaking of the road's end, Raine Koskimaa considers not "extinction," but rather a "shift," perhaps toward virtual reality worlds or narrative storyworlds. And he may be right still; clearly Joyce's latest medley of media is one indication of formal trends. But in the midst of change, there is obvious continuity in hypertext fiction. This continuity, moreover, is inclusive of its form rather than exclusive to it, for it reflects more dynamic aesthetic forces driven by our literary machines. We can work toward a practical aesthetic of hypertext fiction, then, by discussing continuity in the midst of change, and by speaking critically of each work before speaking belatedly of an entire genre.
This essay looks back on a single work of hypertext, Michael Joyce's
Twilight, A Symphony
(1997). In fact, it looks back on looking back, by offering one account of how the notion of narrative return provides one foundation for a discussion of a hypertextual aesthetic. More specifically, it demonstrates the notion of narrative return as it manifests itself formally and contextually in Joyce's work. In this sense, it gestures away from formal innovation as an indicator of change, and toward a discussion that engages formal qualities as they work (and play) in concert with contextual ones.
Twilight, A Symphony
is a story of returns. In his "lyrical elegy," Joyce introduces journalist Hugh Colin Enright, who child-naps his infant son and hides away from his estranged wife on the shores of Pleasant Lake. There, Hugh befriends an eccentric Polish refugee and his wife, Magda. Almost a decade later, Magda, suffering from a rare form of cancer, seeks out Hugh and begs for his help in her macabre search for the Twilight Doctor, who she believes will assist her in her death. When their search fails, Hugh agrees to help Magda end her own life.
Broadly speaking, Magda's return to Hugh frames this story. As the introductory node tells us, "The beginning of the story in the present moment finds these two talking, rather operatically (or perhaps in the way of a Socratic dialogue), on a screen porch in Spring. Magdalena may be in remission or simply very near death and silver with pain" ([Our story so far]). Beyond this node, two further nodes, [here] and [there], establish the idea of return as a central theme. Neither assumes the distinct point of view of Hugh or Magda; instead, the narration weaves musings and memories peculiar to each character with a state of reverie common to both. In [here], a contemplation of corporeality suggests that the narration focuses, if only briefly, on the thoughts of Magda, her own body flushed with disease:
Having been here once here once again. One could actually reach and touch where in the air there before the eyes the center of the body had been bound by bone staves, heavy kettle of innards slung below corseted bellows; reach where once a winged shoulder moved at eye level, so surely there one could lay one's head against the scent of the past itself, nestle in memory, cradle recurrence between curved palms...I tread here once and am once again. What could this mean? [here]
Similarly, moments of reverie in the node [there] seem to belong to Hugh. In this passage, Hugh observes couples passing by, "solicitous and tender to one another." One man "touches the broad freckled back of his big-breasted handsome wife; their child returns from the dark water." Meanwhile, "another woman whose plump arms seem distinct from her... returns from the long dock with her dark-haired mustachioed handsome husband and gently slips her hand into his" ([there]). Hugh's observations reveal his preoccupation with family and, more specifically, his yearning for scenes that cannot be his own.
The node continues with Hugh questioning the "purpose [of] all this intricate care and mindless passing of time," and concludes with an evocation of Magda, "the fragrance of her returning." The phrase may refer to their present-tense reunion on the porch - Magda may have approached him at that moment in mid-reverie. But "the fragrance of her returning" takes on another meaning after we learn that Hugh's attempt to assist her death has failed. In other words, her returning refers specifically to his memory of her unexpectedly revived in the hotel room after the attempted assisted suicide. This explains Hugh's next recollection, a question Magda puts to him repeatedly; and repeatedly it serves as one of the unifying refrains of the story: "Why didn't you let me die?" ([there]).
Clearly, the two have a shared history, and though their reminiscence "in the present moment" gives some indication of their past, readers must find paths that will return them to this history. In this sense, their reunion cues our departure. We can recall Peter Brooks' comment that "narratives both tell of desire - typically present some story of desire - and arouse and make use of desire as dynamic of signification" (37). In any fiction, then, the reader's desire is aroused, whereas that of the characters (in this case Magda's or Hugh's) is told. Both drive the narrative plot forward under Brooks' idea of textual erotics.
Brooks' model, however, will not take us very far in hypertext, for rarely can we be sure of the direction in which we are headed. In
Twilight, specifically, forward progression of a plot simply does not occur. At first, it might appear that Magda's desire for death, the arch-metaphor for closure, drives this hypertext.
Freud's psychology would suggest that our drive for closure and return are congruent concepts; specifically, Magda's death drive is simply the desire to return to an earlier state. But even if they are rooted in the same instinctual drive, these concepts operate quite differently with regard to our expectations of narrative.
Hence, our desire to return to the past experiences of Hugh and Magda runs parallel but counter to Magda's desire to die. Her desire, then, provides the most obvious movement toward a conclusion, and, following Brooks' lead, we seek unswervingly to predicate this bit of narrative plot.
But here we see Brooks' model as too straightforward, so to speak - its linear thrust always directed toward some end, or "signifying totality." His repetition seems to occur along the same axis, on a singular vector temporarily reversed. That is, repetition enacts "a calling back or a turning back" of the text, as if forward and backward were the only two directions available in narrative. Such a model might describe the mechanics of print texts, in which an "ineluctable page-turning chain" (to recall Coover's phrase) offers at least a fixed point of reference for plot. Hypertext, by contrast, assumes a form that suggests not only movement forward and backward, but also above and below or perhaps inside and out, for not only are nodes linked "adjacently" to one another, but also they may contain one another in a system of embedded levels of text.
Thematically, Joyce himself saw the story as moving in different trajectories: "east toward life (though in the past) and west toward death (though in the future)" ([Our story so far]). And his figurative conception approximates the same movement above and below: "Above these there is something like a dream or mind, a set of sometimes fragmentary, sometimes speculative linkages (with their own arcs). Below, in something approximating the movement of the shifting text, is the beginning of the story" ([Our story so far]). But in the story, this western arch toward death is by no means a forward progression toward a conclusion, and it does not terminate in the "full predication" described by Brooks. Though it would appear that the aptly named node [the end] might offer at least a quasi-ending to the narrative web, it enacts another, quite dramatic, return instead: "When it was over he wasn't clear (he never has been) whether he panicked or simply misjudged how much it took to die (he knew one day she would ask him)"; the paramedics and the constable "watched her return in giddy silence" [(the end)]. Clearly, "the end" in this story establishes its beginning: "Why didn't you let me die?" The plot of
Twilight, then, (in so far as it has one) emphasizes not a progression toward Brooks' "signifying totality" but rather its perpetual deferral. In turn, it subverts the conclusion enacted by a linear plot in both its form and content.
A Return to Gould
Both of Joyce's hypertexts subvert our expectation of closure. But in
Twilight, Joyce's equation of narrative closure to death itself is overt, and it allows him to embed the quality of endlessness in the thematic framework of the story. Again,
tells the story of a subverted closure, just as the formal qualities of hypertext novels subvert the narrative closure we associate with the printed book. Koskimaa notes another difference between the two works. In "From Afternoon till Twilight," a review published in
ebr, he argues that, unlike
"is not even attempting to offer different stories but rather different readings of the same story." In this sense, we can approach
literally as a symphony - "a story in variations." That is, each new variation enacts a repetition of an original melody, a return to the same music albeit in the context of difference.
Joyce resurrects Glenn Gould and his Goldberg Variations to exploit this theme. "Gould or his ghost is, as you know, a character in - and something of an organizing principle of -
Twilight," he writes in an email interview with the
Atlantic online. As we are told in "Our story so far," while Hugh and Magda sit talking, they are listening to one of Glenn Gould's two recordings of the
Goldberg Variations, recordings which link them in interesting ways. (Magdalena was born in June, 1955, the month and year of the first recording; they met at Pleasant Lake in the summer of 1981, just after Gould recorded the variations again in the same studio on East 30th Street in New York City). The music marks a return to their own memory of this first meeting, after the two realize that they are both on the run. During the first meeting, Hugh scans Magda's modest home and hears "the clatter of rain on the roof in the ceilingless room mixed with the hiss of noisy Bach from a terrible eight-track tape player with stained decals of Sesame Street figures on its grimy yellow plastic sides" ([twos]). Joyce's mention of an eight track player suggests that the version of Bach Hugh hears is indeed the first (pre-digital) recording of Gould's
Goldberg Variations. Although the detail appears trivial, it is one small piece of the vast fabric of interconnections that unite Hugh, Magda, and the music of Gould. In fact, the story of the
is itself a story of returns.
Legend has it that Count Keyserling, Russian ambassador to the Saxon court in Dresden, had as his musician-in-service a young boy named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. Keyserling is said to have had a terrible case of insomnia and, in an effort to find something to ease the long hours of the night, he commissioned a work from the reputable composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach was to compose music that the young Goldberg, also a Bach protégé, could perform during the Count's hours of sleeplessness - perhaps even lull him to sleep. The result was the
Goldberg Variations, though the origin of the aria upon which they were based remains another source of debate. The only certainty is that, sometime in the year 1725, the line notes were recorded in a notebook belonging to Bach's second wife, Anna Magdalena (who shares her name with the female protagonist of
Twilight). Furthermore, at the time of the composition the young performer was roughly 12 years old, and some dispute that the boy could have handled the technical complexities of the work. This, of course, simply compounds the legend.
Like Goldberg, Glenn Gould, born over two hundred years later, was a musical prodigy. He was said to have read music before he read words, and when Gould first recorded the
on piano in 1955, the event marked his musical debut at age 22. The recording not only brought instant fame to Gould, but also popularized the
themselves. Before Gould, the music was used primarily for performance, typically by harpsichord, and few earlier recordings exist. Gould is known for his eccentricities, among these his disdain for concert halls and live performances (he once expressed the desire to do away with what he thought of as the reprehensible ritual of applause). Nevertheless, his decision to withdraw from live performance in 1964, not ten years after his debut, came as a shock and disappointment to those devoted to his music. Gould continued to compose, record, and even write essays on a wide range of topics, but never returned to public performance. He did, however, return to the
Goldberg Variations, adding more mystery to a man who re-recorded the work that made him famous over thirty years before. Though he completed the project, Gould died after suffering a stroke less than a year later, which not only kept his mystery intact, but also conferred on that last recording an ethereal, even mythical status.
Gould's second recording of the
Variations, then, marks the most definitive return of his artistic career. In his own "return to Gould" in an essay of the same name, Bruce W. Powe writes of the 1981 recording: "There is serenity and ecstasy, introspection and grandiosity in the last interpretation of the Goldberg Variations. Gould's return to this piece was poignant and ambiguous - a piece transformed by the spectre-visionary of the recording studio. His version is both a farewell and a rethinking" (Powe, "Return"). The romantic assumption, of course, is that Gould foresaw his own death, which heightens the "haunting" feeling commonly ascribed to the 1981 work. Powe himself goes so far to say that the assumption is "tempting" but in his introduction he too refers to the "haunting, darkened second version," and later writes, "It is the aria, the autumnal air he offers, that makes him seem death-haunted, neurotically charged, even ill" (Powe, "Return").
By some accounts Gould suffered from chronic afflictions; by other accounts he was a hypochondriac; by all accounts he took an incredible amount of pills.
Hence, if we recall the detail of Magda's eight-track player, we see that Gould's return to the Variations serves as a backdrop to Joyce's story, an ever-present source of its haunting tone. Indeed, Gould gives us much more than the background music for
Twilight: his ghost underscores the ominous reason for Magda's return to Hugh.
There were, of course, more mundane motivations for Gould's return to the
Gould also marveled at the joint effort involved in studio recording, thus anticipating a collaborative ethic of creativity that many hypertextualists regard as a central premise of their art. As Gould wrote over two decades ago, "Electronic transmission has already inspired a new concept of multiple authorship responsibility in which the specific functions of the composer, the performer, and indeed the consumer overlap" (cited in Powe, "Return"). To underline Gould's emphasis on the expanded role of the listener/consumer made possible by digital recording, Joyce cites him directly in
Twilight: "All the music that has ever been can now become a background against which the impulse to make listener-supplied connections is the new foreground" Glenn Gould
The Prospects of Recording
If Joyce identifies himself implicitly with Gould as an artist, then he extends this identification explicitly to the characters in his fiction. Indeed, more than ghosts in passing, both Gould and Goldberg enter the lives of Joyce's characters as mythical personae. For example, Hugh's son Obie shows signs of early musical genius: "We return home last night to find that Obie has composed a song, an ornate and visually beautiful child scrawl scoring a twelve bar sonata of two contrasting sections, replete with dotted notes, crescendi e dimuendi, tonics, and a haunting minor feeling" ([(son)ata]). The same "minor feeling" that haunts Obie's sonata haunts all of
Twilight, for it refers to the G-minor that commences the aria of the
Readers hear the same note, as a sound byte, when they open two of the nodes. In [songs], for instance, we hear the G-minor of a single piano stroke as we begin to read of Hugh and Magda searching for the Twilight Doctor from the shores of the small Canadian town of Marathon. Toward the end of the node, it is clear that the two characters have heard something as well: "We search the seam of the water and sky for any light, whether an oar boat's running lamps or an evening star. There is no light, and yet we think we hear something" ([songs]). If we default, we hear a different note as the node opens, but unlike that of a piano, the sound is that of "distant klaxon" from a ship. The node begins with a direct address in a meta-fictional acknowledgement of the sound: "There. Hear that? Somewhere far on the water, bleating metallic G-sharp modulating to A-flat, its dull echo lingering on the silent edge of twilight" ([Calliope at Marathon]). But Hugh reads the ship's horn as music nonetheless, and we can only assume that the ghost of Gould is again present, especially given Joyce's allusion to Calliope, which evokes the Greek muse of poetry as well as the keyboard instrument of the same name.
The G-minor, furthermore, not only commences the aria of the
but also concludes it. Hence, Joyce uses the same sound byte to open his pseudo-ending at [the end]. As Magda slips into unconsciousness, shrouded in her "death masque," Hugh sees her, ironically, as a chrysalis. After Hugh phones the police and realizes Magda has not actually died, he removes the shroud in a moment of symbolic rebirth. Here, the narrative point of view shifts from Hugh to Magda, at times indeterminately. But at this moment the mythical identification of Hugh with Goldberg is most explicit: "Her eyes said why didn't you let me die. Yet it wasn't so bitter as it sounds. Not so sad. She knew he loved her.... Your name is Johann Gottlieb and I am the Countess Chrysalis" ([the end]). The irony, or more appropriately, the variation, is that Hugh has failed to lull his Countess to sleep.
Goldberg and Gould, however, provide only one mythical genealogy for Joyce's protagonist. In fact, Hugh's name marks one of many returns to the work of another Joyce who, despite his musical talents as one of the best Irish tenors of his time, is better known for his prose. Specifically, we are encouraged to read Hugh Colin Enwright as another possible incarnation of the protagonist of James Joyce's
Finnegans Wake: Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. The initials H.C.E. invite the comparison of Hugh to an everyman, just as James Joyce's Earwicker sounds the universal appeal of "Here Comes Everybody." Hence, we can read Hugh as the embodiment of any number of mythical and archetypal figures who live in the past, present and future, just as Earwicker fuses together folk hero Tim Finnegan, the gallant Tristan of medieval Irish lore, the legendary giant Finn MacCool, Huck Finn, and Humpty Dumpty to name a few. By creating a homonym for "you" with Hugh, Michael Joyce adds you, the reader, to this list of meta-fictional characters, a move that recalls Moulthrop's character Boris Urquhart in
- commonly known in the story as "U."
Thus, Michael Joyce affords his own H.C.E. the permeable, manifold, and at times all-encompassing identity of his predecessor, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker of
Finnegans Wake. But
marks a return to James Joyce on a broader scale. If, as Koskimaa suggests,
presents different versions of the same story, then we must consider that story as a variation itself - which, of course, would be a variation of a variation and so on. In other words, Joyce flirts with the notion that all texts ever written share a common thread - that they are somehow essentially linked and originate from a common source. It is an idea expressed succinctly in Calvino's
If On a Winter's Night a Traveller
(1979) with the "Father of Stories," a blind and illiterate old man who is said to "uninterruptingly tell stories that take place in countries and times completely unknown to him... According to some, [he] is the universal source of narrative material, the primordial magma from which the individual manifestations of each writer develop" (117). The structure of Calvino's novel itself is a reflection of this theme, for each chapter is only the beginning of a story, and the reader continually fails to follow any one thread. The only framing story is that of a reader (also the meta-fictional "you") who is continually frustrated in the attempt to finish reading a novel, much like the experience of a hypertext reader with all too conventional expectations of closure. Nevertheless, despite the divergent threads of Calvino's chapters, we see certain patterns converge in a story overtly conscious of its narrative design.
replays some of the most basic archetypal stories, such as the classic quest (for the Twilight Doctor) and the death and rebirth cycle (of Magda). But besides this, Joyce overtly encourages us to read his story as nothing more than a variation of an archetypal story: "There is only one story of time and space and it is constantly retold: someone far away tries to come home" ([you'll sees]). Joyce repeatedly refers to Homer's
Twilight, positioning it as the original story of return and, by implication, its author the potential Father of Stories. Similarly, Hugh C. Enwright seeks out the origins of his own story: "In my mind I keep trying to locate the one event, the one time, that single occurrence led to this; and each time there's another before it" ([ours]).
Magda, however, simply chides him for his abstractions, "You see now it's you who is being philosophical...Aristotle's causes and personal effects in a zip-lock bag. No one believes in the beginning anymore. No more what's before" ([ours]). It would seem that Joyce takes a cue from Magda as well, for instead of miring in metaphysical questions of origin, he greets the prospect of literary paternity with a sense of play: "There's only been one book ever written and it was a Greek wrote it - though some say he was Armenian, Asia Minor, Greek-Jew or Jew Greek or something - and then an Irishman rewrote it and everybody else kept trying" ([this computer]). In another sequence, a convoluted knock-knock joke involving Umberto Eco spawns the interjection: "Who do you think you are, James Joyce?" ([Housa hoser]). Hence, if Michael Joyce, like Stephen in
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, were to "forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race," he assures us that he would do so with a wry smile (and, we can hope, with some better jokes).
Refrain, Repetition, and Return
In the midst of these thematic and mythical returns, we are reminded that narrative repetition occurs on many levels, including that of language itself. We can recall Brooks' description of "rhyme, alliteration, assonance, meter, refrain, and all the mnemonic elements of literature and indeed most of its tropes, [which] are in some manner repetitions that take us back to the text, that allow the ear, the eye, the mind to make connections, conscious or unconscious, between different textual moments..." (99). Similarly, Mark Bernstein writes of hypertext: "Repetition itself is a valuable cue, for repetition always signals intent and artifice. The repetition need not be complete and literal, for a writer may gain the effect of repetition by repeating some aspects - position, typography, color - while varying others" (Bernstein,
Hypertext Gardens). Joyce's textual refrains, which appear in several different nodes and often in slightly different ways, demonstrate this form of return.
For example, Joyce composes a series of five nodes he titles "ekphrastics," a form of highly descriptive poetry designed to evoke acute visual images. Though they are numbered, the segments, like memories, do not link accordingly or in any given order. The text of each differs, but all five include the same concluding refrain: "This is how it will be to die." The [first ekphrastic] details a memory of "crossing in fog...the Hudson from Beacon to Newburgh, the bridge lights are feathery halos" ([first ekphrastic]). The node includes a sound byte that is identical to the "metallic G-sharp" that opens [Calliope at Marathon]. This enacts an audible return, and we associate the "dull echo" heard by Hugh and Magda with the same sound Hugh hears while crossing the Hudson as a child. The memory, of course, belongs to Hugh in its fictional frame; that is, the sound enacts a return at the level of his consciousness. Nonetheless, the node concludes with the refrain, set apart from the text that details the memory: "Surrender: this is how it will be to die" [first ekphrastic]. Here, Hugh's "surrender" refers to the nightmarish experience of crossing the Hudson at night as a child.
The remaining ekphrastics, furthermore, amend the opening word of the refrain in such a way as to reflect the sentiment of the memory evoked. The third ekphrastic tells of Magda's suffering, her "marrow dulled with morphine yet bone raw and in pain beyond pain." Its refrain follows: "Sweetly screaming: this is how it will be to die" [third ekphrastic]. Joyce thus uses the same refrain to unite different memories, allowing the reader to enact a return to the same theme (that of death) in the context of difference.
All in all, a narrative composed of hyperlinks and nodes facilitates textual returns in the most obvious sense, and readers enact these returns in a manner unique to each individual reading. In this sense, all nodes are potential refrains, for the meaning of each depends on its location in a narrative neighborhood, which is of course in constant flux. When we revisit a node in a new locale, with different nodes "semantically adjacent" to it, that node undergoes a transformation, and ultimately a series of transformations that compound its meaning in relation to the larger narrative network. Joyce himself refers to the same process as "successive attending," which he sees as a more accurate description of how we read hypertext in a meaningful way. The use of the Return key to default, moreover, is the most literal reminder of our return to pre-existent narrative paths, at times repeating familiar nodes in the process. Each return does not have to be a re-reading per se; rather, it can act as a simple point of reference - as a breadcrumb left in the maze. More than simply encouraging readers to revisit text in an ever-changing context, then, these returns allow us to construct visualizations of the narrative structure. I refer here to cognitive maps, but less to those provided by the digital interface and more to those that rely on human memory.
Repetition is a vital tool of orientation in any landscape, and hyperspace is no exception. In another refrain that unifies his essay, "A Memphite Topography," Joyce continually asks us to "Imagine a city of text." In
Twilight, the same city remains "consciously unfinished, fragmentary, open...unfinished in the way that death unfinishes us all" ([Our story so far]). Hence, we must always envision a figure in motion, with each hypertextual return affirming its movement. As Bernstein writes, "Recurrence is the main way that people perceive a hypertext structure, the way they learn what contours they may follow and how those contours may change as the document evolves." And although these contours continue well beyond the limits prescribed by a printed book, many writers have shown that storytelling itself continues without the familiar convention of narrative closure.
It may still be up to readers, however, to forgo attempts to re-enact this convention conclusively in hypertextual form, and to realize that a hypertext does not lack closure any more than a traditional novel lacks the possibility for return. True, the notion of the endless narrative is by no means unique to hypertext, and the fact that it predates digital literature (both in form and content - "re: Joyce") is further evidence against the argument - symptomatic of technological determinists - that innovations in form always drive innovation in content. Again, this drive is reciprocal, and, as both a formal and thematic device, the hypertextual return is a poignant reminder of this. In short, the notion of return is not new to literature, but rather it is newly dominant in the literature of hypertext. And if the story of return is indeed archetypal, then Joyce returns to the same story albeit in the in the context of difference - a difference that is digital. After all, a reading practice that relies on hyperlinking is unique to digital literature, and it is on these grounds that literary hypertext fosters its own aesthetic.
But it's about time I slapped shut the jaws of my laptop. The twilight tells me it's getting late, and the LCD glare on my face is becoming a ghostlike glow. In the same light, I watch as details fade in the distance, giving way to others that come clearly into view nearby. It is indeed a graceful transition. But it is, above all, a slow and deliberate movement, to be studied and enjoyed in its own time, before the coming of next dawn.