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Figurski at Findhorn on Acid

Author: Richard Holeton
Publisher: Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems, 2001
Review Published: November 2006

 REVIEW 1: Jessica M. Laccetti
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Richard Holeton

Against a background of a poststructural reappraisal of print, early hypertext theory has been caught in a double-bind. On the one hand, this work has implicitly distanced itself from existing literary traditions, citing its "newness." On the other hand, theorists like Landow, Bolter, Joyce, and Moulthrop, have appropriated and moulded ideas from Barthes, Derrida, Deleuze, Iser, et al. in order to illustrate the parallels between print and hypertext fiction. The very term, hypertext, is loaded, suggesting a textual work which is beyond usual or established forms thereby immediately casting it in direct opposition to print discursive practice and traditions [1]. In a remark that was typical for many, Bolter, in Writing Space (1991) states: "what is unnatural in print becomes natural in the electronic medium and will soon no longer need saying at all, because it can be shown" (143).

Richard Holeton is associate director of Academic Computing at Stanford University and Head of Residential Computing (ResComp) and Academic Computing's Consulting and Multimedia Services (CAMS). With some history as a writer for print (including text books and short stories), in 2001 Holeton turned his hand to hypertext. Figurski at Findhorn on Acid is, like much of the non web-based hypertext fiction available, published by Eastgate Systems using a story writing software program called Storyspace. Although Storyspace is not necessary for the reading of the fiction, it allows writers to "add, link, and reorganize by moving writing spaces on the map" [2]. Figurski is an example of a hypertext making use of a program which has been available since the early stages of hypertext development. Like theory, technology evolves, and with the growth and increased functionality of the Web, second-generation hyperfiction writers are able to explore the fertile multiplicity the online environment now offers. Hypertext fiction has morphed into web works which can employ multiple modes including sound, text, image, streaming video, and, perhaps most importantly, connections with other websites. As Hayles explains, in Writing Machines, first generation hypertexts were "less interested in reinforcing boundaries…than in seeing what happened if you romped over them, which second-generation works were exuberantly doing as they moved toward multimedia, creating works that contained components drawn from literature, visual arts, computer games, and programming practices" (45). As a more "classic" example of hypertext, Figurski is a stand-alone fiction appearing offline with few images so that, as the author explains in a 1998 article, "Don't Eat the Yellow Hypertext," about the project, "the resulting standalone Storyspace Reader file could fit on a single high-density diskette for Macintosh; the Windows version requires two diskettes because of other Storyspace files needed for PC operating systems."

The fiction begins with the compulsory "map" to aid the reader in her narrative path. Understandably, as a new medium, directions are helpful but as hypertext has now become a dictionary term, these directions seem to strongly oppose Landow et al's utopian hoots of democratization and "dissemination of power" [3]. In fact, in the "Dedication and Acknowledgements" page, Holeton's request that readers "set the resolution of [their] display" and the ensuing instructions on how to set the resolution offer proof of the tug of war between utopian delight and hypertext's "relative obscurity" [4]. On the one hand, there is a certain kind of proximity between author and reader. On the other hand, the reader who follows the author's directions is interacting no more than when reading a non digital text. Additionally the authorial intrusion reminds us that although the genre of hypertext is now (at least) sixteen years old, there remain neophyte readers who require guidance through the technology [5].

Figurski is a construction of 354 nodes or screens with 2001 (matching the year in which it was published) links. While Holeton does explain to readers that the most "default" way through the narrative is to press the enter key, the more curious reader might choose to follow different paths by clicking on words that "yield" or browsing through screens. Clicking on the "Navigator" link situates the reader at the beginning of all possible paths through the narrative. There are twelve storylines that Holeton describes as running vertically through 147 scenarios. There are also options to follow each of the three characters, each of the three places, or each of the three artifacts (three is a recurring theme). Furthermore, as Holeton explains in "Don't Eat the Yellow Hypertext," there "are three iterations, evolving over time, of each character, place, and artefact description." Making up the remaining 207 nodes are various images, diagrams, and invented sources which readers can only get to by clicking on hidden links contained within the main 147 screens.

Like many hypertext and web fiction narratives, the story evolves through glimpses of nodes and altering reading paths. A summary of the entire story is almost impossible, mainly because I am not sure if I have indeed found all the nodes, my reading paths will invariably differ from another reader's, and my piecing together of the experience will be personal and subjective (as with any reading experience one might argue). A general synopsis would spotlight the main protagonist Frank Figurski who has recently concluded his jail term for the murder of Professor Quentin Kingsley. Since leaving jail, Frank is on a mission to uncover the authenticity of a seventeenth-century mechanical pig (which washed up on the beach in Findhorn Park). Frank's journey will be complicated and perhaps even dangerous; he is not the only one after the truth and he is on acid. A key node worth detailing (of which there are many) is "Note about Notes" which supplies a highly self-referential musing:
    A unique node, the unattached space "Note about Notes," appears at the root level of the Notes directory only in the Windows version of Figurski at Findhorn on Acid. Is the author trying to "hide" this space? It is not linked to or from any other spaces, so readers will encounter it only if they navigate the narrative using one of the structural or map views (view windows), and it seems to violate the Figurski convention of dividing directories by threes/multiples of three.

    The simplest explanation is that the Macintosh version (which we can now determine was created first) loads 354 total spaces, so this space is needed to show the same total in the Windows version. But since the texts and structures of the two versions are otherwise identical, something more mysterious must be at work in either the software or the operating systems. The Windows version of Storyspace proves more mathematically precise, in that the author has indeed created 353 nodes, other than this one, in both versions. But maybe the Mac, more imaginative or philosophical, considers the implicit space that holds all other spaces to be itself another space and counts that one too. Depending how you look at it, such an implicit meta-space -- a space of spaces, or a space about spaces -- would be free of content, or full of it.
    -- Alan Richardson, "Notes about Note about Notes," footnote to "Metanarration in the Notes directory of Figurski," in Millennial Machinations, ed. Alexander Parritt (Fictitious Press, 2001).
Another node which demonstrates a similar preoccupation with a postmodern twist is node 044 in which a reworking of Waiting for Godot transpires:
    Nobody's here.

    Nope. Just us characters.


    Why should we stick around?

    For the conversation.

    -- Sammy Becker, Waiting for To Go (Groove Press, 1954, 1982).
This kind of humor and play throughout Figurski is what has led others to define it as "screwball comedy, [raised] to the level of metaphysics" [6], and a "comic, frantic narrative that recalls Monty Python in its absurdity and erudition" [7]. In fact, Holeton himself hopes his fiction is akin to that of "proto-hypertextual [works like] Tristram Shandy, Pale Fire ... where the form is self-consciously part of the subversiveness" because "I can do stuff like that too -- and more -- in this new medium" [8]. It might be Holeton's own attempt to situate himself within a certain literary canon that fractures the parallel between print and digital fictions, at least for me. Reading Figurski is not like reading Tristram Shandy or Pale Fire, and in my view it does not share the same wit as Monty Python. A reader of Figurski does not become involved in the narrative in the same way that one might be pulled into a realist text; hypertextual reading, at least in this fiction, is more akin to, borrowing a phrase from Marie-Laure Ryan's Narrative as Virtual Reality, a "supermarket-shopping experience" (219). It is in the very differences between print and hypertext that narrative structures, multiple modes, and future potentials emerge. Navigating one's way through Figurski, unpicking links and keywords, joining themes and ideas, and deciphering fractions of text and intricate images makes clear that there is no single story and, that this is an emerging genre. Read Figurski with this in mind, rather than expecting Tristram Shandy 2.0.

  1. Additionally, the prefix, "hyper" problematizes feminist thought (which has sought to destabilize hierarchies such as mind over body and vision over touch) as it adds inscriptions of hierarchy to an already seemingly hierarchical and male-dominated field. The theorists are male (Bolter, Landow, Amerika, Lanham, Joyce, Aarseth, Moulthrop), the hypertexts often discussed are written by men (Landow, Bolter, Joyce, Coover, Amerika), and the visions they present us with are distinctly male. For instance, Lanham (1993, 51) argues that the strand of "postmodern visual art" that starts with the Italian Futurist Filippo Marinetti and runs through the work of Marcel Duchamp, Richard Hamilton, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Christo Javacheff created a dynamic and interactive aesthetic that the personal computer fulfils to perfection with its "rolling, rich mixture of play, game, and purpose." Landow's thesis is that the nonsequential, branching networks of hypertext produce the same kind of kinetic reading and writing defined by Derrida, Barthes, and Foucault. Bolter compares reading Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759-67), James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939), and Jorge Luis Borges's Ficciónes (1945) with navigating the linked, "non-linear" scenes of hypertext.

    Update: Upon reading the comments of a reader of this review, I would like to add a brief clarification. Figurski, as a hypertext publication, appears within a particular context. Associated with this context is a certain trajectory of hypertext theory beginning, as Miles points out, with theorists like Landow and Bolter. Certainly, not all hypertext theorists are male, but as Kristeva proposes, it is important to "think differently" and thus question early literary hypertext views which seem to rely on masculine models (Iser, Derrida, et al. as noted above) because "[g]ender matters. It is that simple and that complex.

  2. See "Storyspace," Eastgate Systems, 2005.

  3. See McCorduck, The Universal Machine,, p. 174.

  4. Holeton, "Don't Eat the Yellow Hypertext."

  5. This idea is also equally demonstrated in this review with the need to situate it within the technology before embarking on a review of the story itself. Perhaps this is an example where hyperfiction narrative is certainly more than simply the sum of its parts.

  6. Michael Tratner, quoted in Holeton, "Don't Eat the Yellow Hypertext."

  7. "Catalogue," Eastgate Systems, 2003.

  8. Eastgate, interview with Richard Holeton, "eNarrative Spotlight 4: A Chat with Richard Holeton," December 29, 2003.

J. David Bolter, Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991.

N. Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.

Richard Holeton, "Don't Eat the Yellow Hypertext: Notes on Figurski at Findhorn on Acid," Kairos, 3.2: 1998.

Richard Lanham, The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Pamela McCorduck, The Universal Machine: Confessions of a Technological Optimist. New York: McGraw Hill, 1985.

Marie-Laure Ryan, Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Jessica M. Laccetti:
Jess Laccetti is a doctoral student at the Institute of Creative Technologies at De Montfort University. Her Ph.D. thesis examines web fictions within a narrative and feminist theoretical context. Consequently she calls for a widening of certain narratological concepts such as "mimesis," "communication," and "temporality." She is also a research assistant for the Narrative Laboratory project and a lecturer in media and new media. Her work has been published on and offline and she has presented papers in the U.K., Europe, and Canada.  <jlaccetti@tiscali.co.uk>

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