The Mechanics of Reading Hopscotch

June 26, 2011 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Hopscotch, by Julio Cortázar (trans. by Gregory Rabassa).

In his brief, iconic, and tricksy “Table of Instructions,” Cortázar suggests that there are “two books above all” to be read in Hopscotch: a normal, linear reading of the first 56 chapters, and a second reading which incorporates the later section of chapters “From Diverse Sides,” reading chapters in a non-linear sequence denoted at the end of each chapter (“hopscotching” around the book, so to speak).

Because I am a rather obsessive reader, I’ve chosen to follow both sets of instructions, first reading the linear novel, then going back and reading the second way.  (In fact, this seems to be the only way to read the entire text without “cheating” on the instructions, as one chapter is left out of the second sequence.)

“Instructions” is an interesting word here.  Hypertext, and other associated experimental literary forms, have come to be associated with a rebellion against the linearity of reading, and a way to democratize (at least partially) the relationship between author and reader.  That doesn’t seem to be Cortázar’s primary motivation in Hopscotch, since the non-linear path through the novel is prescribed (and remains a matter of reading the linear novel sequentially with “expendable” chapters mixed in); rather, it is a matter of form following content, the serious play of hopscotch in the novel reflected in the reader’s hops over its pages, attempting to move the “pebble” of understanding from one “square” to another.

There is also the matter of shaking readers out of ossified patterns of reading and being, and this, too, seems to be important to Cortázar.  Chapter 34 is an excellent example: it is read on two parallel tracks of alternating lines, with the text of a traditional, realist novel by Benito Pérez Galdós intertwined with the thoughts of its reader, Horacio Oliveira.  It’s a brilliant technique, with the reader finding a way into the text after some minutes (at least in my case) of trying to understand how to make sense of what seems a mess of garbled noise.  The reader then hops from line to line, experiencing the transfigured text through the eyes of an unsympathetic reader, who is reading it for clues about what made it interesting to its original owner, Horacio’s lover La Maga.

In this way, the chapter seems utterly new and refreshing while also reaching back to the earliest forms of what might be considered proto-hypertext, the glosses, commentaries, and cross-references of sacred texts in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  In this tradition, the interpretation often overwhelmed the text itself, arranged around the edge of the pages (as here), just as the text here is less important than Oliveira’s gloss upon it, and his attempt to understand La Maga and his life with her (although the read text’s status as a work of canonical Spanish literature remains fundamental).  The collapsing of traditional experiences of literary time and space  that is embodied in this chapter — one text is read, then another text is read to interpret that one, and one proceeds from one line to the next in linear fashion — is fundamental to Cortázar’s explorations of human experiences of time in the novel.

And of course, as one is reading this and other chapters of Hopscotch, other texts are evoked and echoed.  That the Hamlet and Ophelia are inescapable reference points for Horacio and La Maga, that Homer and Joyce are frequently brought to mind, and that Borges hovers like a patron saint deepens the reader’s sense of skipping across a complicated, playful pattern of texts.  But then there are echoes from the future, too: Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives springs to mind, and the complicated play of networked texts, electronic literature.  That field would surely be important to Cortázar, as a response to the following rumination in the first chapter (chapter 73) of the hopscotched text:

How often I wonder whether this is only writing, in an age in which we run towards deception through infallible equations and conformity machines.  But to ask one’s self if we will know how to find the other side of habit or if it is better to let one’s self be borne along by its happy cybernetics, is that not literature again?

Multiple Odysseys and Our Medieval Culture

August 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Lost Books of the Odyssey, by Zachary Mason.

Reading next: At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien.

There comes a moment, occasionally, when you’re reading along and suddenly, for no obvious reason, the rows of the Cosmic Slot Machine line up and some insight smashes into the front of your skull.  Oftentimes it turns out to be no great fundamental innovation, but the truth behind something that’s become a truism, or something you’ve always known but never understood.

That happened for me as I was reading the fifth story, “Agamemnon and the Word,” in Zachary Mason’s book, an assemblage of fictional “concise variations” on the “crystallized,” canonical version of the Odyssey, said variations supposedly recovered from manuscripts, urns, and other sources and duly translated.  Something about reading these fragments — and especially this fifth, about a knowledge-hungry Agamemnon asking Odysseus and his other “sages” to give him the world’s knowledge in a book, a sentence, a single word — written by a computer scientist, with their artifice of scholarly footnotes linking the variations to the canonical text, made me think that the book could be emblematic of — perhaps is consciously about — our culture’s shift back toward the varietal, the local, the fragmentary, away from the canonical, the universal, the definitive.

Much later, near the end, comes “Record of a Game,” a story begun with a footnote stating that “Though written in credible Homeric Greek, the contents of this chapter cannot be dated much before the early Middle Ages,” and telling us that much of the “papyrus” is damaged, leaving sections of the text up to “conjecture.”  It’s one of my favorites in the book, reading the Iliad and Odyssey as instructional texts for a game of military tactics similar to chess, wildly corrupted and elaborated through years of use and elaboration.

All of this reminded me of Jeanette Winterson saying that “we might be going into a cultural dark ages.”  (You can find the quote here, in an interview with Bill Moyers, though I think she’d said it before then, as well.)  And in my profession, we’re constantly worrying about the creation of a historical dark age through the loss of digital information, the difficulty of capturing and preserving that information (though we seem to finally be turning a corner on that issue, as a profession).  Winterson’s worried about people no longer interested in culture, no longer reading, and whether that absence of market will mean the end of literature and other high art forms.  Archivists are worried about the loss of the historical record.

When Mason writes in his brief preface that “the Homeric material was formless, fluid, its elements shuffled into new narratives like cards in a deck,” he is almost certainly closer to the truth than the idea that one can find a definitive text of a definitive Odyssey, by a definitive Homer.  There were surely many different versions of the Odyssey, as many different versions as there were storytellers, almost all of them lost now.  And yet we — civilization, in general, especially the kind that gets called “Western” — have been engaged, for 600 years or so now, in the systematic canonization of information: putting down authoritative versions of events between covers, over the airwaves, and into the public record of newspapers and legal documents.  This is what scholars, journalists, culture workers of all stripes, have been engaged to do.  But what Mason’s book reminds me of is connection of the pre-Homeric tales of the adventures of a trickster lost on his way back home from war — of that fabled “oral culture” — to the wired world’s increasing proliferation of versions of narratives, “memes,” apocrypha, images real and doctored, commentary, flame wars, propaganda, misinformation.  Crowdsourcing: the creation of large-scale narrative through local knowledge and aggregated data.  Is it possible to see the Internet, again, as some hoped it would be, as a colossal hearth across which storytellers toss the tales they’ve heard, and listeners choose the ones they like best to pass along in their own ways?  Are we in a medieval age of multiplicity, rather than scarcity, of knowledge?

This seems one of the many possible ways to understand Mason’s reasons for reworking one of Western civ’s most fundamental texts, at this late stage in its history, after myriad other reworkings.  The irony, of course, is that Mason wrote a book, and certainly no one can blame him for that: it’s what writers still tend to do, after all.  Not only did he write a book, he published it first with a small press, Starcherone Books, after which the book was picked up and repackaged by Farrar, Straus and Giroux: it’s worked its way up the chain of respectability and wide distribution.  Again, still the logical move to make.  But like a number of other things I’ve read lately, I can’t help but think that the work would be improved, structurally and thematically, by turning away from mainstream publication, and producing it as an online text: a work of electronic literature, not an “e-book” or print book in digital form.  A work inherently unstable, a hypertext in which the reader chooses the order in which to read the narratives, or the narratives are provided in random order.  But one does not get paid (or gets paid very little) for e-lit: there is no market.  Its practitioners, by and large, give content away.  Winterson’s dark age looming, again.

Hypertext, Paratext, Metaphor, and My Confusion

January 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Dictionary of the Khazars.

Before moving on, just a few words about this book’s complex structure (you could say, “overly, needlessly complex” — yeah, let’s say that) and how I went about reading it.

Pavic wanted readers to participate as full partners in creating his fiction: he wanted them to skip around in it, picking how they want to read (within certain reasonable patterns), not following a single preordained pattern of linear reading.  This is an analog hypertext, in other words.  The book has “Preliminary Notes,” followed by three dictionaries (more like encyclopedias, actually): Red, Green, and Yellow Books, with entries related to the Khazars from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish sources and perspectives, respectively.  Then there are two appendices.  So far as I can tell, these are appendices and not incorporated into the entries only because Pavic wanted them to be read after the other entries.  It’s not as though the content of the entries themselves is so overly focused.  The substantial entries are linked stories, for all their trappings as scholarly entries.  There are also two slightly different versions of the book: a “Male Edition,” and a “Female Edition,” differing by one paragraph.

I read the book like so: first, the preliminary notes.  Then I read the four entries included in each of the three books, which seemed fairly introductory to me.  Then I started following links in those entries to other entries, which led to a more or less chronological reading, with a few exceptions: from entries on the historical Khazars of the 7th-10th centuries and their conversions to other religions, to entries on the three characters of the 17th century linked by their dreams and the creation of the destroyed first edition of the Dictionary of the Khazars, to entries on the 20th-century characters studying the history of the Khazars in one way or another.  I read the first appendix after it was linked in the text, somewhere in the middle; I read the second appendix and closing author’s note at the end, since they were never linked anywhere in the text.

The metafictional apparatus by which the book purports to be a reconstruction and expansion of a lost 17th-century original (of which two copies, one written with some kind of magically poisoned ink, survived) never quite worked for me.  Mostly it just confused me.  It’s certainly a good example of the kinds of bibliographic muddles one can get into in researching old books, and trying to understand the sources of those books; and the idea that the sources of the three books of the different religions need to talk to each other to understand the entire story of the Khazars is also an important one.  But the artifice is never convincing.  The entries are, for the most part, incredibly detailed but also somewhat random: the list of entries is much more novelistic than scholarly or lexicographical.  The gaps in knowledge seem convenient. Partly I think this is an epistemological critique, a way of reconstructing a whole race, a people that have been forgotten precisely through such Western exercises as the compilation of historical sources and archival material.  If that’s the case, I don’t think it’s entirely successful.  Somehow it just seems messy.

Part of my problem with the book, I suspect, is also with the often baffling language.  Is this a translation problem, a problem of my lack of knowledge, or a problem of my method of reading — if I’d read the book in another order, would I have caught the meaning behind some of these perplexing metaphors and constructions?  Indeed, in many cases there is a connection to another entry or a recurring character, but not in nearly all cases. Just for three instances chosen at random from many, if someone can fill me in on what might be meant by “She always thought she had three Fridays until dinnertime” or “‘Do you know how many mouth holes the Jews have?’ his mother asked that day as he ate” or “…Cohen had swallowed a soaring bird with his left eye,” I’d appreciate it.  Few of these weird folkloric metaphors and surrealistic intrusions into fictive reality struck a chord with me; mostly they were just frustrating.  (Though at least in the case of Dr. Suk’s entry it seems possible that all or most of the events are taking place within a dream, which lends the tone and language some credence.  By and large, the dreams in the book are more lucid and straightforward than the supposed reality.  Perhaps I’m looking at the book with two eyes when I should be looking with one, as Pavic would have it.)

The Decadent Book, or the Book of the Decade?

July 14, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

I will get into the specifics of what this very strange book might be about and how it might work soon, but first I can’t resist talking about the book itself: its physical form, its extravagant typography and layout, and the experience of reading it.  And in fact, as in all books, but especially in this strange one, that experience is a very large part of its subject and function.

Only Revolutions is a Choose Your Own Adventure: there is no set way of reading it.  Although there is a publisher-recommended way, the reader has to make many choices based simply on the book’s unusual presentation.  There are two title pages, one for the “story” by Sam, the other for Hailey.  The Sam-story and the Hailey-story start from opposite ends and meet in the middle, then go back the other way: the story you’re not reading is always upside-down on the page.  From the jacket flap: “The publisher suggests alternating between Sam and Hailey, reading eight pages at a time.”  They rather strongly suggest that — or, I suspect, Danielewski does — by introducing every ninth page with a large initial letter, intimating a break at the end of the previous page.  (And yes, I’ve followed this suggestion.)  But of course, you can start from either end.  And you can certainly disregard the advice and read all the way through one story, then all the way through the other.

But further, there is also more than one section of text on every page: there’s a main body of varying size and layout which looks suspiciously like verse, but always mostly right-justified on versos and left-justified on rectos.  In the gutter of each page is a sidebar, in small (different) font: a chronology of real-life national and world events, from 1863 to 2005.  (There are also empty sidebars up to 2063.)  These sidebar snapshots can be rather cryptic, given the space restraints and the author’s stylistic preferences: a typical line from World War II reads “6 German saboteurs go” (go being a multivalent word in the book, but very often meaning die).  Many are even less descriptive: a simple number, the meaning of which is only revealed (or not) after later repetitions.  (I hate to do this to someone as cool as Danielewski obviously is, but the device is reminiscent of nothing so much as the wildly popular but, in retrospect, horribly embarrassing Billy Joel boomer anthem “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”)

You can choose to read these and attempt to decipher them or just skim for a sense of time and zeitgeist or utterly ignore them as annoying contrivance, simply acknowledging their perceived use in the book.  But if you do pay attention to them, you can also choose what kind of meaning you wish to assign to them: are they summarizing events contemporaneous with the personal events in the main body of text?  Are they only a kind of symbolic anchoring of the themes of the text in the history of the “real” world?  What is the purpose of the bizarre but rigorously uniform phrasing and syntax and style evident in the sidebars — a cipher or code, or (dare I dream?) a kind of Oulipian game, or merely a sort of literary ticker-tape, or what?

But wait!  There’s more!  The letter “o” and the number zero always appear in green ink in Sam’s narrative, gold in Hailey’s.  The page numbers — two for each page, one for each narrative — appear on the side of the page, in two circles within a larger circle; the numbers rotate 360 degrees around each other through the course of the book.  The sidebar dates appear in a kind of deep magenta.  And the word “creep” (and character The Creep) also appears in a kind of reddish-purple (which may or may not be the same as the date-magenta — I really can’t tell if there’s a difference, because of the different sizes and fonts).  Also, characters’ names (and some important objects) besides Sam and Hailey appear in small caps.  Names of animals in Sam’s narrative, and plants in Hailey’s, appear in boldface (gray boldface in the second half).

Beyond all that, the book features across its boards a gorgeous photographic collage of plants and animals in green and gold and earth-tones, and on its two dust jacket covers extreme close-ups of a green-flecked gold iris and a gold-flecked green iris.  Plus two slightly different jacket blurbs — one for Sam, one for Hailey.  Also, gold and green ribbons, for keeping your place.  And a “concordance” of many overlapping circles of words on both sets of endpapers, to be read in a mirror.

If you’ve read his first book, House of Leaves (a book I utterly adore, and a real candidate for my favorite book of the decade), this is not exactly a surprise — but Jesus, what a load of paratext!  It is tempting to read it as a conceptual poem: more like Kenneth Goldsmith‘s work than Joyce’s, even though Finnegan’s Wake is what first springs to mind as a comparison, in that its existing is as much or more the point as anything it actually says.

That’s an overstatement, because documentation of the process is certainly not the end point of Z’s work, but it leads me to one of the things I find so interesting about the book’s format.  This is a book, published in 2006, and very much about cosmic themes of birth and death and renewal and obsolescence, which is also very much about being a book published in 2006, about what a book might be.  I don’t know how much Z actually thought about the book’s publication/marketing during its composition — while I think writers don’t much like thinking about publishing, I think Z is perforce an exception — but I think the folks at Pantheon/Random House must’ve thought of the book as a way to make “the book” hip again.  I think they had to think of it as futuristic/avant-garde/cutting-edge, for promotional purposes.  And perhaps it is; it certainly would’ve been utterly impossible to commercially produce 20-30 years ago.  But it also strikes me as, possibly, a kind of death-knell: a really remarkable piece of decadent bookmaking, an example of digital typography and layout and contemporary cheap-but-flashy binding run amok, the kind of thing that gets designed and pushed by a really very respectable publisher and nominated for the National Book Award when “the book” is going through a massive identity crisis.

In some ways the book is very book-specific, in that the look of it and the rotation of the book 360 degrees to read the other narrative and the thematic import of its typography and layout are meant to be quite profoundly part of the book’s meaning — its “content.”  In other ways it’s very hypertextual: one of those works moving past the book, which only feels constrained when it’s moved from a screen where it can more fully interact with a reader or “user” to a page.

None of which I mean to detract from the work itself, which is really quite remarkable in many respects.  It just strikes me, when I look at it on the table, and when I hold it in my hand, and when I read its overflowing pages, as being simultaneously a very exciting and very sad thing.  And even though I’ve just spilled a lot of language about it, I’m still not sure I’ve quite captured why that is.

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