The Hidden

I haven’t decided exactly which work(s) I’m going to write about (it’ll be something from the Elit Collections, or Dreaming Methods), but I’ve at least settled on a topic.  I want to focus on aspects of the work that are hidden, or are otherwise purposely downplayed or obscured (but present all the same).  I’m fascinated by the ways in which authors hide information in their works, and I’d like to look at 1) the techniques employed to hide information, 2) the effect achieved by doing so, and 3) the ways in which the reader will notice what is hidden.  I’ll be focusing mostly on aspects of the work that are fairly easy to access, but nonetheless deviate from the guiding narrative – if one is present.  If there isn’t some kind of guiding framework, I’ll try to analyze how readers make sense of disparate elements (and how some elements become favored over others due to aesthetic decisions).

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This post will be straightforward and humorless.  Nelson’s work makes me angry.  But I liked it.  Or I like that I don’t like it.  I didn’t like it because it is art that hates art.  As with Dada, and Warhol.  But it is art all the same.  It makes me think and I find it very funny in places.  It follows the school of Stylistic Suck – intentional or not, it doesn’t matter.  Feel free to argue otherwise.

I liked the marriage of game elements with “poetics.”  The presentation is interestingly disassociated.  Complexities abound.  Physical second-person playing in fields of disconnected prose; cut-up method applied to text, pictures, audio, and gameplay; jokes, observations, and “plots” that are ambiguous by nature of their presentation.

The player, a “you,” navigates through a game world that conflates game elements and text elements.  The player must combine rules of reading with rules of gameplay.  Text becomes enemy, text becomes goal, text becomes game environment.

Combining game and text elements makes for a fractured experience.  You just bought the (a?) farm.  Come on and meet your maker.  The levels shift randomly.  Music is discordant.  Pictures flood the screen.  It’s a stream of consciousness.  It’s fun.  Nelson is having a good time.

The work doesn’t invite interpretation.  It is ambiguous.  At some points less so than at others.  It makes digs at game design with its arbitrary elements, explosions, and expository phrases.  Spoonfed!  Jump here!  You were harmed by a game that harms you.  And as it critiques games it simultaneously challenges culture and literature.  Or pretends to.  Or encourages players to think that it does. Or does nothing at all.  Don’t try to get it.  It’s just good old fashioned fun.

The mixture of gameplay elements and reading elements could be accomplished in print, with cards, board games, print mazes and labyrinths, and so on.  Although the experience would of course be different from the electronic format.  The work is post-print in that it purposely avoids or confronts convention, although its presentation follows an artistic philosophy (Dada) that existed before both the modernist and post-modern movements.

In relation to established genres, the work doesn’t fall into easily defined categories.  But while these categories are not easily defined, they do exist and they are not new – absurdity has and always will exist, although it is often suppressed and derided, and usually very funny.


Did anyone use a walkthrough while playing one of these games?  I attempted to do most everything on my own, but if I got stuck for an extended period of time I decided to save myself the trouble and refer to a guide.  If we think about IF as a game, this would certainly count as cheating; but if IF is just a story that we’re participating in, is it the same thing?  Can you “cheat” at fiction?

With a traditional book you can flip forward and read ahead, or read the back, or go online and read a plot summary or someone else’s analysis.  Is reading the back of a book or the dust jacket “cheating”?  You would be gaining information about the story from a place external to the main text.  I know most people avoid online synopses about a book they’re reading – some even avoid reading the back – because they are worried about spoilers.  Perhaps “cheating” is to IF as “spoiling” is to a traditional book.

But let’s imagine that spoiling gives us a 2-dimensional view of a book, allowing us to look forward and backward through the narrative’s timeline as we please.  With IF, cheating gives us a 3-dimensional view, as it can sometimes show us things that are “hidden”, things that we never would have noticed in the first place.

For example, the game I played was Bronze.  I finished it, and some of the stuff I referenced in the guide I probably would have figured out if I had been paying more attention, but there’s one entire plot branch (involving a gong) that almost certainly would never have occurred to me, had I not seen it in the guide.  Easter eggs come in here, too – things that the author has deliberately hidden in the game.   Did any of you type in the command “xyzzy” while playing Violet?  Go give it a try.  How would you even know to do that, unless you knew it was in there beforehand?

What I find really interesting about IF are plot points, information, or easter eggs that are “embedded” into the text, tucked in someplace for the player to find them.  Either through cheating or just extreme patience.  That’s something you can’t really do with a traditional book.  Though in a weird way, as others have mentioned, House of Leaves attempts to cross that gap.  Danielewski veiled information in footnotes, codes, or symbols, and although he could not outright hide information in a tucked away space only accessible with the right command input, he set up a pretty close textual equivalent.

Halloween Wishes and House of Leaves

Hi Mrs. Sample,

I’m glad you decided to give HOUSE OF LEAVES a try.  My mom has also started to read the book.  I guess it’s a fun thing to do with your kids!

Near as I can figure, the Navidson Record never existed.  Johnny Truant claims that he can find no evidence about it, and Google searches won’t net you any solid results.  I think it’s fun to imagine it as a real thing, though – it makes the book more spooky!

All in all, House of Leaves is definitely an unusual book.  It sort of pokes holes at the divide between reality and fiction – not that I think these things really happened, but they make you think all the same.  All I can suggest is to just keep an open mind and to never settle on just one single meaning!

Hope your Halloween is full of fun.


David Kennedy

Authorship and Technorevolution

I had never read Barthes before – he is certainly very enthusiastic!  He is being deliberately incisive, I think, but he does so because he is addressing a mode of thinking that was dominant in his time – that is, the traditional schools of criticism that placed all emphasis on the author and his psychology, and on the search for the ultimate singular “meaning” that he embedded into his texts. 

Many modern critics would at least acknowledge nowadays that such meanings are usually nonexistent or unimportant, that a readers’ interpretations are a reliable source of truth, and that what a writer writes is not necessarily reflective of a specific idea or psychology.  In Barthes’ time, though, that kind of thinking was probably fairly rare.   So I understand why he writes so passionately about the “death of the Author” and the ascension of the reader –  he is trying to spark debate.  He was attempting to change the viewpoint of a critical society that did not yet have all the pieces, so to speak.  The author does provide a possible avenue for analysis, but he is not the only avenue that exists. 

Obviously, every single work of writing has some kind of author behind it.  Books do not fall from the sky.  What I think Barthes is getting at, though, is that the relationship between an author, or storyteller, and the text has changed over the centuries, and it only continues to evolve as it is exposed to new philosophies and forms of media.  

Let’s look to Borges’ story, The Garden of Forking Paths.  As its introduction helpfully points out (I don’t know if I would have made this connection myself), the story’s narrative describes the concept behind the hypertext novel, which is described as a kind of infinite labrynth that branches off into an infinite number of possibilities through time.  At the time he wrote this story, Borges did not know about the internet, and indeed his conceptualization of hypertext was probably based more on mathematical breakthroughs of the time (quantum physics, etc.) than it was on any conceptualization of computer systems.

But his idea is now (at least partly) possible, with the help of a computer, and particularly with the help of the internet.  Anyone can put together a hypertext document that branches off indefinitely, or at least as far as its links can go.

Of course Borges was the author of his own story – we cannot remove him from it – but what happens when you have many authors working all at once on a single project?  The work would be reflective of all of their ideas, all of their psychologies, and so would be completely opaque to the traditional modes of criticism that Barthes is attacking.

Then we get to works that incorporate media with text –  pictures, sound, and so on.  The storyteller is still present, surely, but as we see in The Whale Hunt, temporal boundaries break down, and stories become more of an experience than a traditional straightforward narrative.

We also are beginning to see the rise of more collaborative forms of writing, where the faceless mass traveling the colorful wastes of the Internet conspires to create new works of writing and art.  Sites like Drawball allow people to scribble whatever they want, and see the scribbles of others, and anonymous forums allow people to write whatever they feel like writing, and talk about whatever they feel like talking about.  Communication itself is becoming a whole new medium.

We Feel Fine operates under similar principles, although it lacks direct involvement from its content-producers.  Thousands upon thousands contribute to the site, creating a huge amount of disconnected emotive narratives.  They are all authors, all operating under an entity that acts as both a storyteller and medium: the webcrawler that culls their stories in accordance with its programmed algorithms.

What we are seeing, as our technology continues to advance, is the rapid increase in new communicative mediums.  The “author” is not dying, but rather is changing at an exponential rate.  It is the old concept of author (old in the sense that it existed before this current moment) that is dead, as countless new concepts pop up in its place.

Whether it is a human being who is putting stories together, or a computer algorithm, it seems inevitable that these infinite, collaborative forms of writing will only grow more prevalent as the Internet becomes increasingly more relevant to our daily lives.  The distinction between “real life” and “digital life” blurs a little more each day, as we see ideas that were once merely conceptual (like Borges’ hypertext) become realized by technology.

What will happen when three-dimensional object printers become as ubiquitous as the inkjet?  When we can print objects from stories and give them tangible forms?  What happens when the resolution of flexible displays becomes so fine that the images they display are indistinguishable from reality?  The same for projected light images?  What happens when we create a sensory interface that makes interaction with light images indistinguishable from real ones?  What happens when virtual reality becomes reality, and we can grow on a whim Borges’ infinite labyrinth?

These all are projections for the future, but what is clear is that the author is something that constantly evolves when exposed to ever-changing media.  It is therefore difficult to pin down what exactly the author is or will be or “means” – we just know that it is changing.  We don’t yet have all the pieces, and perhaps we never will.

A Funny Kind of Book

Well I’ve finally finished this book, and frankly it is difficult to sort out what best to say on the subject.  I will attempt to organize my thoughts on the following assumption, as in analyzing this kind of book we must make certain assumptions that others may or may not also have:  I believe the book attempts to achieve the ultimate kind of metanarration, one in which meaning is wholly ambiguous, and interpretation is left entirely up to the reader.

This may seem like a somewhat vague and shallow analysis, so allow me to clarify: the book is a joke, and it makes me laugh.  It seems to me that the story is an extended satire, poking fun at books, poking fun at both readers and writers, deliberately playing on tropes and complexities and insights, the ideas of structure and form, throwing in themes that mean multiple things at once, and recursions that continue on forever, in counters to counters to counters that purposely throw the reader this way and that.

I interpret the final library scene as being sort of wistful, with readers attempting to hearken back, through the murkiness of thought and memory and description, to their original state of reading, what initially drove them to read, and what ultimately was irreversibly changed by that simple act of reading.

This book will make some readers angry, and it will leave most everyone confused (or pretending not to be).  Some readers will try to analyze it to death in the hopes of finding a singular cogent meaning, which they probably will find, as the book provides a multitude of meanings, including this interpretation here, which may or may not have been intended – I suppose we’ll never know, as Calvino is Italian and also dead.

What remains is this book that plays on the idea of books, and of reading and writing, and of the conventions applied to all of them, the malleability of stories, and the arbitrariness of plot construction.  Note the general meaningless of the many endings proposed for Flannery’s story of the two writers – it does not seem to matter how the story ends.

I is Dead

I am admittedly not far into this book – the gold tassel is sticking now out of page 40, chapter 3 – but thus far I was most struck not by Calvino’s directly meta observations about the nature of writing and its artifice (amusing and informative though they were), but rather by the fight scene that takes place between Ponko and Gritzvi (I).  Hence the grammatical nightmare that is my title.  Gritzvi does not make an appearance in Outside the Town of Malbork until about two pages in, and when he does appear he does so in the form of “I”, not of Gritzvi.  I heads down into the kitchen, I explains his situation, and I sits around in his room, staring at his old belongings as the fellow Ponko subsumes what once he was.

Perhaps the reader now suffers a bit of existential confusion.  Was there not an I just a moment ago at a train station pub, carrying a suitcase, waiting for a man he would shortly learn was dead?  What happened to him?  Our new I loosely and indirectly references his old self, and of the reader’s relation to that old I, remarking that in reading Outside the Town of Malbork, perhaps “you sensed that… everything  was slipping through your fingers” (there is even a mention that perhaps the reader’s confusion is a fault of the translation from Polish, inadvertently comical given that the book itself was originally written in Italian).  I then proceeds to lapse into an odd sort of dual character.  He is at once the narrator’s “I,” to which is ascribed all of the characteristics typical to our usual understanding of narration and the first person perspective, while simultaneously he is also Gritzvi, I, a character in Outside the Town of Malbork, who is forced to essentially erase his own existence and begin anew elsewhere.  This I is also not a true I, in that it is the narrator summarizing the content of Outside the Town of Malbork, not relaying it verbatim.  Perhaps there is no I in Outside the Town of Malbork, but the narrator presents the story such that it seems there is.

There is a weird parallel between the erasure of the “I” and Gritzvi’s loss of identity.  The narrator’s “I” is struggling to reconcile the inherent amorphousness and meaninglessness of his existence (passing from one I to the next without rhyme or reason, as I tends to do from story to story and book to book), while Gritzvi looks on with despair and regret as  he is forced to leave his home for reasons that are kept purposely obscured.  We know only that there is a feud between the Ozkarts and the Kauderers, and that Gritzvi is not a Kauderer, and that apparently he is trading places with Ponko, and supposedly everything will be all right because of it.  Though not for Gritzvi.  Gritzvi latches on to the fragments of the life he has to leave behind, not necessarily because they are important to him, but because they give him an identity – much like the narrator’s I, which latches on to the characters it becomes in order to establish itself as an entity to which the reader can relate.

It wasn’t until about halfway into the fight with Ponko that I noticed that something was wrong.  It was about 2 AM and I realized that something had happened to the previous I.  It sort of snuck up on me.  I was reading the fight, and there was embedded in the exchange of crushing blows a brief discussion about the inadequacy of descriptive language in actually describing what the author, the I, and the character all intend to describe, and I realized that the I that existed before never had any substance in the first place (as much substance as fictional characters can have), being entirely the vehicle of the author through which he relayed the events of his own fictional book.  That I was a device, not a character, although he posed as a character, and I suppose he counts as one anyway.  In any case, it seemed to me that that I was now fighting with this thing Ponko, which I suppose was a representation of a character and a representation of the ghostly immateriality of narration against which the constructed narrator must fight to maintain his identity, futile though such a fight may be.  When a reader moves from one I to the next, what happens to I?  When I dies, does I become a new I?  It certainly seems that way.

We don’t even know Gritzvi’s name until the end of the chapter, by which point the narrator’s “I” and the I of Outside the Town of Malbork have fused together into something singular.  It is interesting to note that one of the themes of the previous I’s chapter, erasure, melts into this one rather seamlessly.