Don't Eat the Yellow Hypertext:

Notes on Figurski at Findhorn on Acid 

by Richard Holeton


Don't eat the yellow hypertext!

The first time my Samoyed dog, Sami Beckett, was brought to snow country and let off her leash, she ran and leapt and bounded and rolled in sheer animal joy, trying to claim every snowbank as her territory. She practically refused to get back in the car. She had found her natural medium, one bred into her Siberian ancestors. This is more or less how I felt when I got my first Macintosh in the 1980s, then my first copy of Storyspace (a hypertext writing program by Eastgate Systems) in the early 1990s. All this before the Web. I tried every MacWrite font immediately. With MacDraw I made primitive stick figures, drew blank pictures of white dogs playing in snow. With Storyspace I created spider webs of linked and nested writing spaces and wanted to leave my scent in all the corners of the Map View. Don't eat the yellow hypertext!

Maybe it's because one thing always reminds me of another and I just can't stick with one topic or one genre relentlessly page after page. Or maybe I'm just not good at creating those deep, round characters who slowly gain complexity as they interact in a unified logical plot, as my creative writing workshops have encouraged me to do. I can admire the depth and lyricism of a Toni Morrison or the sustained voice of a Patrick McCabe in The Butcher Boy, but my favorite paper-book writers tend to be those who some critics have called proto-hypertextual -- digressive, multilinear, playfully self-referential genre-shifters such as Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy, Vladimir Nabokov in Pale Fire, nonsequiturian Mark Leyner in My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, Italo Calvino in many things. The most ambitious formal literary experiment of "the age of print" may be Marc Saporta's 1962 Composition No. 1, the "book in a box" composed of unbound pages which the reader is instructed to toss in the air to shuffle and then read in random order. I loved it. But it's all in French--I wonder what it's about . . . ? Transitions? Um, say something here to tie this paragraph together and connect it with the overall thread.

Okay, are Sterne and Nabokov and Saporta (and the others, Joyce and Burroughs and Cortazar and Borges and Pavic, etc.) the ancestors of hypertext fiction? Were they rebelling against "the constraints of linear text" or simply doing interesting things with their medium? Are they the great grandparents of Sami the Samoyed, my literary cousins, or (with apologies to Leyner) my gastroenterologists? If that driver who pulls out in front of you on a deserted road is in such a hurry to get where he's going, then why doesn't he accelerate quickly instead of making you slam on your brakes? These are the great questions of our day.

While I can provide no good answers, in the interests of scientific and critical inquiry I'm compelled to report the not unambiguous results of poorly controlled simulation trials conducted on the Holodeck suite aboard the starship Figurski at Findhorn on Acid. A reconstructed, bewigged, and heavily-sedated Sterne produced charming typographical designs on a vintage Macintosh, but the world was deprived of one of its most subversive and comic anti-novels, Tristram Shandy. Virtual Nabokov refused to compose Pale Fire in HTML, demanded his Blackwing pencils and stacks of index cards, and farted in the general direction of the World Wide Web. The simulated texture of the holo-matter used to recreate his paper pages so ticked off the Digital Saporta that he lashed together his famous yet little-known composition into precise linear order, translated it into English, and bound the pages "permanently" with virtual superglue. Phew. Finally, an electronic version of the guy who pulled out in front of me on the highway was crushed under a gravel-toting Mack Truck coming the other way. I had to swerve wildly but Sami and I were uninjured. We headed for the cool cool mountains.

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The history of Figurski

Draft 1: Robert Kendall's online class at the New School

Draft 2: Michael Tratner's literature course at Bryn Mawr

Draft 3: MFA at San Francisco State University

Due to the relative obscurity of hypertext literature, getting feedback about work in progress requires a fair amount of initiative and, in my case, some good luck. Among dozens of versions of Figurksi at Findhorn on Acid, a novel-length work of hypertext fiction, I produced three major drafts that got read by other actual human beings, something I wasn't sure at the outset would ever happen. All three occurrences were in academic settings, where I found that integrating this new medium into literature and creative writing courses sometimes requires a leap of faith on the part of professors, administrators, and students.


"Draft 1" was produced for Robert Kendall's fall, 1996, online class, offered through the New School for Social Research, on "Hypertext Poetry and Fiction." Kendall's course is one of few hands-on hypertext workshops generally available to non-matriculated students (and the vast majority of college writing programs still do not offer such courses). In this draft I had mostly worked out the structure of Figurski but had only partially filled out this framework with content. It was delightful to see the very imaginative projects from the other students and to receive Kendall's experienced, insightful commentary and thoughtful encouragement. Since I've read many of the Eastgate-published Storyspace hypertexts, I knew I wasn't entirely alone in this endeavor, but Kendall's class for the first time made this feeling concrete -- there are people out there, including teachers and fellow writers, who take this stuff seriously!

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"Draft 2" was completed to be used as a text in Professor Michael Tratner's novels course at Bryn Mawr College in spring, 1998. Tratner, a former colleague at Stanford and scholar of Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, and other modernist writers, invited me to submit this draft for reasons he explains in the following narrative about the experiment:

Using Rich Holeton's unfinished hypertext in a course on Twentieth-Century Novels provided a wonderful opportunity for students to try out a new relationship to a text: it was the only computer text they read, and it was not finished. They had very strong reactions to its being a computer text, and discussions of what bothered or excited them about reading on a computer led to many good comments about the function of literature. Many compared the hypertext to computer games and to Internet sites (and generally those who made such comparisons liked it); others compared it to a print book, and felt hypertext was cold, unfriendly--you couldn't curl up with it in bed. Because it was unpublished, they were not reading something already labeled great literature: indeed, I assigned it before I had read it, so I wasn't even recommending it to them by assigning it. Students could then decide for themselves whether it was "good literature" or not. The central issue that emerged as they evaluated the book was whether or not it was funny: most found it hilarious, but a few said there were too many jokes and the jokes were adolescent. I think the focus on humor was directly tied to the work's computerized form, in several ways: 1) the work consists of numerous small pieces, and so tends to create small literary experiences such as a good laugh, rather than building up "character" or a compelling plot; 2) the computer screen presents many elements in the book as borrowed from elsewhere--particularly from popular culture--and the borrowing has the feel of parody and mockery, including self-mockery of the author for knowing all these pop culture references. Students concluded that the really striking thing about Holeton's book is that its "difficulty," the depth of its commentary on modern culture, derives from its being "too easy" and "too accessible"--it is a work made of easy, accessible cultural materials, yet it resists the usual ways we consume or dismiss such materials.

--Michael Tratner

For me, the experiment was inspiring. I had by this time completed two of the three major sections and reworked the navigational scheme based on feedback from Kendall's course. Tratner and his bright Bryn Mawr students provided the most extensive commentary I would receive on the text, plus a real-world laboratory of user testing for links and navigation. Along with the debates described above about form and content, the packet of reaction papers they sent me included specific suggestions about both, and one enthusiastic reader even authored ten new scenes, a mini-parody of Figurski, to help me complete the last section! In addition, Tratner offered me extensive commentary of his own in several phone conversations during the term. To receive such unfiltered interpretations of my hypertext work in progress from the perspective of a modernist literary critic was both exhilarating and invaluable for revision.

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"Draft 3" was completed as my 1998 MFA thesis at San Francisco State University (SFSU). I understand it was the first electronic thesis at SFSU. The major speedbumps on this pioneering trail, not surprisingly for anyone contemplating a similar route, were (a) finding advisors with relevant interests and experience; (b) fitting hypertext into the traditional curriculum; and (c) navigating the bureaucracy. Happily if undramatically, none of these proved insurmountable in my experience.

Although SFSU professor and poet William Dickey -- an early innovator with hypertext poetry -- fell ill and died before I could seek him out as an mentor, I was able to interest professors Michelle Carter from Creative Writing and Geoffrey Green from English in my project. Although neither had direct experience with hypertext, both were enthusiastic and flexible. The creative writing curriculum includes elective "correlative" courses based on the student's own interests, so it was not difficult to design Special Study courses with my advisers on topics such as "Web Fiction" and "Reading and Writing Hypertext," which allowed them to become familiar with a new medium while at the same time giving me constructive feedback.

Since you can't publish a hypertext in the traditional format, the final hurdles were the Graduate Studies Office, in charge of thesis guidelines, and the SFSU Library, which would archive the work. Our compromise with the paper-based official requirements: I printed paper with all the obligatory title pages and approvals and annotations, plus a preview of the hypertext contents (a listing of all the nodes, presented in outline fashion, along with printed ReadMe files for both Macintosh and Windows platforms), and they accepted diskettes as the thesis itself. The Library is binding the paper "thesis" as usual but including a note that directs readers to the media desk for borrowing the diskettes.

Without changing most universities' official guidelines much, I'd think a similar compromise could work for a web-based thesis, with a paper volume (if required) giving readers the URL to, say, the library's online thesis directory.

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The structure of Figurski

FOLLOW LINKS BELOW TO SEE SAMPLE HYPERTEXT NODES -- COMPUTER SCREENS OR TEXT SPACES -- FROM FIGURSKI AT FINDHORN ON ACID. (Note that only some of the links indicated in the sample nodes are active.)

The overall structure is a strict, fairly simple framework: three characters (Frank Figurski, Nguyen Van Tho a.k.a. the No-Hands Cup Flipper, and Fatima Michelle Vieuchanger) and three artifacts (acid/LSD, Spam, and Rosellini's 1737 Mechanical Pig) are combined one at a time, two at a time, and three at a time, at three different places (Findhorn, the Holodeck, and Shower-Lourdes) for a total of 147 scenarios or nodes.

For example:

1.1.01, Figurski at Findhorn on Acid
A default route through the hypertext makes this title node the "opening scene"; however, readers can choose several other ways to navigate the text.
2.1.20, The No-Hands Cup Flipper and Fatima Michelle Vieuchanger on the Holodeck with Spam
This scene is part of a sequence in which the Nancy Drew Mystery Series is satirically recreated on the Holodeck.
3.1.06, Figurski, the No-Hands Cup Flipper, and Fatima Michelle Vieuchanger on the Holodeck with Rosellini's 1737 Mechanical Pig
In this Holodeck sequence, the characters have reverted to their "real-life" counterparts -- Figurksi to Theodore Streleski, the No-Hands Cup Flipper to "World Famous Cup Flipper" Eugene Zanger, and Vieuchanger to French adventurer Michel Vieuchange.

Introductory and navigational nodes include a main Navigator space. Twelve narrative threads/chronological sequences run "vertically" through the 147 scenarios; the overall chronology or "plot" extends from the Pleistocene Epoch to the distant future but is concentrated in the years 1993 to 2001. There are three iterations, evolving over time, of each character, place, and artifact description (only the first iteration is represented in the sample screens).

An additional 147 nodes grouped in a thematically-organized Notes directory offer metacommentary in the form of quotes from real and imaginary sources, pictures, and diagrams. "Hidden links" in the main scenarios lead to these nodes. (In Storyspace, unlike on the Web, some text links may be visible only if the reader holds down special keyboard keys.) For example, in 1.1.01 there's a "hidden" link from Background music to Note 054. Or in 1.2.03, a "hidden" link from digestive process leads to the table of contents for the Notes directory "digestions/cannibalism," where the reader must choose the next link to follow.

Figurski has a grand total of 354 nodes interconnected with 2001 links.

In a final self-imposed constraint on the current version, I limited the number and quality of the graphical images (for example, Note 094) so that 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.

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"The distinctive quality of Figurski"

by Michael Tratner, English Department, Bryn Mawr College

The wonder of this hypertext is that it rigidly sticks to an extremely complicated, even tortured, structure (in which every possible arrangement of three characters, three objects and three places occurs) and yet it is a "good read"--whether you mechanically follow the default route or flip around randomly, you can zip through and enjoy the pages. Somehow Holeton has managed to integrate the mechanical structure, absurd philosophical ruminations, characters defined entirely by eccentricities, and intellectual metafictional commentary into a seamless whole. The only way to explain the way this text works is to give an example: there is a mechanical pig which is quite clearly identified as a metaphor for the whole hypertext (e.g., the pig is constructed in three sub-assemblages, each of which has three parts in it, and so on, just like the text); the most important quality of this machine pig is that it can imitate both eating and excreting, so that its various owners all make money by staging performances which climax in the pig's eating real food and then producing what appears to be excrement, to the delight of audiences. Holeton's use of this meta-fictional pig is both deeply philosophical and utterly self-mocking: it raises such central questions about computer texts as the line between the mechanical and the organic, and at the same time laughs at anyone (including the author) who would describe this text as raising any cosmic questions at all. Let me elaborate a bit on the pig to show how far Holeton carries the meta-fictional issues: another image of the text is the substance Spam, which is described as created by repeatedly chopping pieces of pork into threes (again, an image of the process of writing this endlessly divided-into-threes text). So the process of mechanically chopping up his stories which became Holeton's method in writing this hypertext is mocked by Holeton as his way of producing "processed literature"--Spamfiction. But what then do we make of a scene where the mechanical pig is fed Spam? If the pig and the Spam are metaphors for the creation of hyper-texts, is the scene of a mechanical pig eating spam a metametaphor, a metaphor for the processing of metaphors? Is a mechanical pig eating processed pork a twenty-first century version of Stanley Fish's critical category of the self-consuming artifact? Or is it just comical? Holeton manages to ride a thin edge between the most complex recent critical ideas and the most absurd TV game shows. It is remarkable enough that Holeton shows us such a thin edge exists, more remarkable that he would seek to create new literature in such a strange region, and most remarkable that what he writes is great fun to read.

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Copyright 1998 by Richard Holeton