Paul Lafarge has a very interesting piece in Salon today about hypertext fiction. Like Lafarge, I remember that moment in the 1990s when it seemed like hyptertext fiction was really the next big thing--as important an invention as the novel itself. But then, as Lafarge puts it, nothing happened. To his credit, Lafarge still thinks it's a form worth pursuing, and to his even greater credit, he is writing a hypertext story himself, Luminous Airplanes.
I took a look at the story. It's very well designed, and the craft, so far, looks lovely. But I have to admit that my overall feeling, as soon as I began clicking through, was anxiety. I followed a link, hit "back," and did not know where I was going back to. Was it the same "back" as if I had not followed the link? It didn't seem so. I stopped reading, becoming completely concerned with the question of "where I was." I wanted a flow chart.*
Now, presumably, the more experienced reader of hypertext is not only accustomed to the loss of a single main thread--the handrail of linearity, if you will--but embraces that loss. Non-linearity is the point. So maybe it is just a matter of experience, and of being willing to let myself be lost, not unlike the way one is "lost" in a good, absorbing novel. Perhaps I am like those audience members who ran screaming from the oncoming locomotive in an early example of another new art form, film.
After all, I have spent the past few months trying to read Pynchon's Against the Day (75% done!) and have been lost, as in disoriented, plenty of times. I go leafing back through the heap of pages I thought I had already read, trying to find out who the hell Cyprian is, because apparently I have been introduced to him, but danged if I remember. Lafarge makes the further point that many proto-hypertext novels already exist, such as Hopscotch, Pale Fire, etc., in which flipping back and forth and all over the place is a necessary part of the reading experience.
So what is the difference? Maybe the still-unpleasant aesthetic experience of reading on a computer, which is already being fixed by e-readers and the iPad. After reading Lafarge's article, I do feel I ought to give hypertext another try, as a reader if not as a writer (probably, definitely not as a writer). But it does feel like a lot of work.
*I should point out that there is one, and also a fair amount of help/orientation text, which I was too unsettled to poke around in on my first visit.