Michael Joyce's afternoon, a story is widely acknowledged to be the first ever significant, or "canonical," hypertext fiction. Created in Storyspace and published by Eastgate Systems in 1987, it consists of text in the sense of typescript only and is strongly indebted to poststructuralist tenets such as rhizomatics, decentralization, de-linearization and non-closure. It is textually self-contained in that it does not include any exophoric hyperlinks. Excerpts of it were included in the 1998 edition of the Norton Anthology of Postmodern Literature. The text follows in the tradition of the psychological novel: the story features a homodiegetic narrator, Peter, who – so the narrative suggests – has lost his son in a car accident. Peter is deeply disturbed by his personal bereavement, his feelings of guilt and failed responsibility, and his general inability to come to terms with his existential situation as well as his social environment. His overall confusion and the way it is portrayed by the various layers of hypertextuality are amongst the prime concerns of this hyperfiction, and the ultimate answer to the question of what actually did happen is left at the reader’s discretion. Other than comparable narrative and dramatic male, essentialist psychogrammes like Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925), J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) and Raymond Carver’s ‘The Bath’ (1981), however, Joyce’s pioneering work is primarily concerned with its own macro- and microstructural intricacies, which, make it a prototypical first-generation hypertext. After all, the resolving"afternoon" events alluded to in the title and in the first, inevitable lexia [begin], are not revealed in every possible reading of Joyce's hypertext.
Peter is a technical writer, who has recently been divorced from his wife Lisa. One morning he witnesses the aftermath of a car accident, which becomes the focus of nightmarish musings pervading the whole novel. He believes he has seen his ex-wife and son Andy killed in the accident, and cannot stop reproaching himself for passing by without helping the injured. This neurotic state is borne out by the ever-recurring sentence "I want to say I may have seen my son die this morning" [I want to say], which is built into a loop, causing readers to revisit the same lexia repeatedly as they go along. Paradoxically, Peter finds himself incapable of fantasizing: "I sit here, unable to dream" [yesterday]. This lexia also keeps recurring, thus assuming an equally central position within the hyperfiction. Peter is stuck in a mental cul-de-sac. He is numbed by feelings of guilt, jealousy and inertia. Dream and reality merge, a phenomenon indicative of cyberspatial psychology. His musings revolve around the two other main characters, Wert, his wife’s new boy-friend, and Lolly, a secretary and prostitute. The hypertext centers around the accident, yet also reveals the multifarious ways of the characters’ mutual promiscuity. These two ‘poles’ determine the protagonist’s and narrator’s paralysed mental state, which renders him unable to take rational action.
The fragmentary character of afternoon is augmented by the unreliable narrator, who is rendered incapable of forming any conclusive thought. His stream of consciousness reveals a high degree of uncertainty, speculation and disorientation. This impression is reflected by the absence of clear navigation aids. Rather cynically, the implied author remarks: "The lack of clear signals isn't an attempt to vex you, rather an invitation to read either inquisitively or playfully and also at depth." [read at depth].
Joyce's central intention is to illustrate how hypertext embodies postmodernist writing and poststructuralist theory. In the lexia [work in progress], the author outlines his paradoxical writerly program: "Closure is, as in any fiction, a suspect quality, although here it is made manifest. When the story no longer progresses, or when it cycles, or when you tire of the paths, the experience of reading it ends."
afternoon lays open its intertextuality. It not only draws on, but overtly mentions sources like The Odyssey, Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen, Goethe’s Werther, Tolstoy’s dramatic theory and Pynchon’s novels. Joyce self-critically questions the act of writing itself by confronting the reader with cynical meta-fictional remarks such as "I am not sure that I have a story. And, if I do, I am not sure that everything isn't my story or that, whatever is my story, is anything more than pieces of others’ stories’ [me*] and ‘And, as a poet, you know more about the world than anybody?’ [Mefisto]– ‘Some poets like to think so" [There you are].
(Entry adapted from Ensslin, Astrid (2007) Canonizing Hypertext: Explorations and Constructions. London: Continuum, pp.69-72)