From then on Fire, a digital experiment in electronic literature (located at fromthenonfire.com), considers the genre of the newspaper—one of the most ubiquitous of the print-based media—in its digital incarnation. Created by From Then On Fire Company in 2011, the project is a narrative site styled after the New York Times website that presents small vignettes disguised as news articles that tell a disjointed narrative about sometimes named, sometimes unnamed characters living either in or near Lebanon sometime within the past 80 years. Though From then on Fire takes the newspaper as its guiding generic format, it ignores temporal coincidence by dating its stories over a drastically long period of time that spans minutes and hours to years and decades, and even includes an entry dated “tomorrow morning.” From then on Fire takes the newspaper and everything the newspaper represents and attempts to subvert that genre as a supposed record of memory.
The front page of this website presents eight news stories with hyperlinked titles, two advertisements, two uncaptioned photographs, and 22 sidebar links that suggest sections of the newspaper, but are instead titled things like “Lemons” and “Dad’s Car.” There are 53 clickable hyperlinks on this first page. Clicking through each and every link will only always lead to the same page: page two. Page two has fewer links than page one, but still offers a variety of options. Each option only leads to page three. Once on page three, all links clicked only refresh page three. Once on the refreshed page three, the user can click any link, all of which lead to page four, the final page, the main story, with words that leap from their position in the text and disappear as the user scrolls down. The user cannot backtrack. The programmer has disallowed the back button from functioning in its intended capacity. At any moment in the piece, if the user clicks the back button, they are directed not to the previous page in the project, but to the website they were visiting before visiting fromthenonfire.com. The user’s history is not recorded and the pages do not have their own visibly unique URLs. Every page is listed under the same unmodified “fromthenonfire.com” URL.
Every aspect of the structural and interface design of From then on Fire makes an argument about memory. A story that is supposedly “continued” but never appears in the project again is a story that is forgotten. Each “news article” in From then on Fire competes for the attention over the other articles by nature of the newspaper style layout, but every move the user makes in navigating this website erases those stories that came before. The newspaper design and the user’s inability to locate the remainder of a story that the website falsely suggests exists argues for a fractured narrative. And yet, the linear construction of the interface itself, the impossibility of moving backward, the impossibility of tracing a route through the project that is not page one to page two to page three to page four, argues for linearity. These two irreconcilable methods of information presentation, the fractured and the linear, compete for dominance in this piece. The linear interface imposes its order on the fractured, non-linear articles, stories, and events the newspaper purports to deliver. This is a recognizable fight in the study and representation of memory. The fight between linear time and a different kind of time.
One of the longer vignettes in From then on Fire is ambiguously titled “Green Line 1,” and paints the scene of a schoolteacher speaking to a student during a firefight and bombing occurring just outside the school at the moment of the story. The teacher is explaining to the failing student that he must do his work in order to receive a grade for the class. The teacher reflects, “I gathered papers and noticed the varnish now peeling in thin, translucent strips from this weak desk, and remembered rubbing my fingers on my sister’s burnt and bubbled back in the dark bedroom in Bhamdoun, one or several summers ago, peeling the wet brown skin from the pink flesh glowing beneath. I know my country’s history.” We don’t know either of these characters. Nothing in any of the vignettes provides more than a tenuous connection between characters, places, and times in these stories. Not all the stories contain violence. Most contain references to plants, the natural world, produce. Only brief moments like this one lend any sense of place or time, scenes that trigger memories of violence in the midst of current violence. The teacher is remembering her sister burned in Lebanon while gunshots outside the classroom come closer. It is not the job of language, then to represent the violence From then on Fire communicates to its readers. The few mentions of bombs are outnumbered by the more frequent mentions of the color green, walnuts, plant overgrowth. The majority of the violence, as well as the majority of the conceptual work around memory takes place in the website’s interface. The most violent aspect of From then on Fire is not the narrative of war and trauma, but movements of the text on the screen.