Individual Work
A Life Set For Two

Rob Kendall’s "A Life Set for Two” is an animated hypertext poem published in The Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext, Volume 2, Number 4, in 1996. There is only a single edition of the work. The work was programmed in Visual Basic. An excerpt of the work was published in the CD-ROM issue of the Little Magazine, and some other parts were adapted for print and published in the magazine Lips.

“A Life Set for Two” explores the “dynamic processes of thought and memory.” The story unfolds through the metaphor of two different menus––one belonging to the male narrator recounting a failed affair and other belonging to his lover, whom readers come to know only through the perspective of the narrator. In his 1995 essay “Writing for the New Millennium,” Kendall writes that, “the work uses as its structural model the human mind itself, with its dynamic twistings and turnings,” recalling the subjective and poetic operations of human memory and thought.

When a reader engages with the work, they first can select between categories in the “Contents” menu: “Title Page,” “Publication Information,” “Acknowledgements,” “How to Read This Poem,” and “Poem.” The reader can select between various options for reading the poem: text display can be either “kinetic” or “static”; text can be configured according to various visual and, intriguingly, emotional settings (meaning tonality and emphasis can be adjusted); the speed can also be adjusted, allowing for a number of different reading experiences. These preliminary components of the poem speak to the dialogic and participatory experience of engaging with the work: the reader plays a key role in the authorship of the encounter, the experience of interfacing with and reading work. The poem’s prologue is composed of text that can, if settings allow, slowly unfold, finally displaying text that is mostly static, though some individual phrases or words transition between different wordings and language (an affordance of Visual Basic), suggesting instability and foregrounding the volatility of memory. The combination of these parts hint at the overall dynamism of the poem, as text on the page that moves, and asks the reader to help shape nonlinear the narrative, forming a kind of temporary partnership.

The sense of dialogism of “A Life Set for Two” intensifies in the body of the poem itself, which is organized in the form of two individual “Café Passé” restaurant menus, one belonging to the narrator (“What Fed Me”) and one belonging to the narrator’s lover (“What Fed Her”). Each line in the menu is a button, which, when clicked upon, triggers an individual, short poem. The poems each build on the metaphor of a shared meal; as the reader moves through the poems and the narrative of the relationship and meal, the menu items change. Though the poem’s construction is nonlinear, the way the story of the poem unfolds by means of the evolving menu items is notably linear, which helps the story maintain a sense of logical integrity and momentum as a formal narrative.

The linguistic shifts created by the animated text and Kendall’s tendency to incorporate plays on words, puns, and clever formatting adds welcome humour that offsets the presumed seriousness and melancholia of the story of a failed romantic relationship; such affective variations adds texture to the poem. The invitation to the reader to click through to navigate the work, as well as the playful imagery of the interface, makes for a deceptively complex affective reading experience.

Author statement: 
Writers like [hypertext author and theorist] Michael Joyce inspired me to embark on my own hypertext expedition. I departed from the usual approach, however, using my background in computer programming to develop a dynamic hypertext technique that allows a reader to change not only the ordering of text sections but also the content of each in response to different situations. For example, the first few lines of any section may vary to create an appropriate transition from or response to whatever precedes it. Key phrases might be added or removed, depending on whether or not the reader has already seen a related part of the poem. Thus, if the reader encounters a passage that introduces a particular theme, the program may alter passages the reader visits much later on, adding to them a few lines alluding to this new theme. The way sections are linked together also changes in response to the reader's progress. I put the technique to work in my book-length poem “A Life Set for Two” (Eastgate Systems, forthcoming), which uses as its structural model the human mind itself, with its dynamic twistings and turnings. The reader roams through ruminations and memories of failed love, as if following different trains of thought. Like thoughts, these sections interact with one another, creating logical interconnections. The reader can also change the mood of the poem at any time, which affects the content of each section the way different frames of mind can color reminiscences. The dynamic structure of A Life Set for Two is partly an effort to minimize the discontinuity attendant upon complex hypertext literature that frequently lets the reader jump between distantly related spots in the writing. Disjunction can certainly be an effective device, but I wanted to moderate it with appropriate transitions provided by the program. The dynamic approach also gives new meaning to the process of rereading, since a text section is often different upon two successive perusals.