Do you know what happens to you when a Chevy Nova with a 280 engine hits you going 75 miles an hour?
You’ll probably die, but then again, isn’t that the one certainty in life? This melancholy discussion of death is imagined in J. Yellowlees Douglas’ hypertext narrative titled “I Have Said Nothing.” Tracing a plot surrounding two fatal car crashes, the text encourages readers to navigate through loss, death and media. Based on Douglas’ own experiences, the narrative itself is a harrowing and almost wry text, replete with allusions to films like Psycho and The Wild Bunch. Were it reduced to its naked language, every page compiled into one short-story length piece, it would become obvious that “I Have Said Nothing” encourages chaotic retrospective thought and reflection, clearly drawn from the author’s own involvement.
But “I Have Said Nothing” is much more than just its plot and its prose. Published originally in 1994 on Storyspace, a software program that enables its users to string narrative lines together through hypertext links, the plot exclusively progresses with the help of active participation of its readers. As with any hypertext fiction, choice is the driving force behind this project, relying on a point-and-click system that weaves the reader in and out of text to produce a somewhat linear plot that might mirror text that appears on a webpage or in a book. The text’s original system (described in a Nota Bene titled “Are We Reading Yet: A Few Suggestions for Navigation,” available through the current version) was “designed to enable readers to navigate through the narrative using a variety of strategies: by using the cognitive map, selecting hot words in the text, relying on narrative defaults (the hypertext equivalent of print's narrative line), or viewing a menu of available paths.” Dene Grigar includes screenshots of the original program here, in a short essay that explores the themes of the text, and you can watch a live traversal of it from 2017 here. It’s visually complex and multi-faceted, a labyrinthian publishing built through Storyspace.
This original version is unable to be replicated due to the impossibility of recreating “the system of guardfield conditions that enabled readers to see as options only those paths which took them to destinations that had some meaning, some relevance due to where they'd already been.” An open-access version accessible today through Norton’s Anthology of Postmodern American Fiction (1997) is an abridged version of its original, and while its functionality offers readers the agency to point and click, choose, back-track, and re-choose, much of the original structure of “I Have Said Nothing” is absent. The plethora of navigation options is reduced simply to links usually duplicating the beginning of a sentence on the next page, almost giving a sort of sneak-peek. Clicking on the link “We could say,” for example, opens onto a page with “We could say” centred on the pink background, followed by the rest of the text for that link, trailing the reader’s past choice into their present options. There are some exceptions to this, but the overall structure invites readers into a discourse, a back-and-forth that struggles with the responsibility of the reader to unravel the deaths to which they are witness. This version’s HTML is visually simplistic, with each new page having one solid colour backdrop with the text appearing immediately, without delay or special effects. Links to continue the narrative are bulleted and left-aligned, creating a very easy and navigable site that seems to focus more on the narrative text than it does on the structure. There are also small images (a road, a cloverleaf Interchange icon, a double helix, and binoculars) that accompany (and usually precede) the link to which it directly relates; these images act as indicators to the link’s original performance (as stated in the NB), a nod to its previous state.
While the original interactive nature is still present in today’s version, the differences between the two raise concern over the topic of preservation and advancement of interactive fiction. In the 1990s, “I Have Said Nothing” lived on floppy disks; now, there are only fractured bones and nodes from its original body. Nick Monfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin discuss the proactive action that must be taken on the part of e-lit authors due to the tendency of machine technology advancing quickly through upgrades in their open-access document Acid-Free Bits. They say, “For electronic literature to be readable, its mechanisms must continue to operate or must be replaced, since changes in the context of computing will complicate access to important works of literature on the computer.” In the case of “I Have Said Nothing,” its original programming, meant to work on a Mac, is only functional on the machines for which it was originally created, meaning that it must be modified in order to continue existing in its original form. Even the version accessible today, which was made in 1997, is an almost simplistic media that hasn’t navigated past its early technological roots. To take the idea of adapting to preserve one step further, Stuart Moulthrop states that, “Because it is no longer book-bounded, hypertextual discourse may be modified at will as reader/writers forge new links within and among documents.” This sort of modification of media and specifically electronic literature is required to not only preserve aging e-lit as systems modernize, but it also allows infinite growth and mutation possibility. To what degree is a hypertext work “finished,” to what degree is a story complete, and to what degree can electronic literature be consistently manipulated in a way that written, physical text cannot? Electronic literature exists in a system that allows for alteration and deviance from its initial state. Hypertext and works like “I Have Said Nothing” have the potential to consistently evolve; should they?
Note: Multiple attempts at navigating the narrative are warranted because of the sort of interweaving of options and links that occur. Being presented with several options at any given point means that there are several different outcomes, and in some traversals the same pages may be followed for a few pages before breaking off into different nodes, dependent on the reader’s decisions. And, in personal experience, it always ends the same way: on a white page with “The End” scrawled in the centre and red text denoting “That’s all she wrote,” with the option to circle back to the introductory options and try again. The text can be imagined as different bus routes: they start at the same place, travel through different neighbourhoods, hit most of the same major park and rides, and end up at the same destination or at least close to it.
That’s all she wrote.
This entry was composed as a part of Dani Spinosa's course, ENGL4309H: Digital Adventures in English: Engaging With the Digital Humanities, at Trent University in March 2021.
Douglas, J. Yellowlees. "I Have Said Nothing." Postmodern American Fiction. Ed. Paula Geyh, Fred G. Leeborn, and Andrew Levy. NY, NY: W.W. Norton, 1997. http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/pmaf/hypertext/ihsn/i_have_said_....
Grigar, Dene. “Critical Essay about J. Yellowlees Douglas' ‘I Have Said Nothing.’” Rebooting Electronic Literature: Documenting Pre-Web Born Digital Media, 6 June 2018, scalar.usc.edu/works/rebooting-electronic-literature/critical-essays-about-jane-yellowlees-douglas-i-have-said-nothing?path=jane-yellowlees-douglas-i-have-said-nothing.
Monfort, Nick, and Noah Wardrip-fruin. Acid-Free Bits, The Electronic Literature Organization, 14 June 2004, https://eliterature.org/pad/afb.html.
Moulthrop, Stuart. "You Say You Want a Revolution? Hypertext and the Laws of Media." Postmodern Culture, vol. 1 no. 3, 1991. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/pmc.1991.0019.