This entry was drafted at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, during the Winter 2013-14 term, as part of the author's PhD in "Materialities of Literature" funded by The Foundation of Science and Technology (FCT).
Built as an “internal decision-making system”, Fest (2012) is a work of hypertext fiction about a girl who reaches a decision point: should she jump off a cliff into the ocean or take a step back and return to her family? In order to answer this question, Gabriel Helfenstein, the author of this piece, has replaced his authority and judgement skills with a business software program. Like a Decision Support System (DSS) which assists managers to make informed choices, Fest is designed to help the reader solve this dilemma. The system depends on two entities: “the-one-who-proposes” and “the-one-who-decides”. During their conversation, Fest is described as follows: “mission « dilemma nr. 20.1056.089, Unit-A: young girl and a cliff, jump or not to jump. Level of difficulty: medium”. Helfenstein has created a non-linear and self-reflexive narrative comprised of a linking mechanism that connects various lexias. This textual machinery must be activated by the reader. Fest is a literary game of chance. We may throw the dice but the combinatorial system already has an answer.
Although the girl must choose between two outcomes (live or die), the text is presented to the reader as a rechargeable machine of potential paths: “What are the risks? What are the possibilities?”, asks the narrator. As soon as we activate the system, we find a rhizomatic text with feeble and flickering branches which become irrigated when the reader clicks on nodes or decision points. The bifurcated story of the girl enframes the internal conflict (and multilinear narrative) of a man in a night club. Fest is generated from several perspectives on this same event, which turns this piece into a recombinant narrative reminiscent of oulipian literary works such as Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de Style (1947). This work comprises 99 different retellings of the same event. For instance, in "Precision", Queneau gives a detailed description of an event: “In a bus of the S-line, 10 metres long, 3 wide, 6 high, at 3 km. 600m. from its starting point, loaded with 48 people, at 12.17 p.m., a person of the masculine sex aged 27 years 3 months and 8 days, a 1m. 72cm. tall and weighing 65kg. and wearing a hat 35cm. in height round the crown of which was a ribbon 60cm long..." (Queneau, 2009: 37). As for "Prognostication” Queneau opts for a different, prophetic style. However, something is missing: "When midday strikes you will be on the rear platform of a bus which will be crammed full of passengers among whom you will notice a ridiculous juvenile; skeleton-like neck and no ribbon on his felt hat." (29). The reader also finds two contradictory descriptions of the same event in Fest. At a certain moment, Helfenstein uses slang: “On the dance floor, you meet a guy who is your perfect double – strangely, he has a cock tattooed with a felt-tip pen on his forehead.” In the following description, Helfenstein describes the same event in an entirely different style. There is also something missing: “On the dance floor, you meet a man. You resemble each other like two water drops – except that he does not have a tattoo on his forehead.” A hypertextual dialogue between both works can be overheard. In the work written by Queneau the hat may ("Precision") or may not ("Prognostication") have a ribbon on it. The same happens in Fest with the felt-tip tattoo on the forehead. Furthermore, the word "felt" (or the French word "feutre") is used by Queneau and Helfenstein, which makes the link between their works even more visible.
The representation of the text as a system which needs to be calibrated by the reader adds a ludic and a metafictional tone to the work. Fest depicts itself as a machine being operated by the reader. In fact, we are invited to recharge it: “Vous devez recharger la pyramide”. This icon suggests that the reader will meet a story as described by Gustav Freytag’s pyramid. Freytag divided the plot structure of drama into five parts: exposition (in this part the situation, the protagonist and all the other characters are introduced); rising action (a conflict is introduced and the protagonist starts working towards a goal); climax (the protagonist faces the antagonist); falling action (characters resolve the conflict); and resolution (all is revealed). At the top of Freytag’s pyramid is the climax of the story. In Fest, the climax is represented by a fully charged pyramid. When this happens, the decision system has made its choice.
The reader might select which path to follow but the decision system has the last word. The text continuously reminds us that we don’t have any control over the characters’ fate (or over the textual system). This is why the narrator claims: “You dance, you don’t have a choice”. In this sense, Fest seems to parody classic hypertext fictions which were expected to empower the reader through the exploration and configuration of the text. Furthermore, Fest follows the same aesthetics of frustration which characterizes these works. Afternoon, a story (1990), for instance, is a work about a man who witnessed a car crash that might or might not have involved his family. The anxiety and reluctance of the main character are mirrored by the reader’s wandering and inability to find a definite answer. The reader’s expectations - or the desire to find order and closure - are continuously undermined by the fragmented and enigmatic narrative. However, the reader will not be left swimming in an immense sea of possibilities indefinitely. Fest demands a single outcome: will the girl survive?
In “Choose your own adventure” games or stories, as well as in interactive fictions such as Whom the telling changed (2005) by Aaron A. Reed, the narrator refers to the reader as “you”. This entity invites the reader to make choices in order to move forward in the game. In Fest, the voice that addresses the reader at every step of the way fits the description of the “negotiator” described by Markku Eskelinen. Eskelinen has noted that in some ergodic texts there seems to be, not a narrator, but an ergodic voice or negotiator (Eskelinen, 2012: 204). This voice works as an intermediary between the reader and the fictional world. The negotiator might be an ally sharing precious information with the reader or, on the contrary, might become an opponent who thwarts the reader’s efforts to win the game. In Fest, the negotiator is constantly shuffling the cards. This entity does not only provide clues to help the reader but also creates new variables.
Fest is a story within a story which reminds us of the self-referential world of Calvino’s If on a winter's night a traveller (1979). We are addressed by the negotiator which informs us of every action taken by the male protagonist. It so happens that we are the man in the night club. The reader, normally located on an extradiegetic level, is now a character in Fest. This transgression produces a metaleptic twist in that we are reading about our own actions in the fictional world. Our sensory impressions are transmitted by the negotiator: “Suddenly, you sense a growing uneasiness. The air in your lungs becomes rarefied – your vision becomes blurred. The world vibrates. Sounds are nothing more than entangled lines that form incomprehensible multicolored motifs. Someone vomits at the end of the room”. The voice communicates through black windows with white luminescent words, flashlights which allow us to see along the forking paths. These words are like creatures emerging from the abyss ahead of the girl, giving directions or dragging us into the depths of the sea. We are unknowingly plunging into the recesses of the girl’s mind.
CALVINO, Italo (1998). If on a winter’s night a traveller (Weaver, W. transl.). London: Vintage.
ESKELINEN, Markku (2012). Cybertext Poetics: The Critical Landscape of New Media Literary Theory. New York: Continuum International Publishing.
JOYCE, Michael (1989). Afternoon, a story. Boston, MA: Eastgate Systems.
QUENEAU, Raymond (2009). Exercises in style. (Wright, B. transl.). New York: New Directions.
REED, Aaron A. (2005). Whom The Telling Changed, in Electronic Literature Collection, vol. 1, accessed February 2014 at: http://collection.eliterature.org/1/works/reed__whom_the_telling_changed....