Lance Olsen reviews hypertext writing, past and present, by Robert Arellano.
Accretive Dreams, Junk Narrativity, & Orphaned Excess in Moderation
Accretive Dreams, Junk Narrativity, & Orphaned Excess in Moderation
When asked that always predictable if always alarming question about where he uncovered his ideas, Donald Barthelme replied that for him fiction was “a process of accretion. Barnacles on a wreck or rock. I’d rather have a wreck than a ship that sails. Things attach themselves to wrecks”(Kennedy 119). A similar process, I’m tempted to say, informs the architectonics of Robert Arellano’s first novel, the hypermedial Sunshine ‘69, which appeared on the Web in 1969’s numerically mirror-year, 1996, under Arellano’s cyber-tag, Bobby Rabyd. Sunshine ‘69 is a sort of manic retro-accretion that accumulates around the last half-dozen months of the Sixties, and, in a sense, culminates in the beating death of an eighteen-year-old black man, Meredith Hunter, at the hands of the Hell’s Angels during the December 6 Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway. Arellano’s hyperfiction combines music clips, maps of the San Francisco area, Peter-Max-ish graphics, story fragments focusing primarily on nine characters (including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Timothy Leary, and Lucifer himself), catalogues of what those characters’ pockets contain, and a guest book where readers can add their own narraticules about their Sixties experiences - real, imagined, or hallucinated.
Unfortunately, those readerly narraticules turn out to be pretty underwhelming - frequently even inane - and their inclusion forms one of those aesthetic gestures more interesting in the early days of digital theory than in contemporary hypermedial practice. Still, Sunshine ‘69 functions in part as the textual manifestation of the by-now conventional contention among hypertext apologists and writers, a variation of which Arellano posted on his Rabyd Bunch website, that “internet storytelling is equivalent to the oral tradition, where every reader is an author.” Consequently, each reader finds him or herself traveling through “an ever-changing environment of nonlinear text adventures that you navigate like an explorer over uncharted terrain - in the process leaving footsteps for fellow travelers.” More interesting, Sunshine ‘69 also functions as a wacked-out fiction of anti-nostalgia that explores the pop-cultural shadow-side of the August 1969 love-in at Woodstock. And, perhaps more interesting yet, it thereby functions as a troubling of history itself: how we barnaclize the wreck of the past with our own micro-narratological expositions and explications; how historicity is by its very wrecked nature infused with a profound sense of perspectivism and an inescapable sense of fictive constructedness.
Given his energetic exploration of hypermedia and their creative potential in Sunshine ‘69, what’s initially surprising about Arellano’s second novel, madcap Fast Eddie, King of the Bees, is that it is a tightly structured print book. If Sunshine ‘69 evinces a fairly large cast of fairly flat characters, Fast Eddie - as its title indicates - centers on one well-focused protagonist and a handful of secondary foils. If Sunshine ‘69 embraces the kind of rushed, hyperventilated prose typical of many Web-based fictions that privilege design over language, every one of Fast Eddie’s sprightly sentences is crafted with impressive care. If Sunshine ‘69 inhabits and interrogates a recognizable if dystopic past, Fast Eddie inhabits and interrogates a recognizable if dystopic near-future - a grunged-out Boston referred to by its denizens as The Beast, where, in the wake of The Great Devaluation, the justice system has imploded, the roads have crumbled, and only the wealthiest one-percent of the population can afford to live in safe-zone compounds. If Sunshine ‘69 is quintessentially nonlinear and open, with all such a structural strategy implies about the constitution of selfhood and world, Fast Eddie is the epitome of linearity. In fact, it looks for its organizational models not in cutting-edge digital possibility spaces, but in the nineteenth-century tradition of the foundling novel, the eighteenth-century tradition of the narrative of education, and the seventeenth-century tradition of the picaresque tale. Even Marek Bennett’s meticulous, dense sketches that preface each chapter keep easier company with those found in a Dickens novel than those found in many hip Web-based productions.
At the center of Arellano’s second novel stands Eddie, the golden-tongued, good-hearted, big-footed, half-blind orphan who, from the day he comes to consciousness, longs to know the identity of his real parents. Raised in a gang of margin-dwellers led by a street performer, hustler, and experiential guru named Shep, Eddie makes a living first as a human pretzel and then as a pickpocket. When he finally stashes away enough cash to approach a less-than-savory specialist in “Filial Identification,” he is surprised to see just how easily the F.I. specialist locates his parents in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey. Eddie almost immediately and certainly naïvely gives up his gritty existence for an absurdly tidy suburban one right out of some sappy sitcom starring a creepily upper-middle-class couple name Pauly and Merry (as in, yes, Christmas, not the Virgin). Minutes after landing on their doorstep, however, Eddie commences to find this new burbiverse constrictive, dull, and nearly insentient, and starts to suspect that his real parents quite possibly are not his real parents at all. Before long, he flees, and, in a series of protean plot shifts, becomes a bus driver, falls briefly into an underworld run by a murderous ex-hippie transvestite hacker, and, eventually, descends into Dig City, the subterranean, countercultural cosmos of The Beast that siphons resources from the dominant culture above and is populated by “the orphaned race” dedicated, as Dig City’s second-in-command explains to Eddie, to rejecting
the surveillance and computer networks [which those running the Beast] use to scan every action of the defeated, yea-saying, conformity-bent society upstairs. It’s our right to be indistinguishable, and so we hold the tunnels.
Here, Eddie meets and falls in love with Jocy, the sexy middle-aged widow of Dig City’s schlemieloid head honcho. In keeping with the conventions of classic comedy, he marries and settles down, hence becoming “king” of the “bees,” or Beetles, Dig City’s underground residents. Accordingly, Eddie replaces one sort of family plexus with another, and then another, and penultimately finds his place as a hero of the (literal) underclass. Until, that is, a final series of plot complications ensue, once more deferring Eddie’s arrival at knowledge concerning his past, his place in the world, and his authentic identity.
It is these notions of deferral, place (or placelessness), and authenticity that begin to separate Fast Eddie from its literary progenitors, and, at least in certain ways, to reconnect its vision to that evinced in Sunshine ‘69. As I suggested above, Fast Eddie is a literary child of the foundling novel, the narrative of education, and the picaresque tale. But it is also a troubling of each of these genres. After all, in Arellano’s fictional case, the foundling never meets his “real” parents. His education amounts to an education into the limits of education - an education, as it were, into the deferral of origin and fundamental knowledge. And the relentless forward momentum of the picaresque tale leads (at the risk of giving away too much of Arellano’s novelistic endgame) to cataclysm rather than revelation. Moreover, these genres are contaminated by a range of satiric, hyperbolized science fiction conceits that reside in another narratological precinct altogether, and which serve to further disconcert any attempt at a conventional reading experience - particularly since on occasion these conceits drop out of the novel, as if wholly forgotten, for pages at a time.
Fast Eddie, then, doesn’t so much amount to a mimic of its models as it does a self-conscious appropriation, parody, and reconfiguration (or, better, disfiguration) of them. If the seventeenth-century picaresque tale and the eighteenth-century narrative of education were busy with coincidence and cartoonish characters and situations, for example, Fast Eddie pushes coincidence and cartoon right over the top of traditional novelistic credibility. At one point, in order to escape an evil cybertropic drug dealer who is threatening Eddie from his (the drug dealer’s) car, our protagonist ends up swinging down on a high-tension cable from a utility pole, Tarzan-like, and attaching said cable to the malefactor’s hood ornament so that the malefactor can’t exit his vehicle. Elsewhere, the plot rushes so quickly past him that poor Eddie can’t quite seem to remember whether or not he has actually ever had time to make love to his sexy wife, although it’s clear they’re currently raising four children between them. Such outlandish operations draw attention to themselves as narrative devices, of course, and hence draw attention to the narrative itself as artifice.
Arellano magnifies this announcement of artifice by several powers by peppering Fast Eddie with scores of loud allusions to and pickpocketings from myriad other literary and paraliterary texts. At one time or another, by way of brief illustration, he waves over the head of his orphaned protagonist: The Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, Don Quixote, Huck Finn, several Dickens novels, The Time Machine, Lolita, Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day,” lyrics by The Doors and various other rock’n’roll groups, Gurney Norman’s Divine Right’s Trip, John Barth’s diverse use and abuse of mythological narratives, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, and a healthy portion of Robert Coover’s work. In other words, Fast Eddie comes to take part in another tradition as well: namely, that of eco-fiction - not so much hyperfiction as hyper fiction that concerns itself with environmental maladies while accreting and recycling textual history into strange, appealing, wrecked brands of junk narrativity.
If Fast Eddie continually reminds us of its contrivance at a global stratum by punning with literary and paraliterary history, it does so at a local stratum by punning with language. The emphasis it places on a vivacious, sparkling diction harmonizes well with the projects of what I imagine were two of Arellano’s key teachers in the M.F.A. program at Brown University: Coover and John Hawkes. It wouldn’t be overstating the case to argue that Fast Eddie is in fact less about the future of Boston, the politics of power and class, the fears of adolescence, or even its protagonist’s uncomplicated character and existential meditations than it is about Arellano’s love of language. “Words are soul food,” says sage Shep, and clearly Arellano agrees. Listen to a pair of verbal clips chosen virtually at random from the novel. The first describes a sad moment in a bar, the second a simple moment of masturbation:
All sniffed over their snifters, sobbed into their bottles, and glugged in their mugs. There wasn’t a dry martini in the house.
The term in my cell accessed some of the hottest bottom sites on the Net, and I copped frequent quickies and pulled occasional all-nighters with good ol’ Mrs. Palmer, man’s other best friend, who lives at the end of Arm Street. Lending new pertinence to my private appreciation of the nickname Fast Eddie, I sublimated all the energies of pseudo-celibacy into that most favored game of solitaire.
Emphasis on such sonic and rhythmic play naturally raises language to the surface of Arellano’s text. More important, perhaps, when coupled with the other acts of pomo artifice I’ve already pointed out, it asks the reader to conceptualize the novel in the same terms we conceptualize its narrator - both Fast Eddie and Fast Eddie are, in a phrase, literary orphans, their origins and therefore their final meaning persistently and puckishly put off.
For Arellano, as for his protagonist, then, art and trespass are closely allied. Early on, Eddie comes to understand that “the criminal is an artist of disillusion.” Given the narrative logic of Fast Eddie and Sunshine ‘69, the inverse is also the case for Arellano: the artist is a criminal of disillusion - or, better, an anti-nostalgist whose goal is to generate a continual feeling in the reader of being off balance - always on the verge of something important, but never more. The reader, too, discovers him or herself in an interstitial state, unmoored, orphaned by author and text. If Arellano attempted to reach that goal in his hypermedial novel through an accretive dream of excess, he does so in this new, fun, funny, sure-footed act of junk narrativity through a conflicted credo that rhymes nicely with Eddie’s own: “Excess in moderation.”
Kennedy, Thomas E. Robert Coover: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.