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10/22/2004

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Richard

I'm wondering, when you first read Hopscotch, did you read it straight through, or did you jump around according to the instructions? Or did you not try the jumping around until your re-reading? I just picked up a copy of this book and am curious how best to approach it...

Dan Green

I read it straight through. The second time I "jumped around" a little more but essentially kept going from front to back.

Joe O

I read "Hopscotch" both ways. There is a core list of chapters that remain in order in both ways to read the novel. The core sequence of chapters contains most of the narrative. Other chapters are more peripheral. To me, the experience of reading the novel is very similar both ways.

As a side note, finding a core sequence from large strings of symbols is a computational problem with great importance for biological sequences. It is part of how they determined the genome. The core sequence for DNA strings are largely the portions of the DNA that code for proteins. You could use a baby version of a biological sequencing algorithm to find the core narrative sequence of Hopscotch.

The existance of the core narrative sequence in Hopscotch avoids the plot contraints that multiple sequence or out-of-sequence narratives would require. The movie Memento is a good example of the plot constaints caused by a true out-of-sequence narrative.

"Pale Fire" is closer to Memento in that it had to be carefully plotted so that the narrative could be given in sequence in the footnotes to the poem. Pretty much any narrative could be "postmodernized" using the techniques of Hopscotch. That said, it still is worth reading twice.

Ray Davis

I read "Hopscotch" straight through both times myself, jumping around a bit more the second time -- pretty much as one reads any other book constructed for re-readers. That is, a book which gained texture and structural depth by freeing the progress of understanding from the strict progress of pages. "Ulysses" would be the canonical example, in which you can't possibly understand the import of a thought or action seemingly tossed away in one line without connecting it to a thought or action seemingly tossed away a hundred pages before or after.

The only difference in "Hopscotch" is that the incidents aren't sorted by chronology. (Even here, "Ulysses" cheats through memory and citation, which is how the omniscient-if-arbitrary speaker of "Ithaca" and freely roaming consciousness of "Penelope" manage to clear up so many plot points -- rather like the detective assembling all the suspects in a room at the end.) But that oddly seemed to make the experience simpler for me -- less challenging, with less feeling of lifelike struggle for meaning.

The disappointing slackness, simplicity, and stereotyping of all the hypertext fiction I've read seemed further evidence that, although personal experience and research both prove that the notion of straightahead progressive narrative is nonsense, something *is* gained by the tension between that pretense and the scattered, jumping way in which we actually experience narrative art.

To briefly summarize my view of our disagreement: Yes, "Pale Fire" and "Hopscotch" are certainly experiments. (And I like them both.) But John Barth is generic. Similarly, "Lord of the Rings" was an experiment; Robert Jordan is generic. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" was an experiment; Philo Vance is generic. Sure, Barth's genre is called "experimental fiction", but that carries about as much meaning as "science" when someone calls a "Star Wars" novelization "science fiction."

Barth's genre is one that we both read more than most people do. You're more of a fan, though. And just as a science fiction fan might be more inclined to believe the generic rhetoric of "sense of wonder," and a high fantasy that of "Jungian mythic types," you're more likely to valorize the rhetoric of experimental fiction than I am. But really, I think we can both agree that the books themselves are the most important things.

Dan Green

Ray: I may put a future post arguing that Barth is less "generic" than you would have him. A preview: You really don't think that Lost in the Funhouse is at least as experimental--in the "pure" sense--as Pale Fire?

Ray Davis

It's very good of you to let me use up so much space here! Please just say the word and I'll take these long responses back to my own parlour....

In the meanwhile:

I really don't think "experimental" *has* a "pure" sense.

You've accurately listed some of the generic trappings of "experimental fiction": a securely established post-War genre aimed at slightly higher brows than most other current fictional genres. And a fan of those generic trappings might note their appearance in works written long before the genre became so securely established, and use "Tristram Shandy" as an example of "experimental fiction", just as science fiction fans might attempt to use "Gulliver's Travels" or "Frankenstein", or romance fans might attempt to use "Jane Eyre", or fantasy fans might attempt to use the "Odyssey" (honestly, I've heard them!) to claim greater legitimacy for their own favorite genres. And yes, "Lost in the Funhouse" and "LETTERS" deploy those trappings like good little generic soldiers.

But experimentation *itself* (in the common sense of the word, rather than its generic sense) is not a spice that can formulated and applied with equal impact over time. A scientific experiment is experimental only within a scientific context: measuring acceleration due to gravity is no longer "experimental" in any meaningful way. Similarly, the experimental force of a fiction depends strictly on readerly or writerly context. The publishing history and readership for "Lost in the Funhouse" and "LETTERS" prove them both to be considerably less experimental than, say, "How to Write" or "Watt" or "Dhalgren".

As a matter of personal taste, I find a great deal (not all, by any means) of the post-War experimental fiction genre thin compared to what it claims as its precursors. (I also find most science fiction thin, and most thrillers thin, and so on.) As a matter of personal taste, you like more of it. (And other of our reading peers like more science fiction, or more thrillers, or so on.)

God forbid we should try to argue anyone out of their personal tastes! Our highest task as critics is rather to argue others into our own. And so I look forward to your piece on "Lost in the Funhouse": I would like to learn a way to gain back my initial pleasure in Barth. But I don't expect that listing the "playful" "self-aware" "metafictional" traits that establish its secure generic place will be what does it.

Dan Green

Again, if what you mean to say is that there's nothing new under the sun, I can't disagree with you. But as I said in my own previous post on this topic, what I'm pursuing is a pragmatic definition that has to be adjusted to the circumstances of a given time and place. Pale Fire doesn't seem as experimental now as it did in the context in which Nabokov published it. Etc. More later.

Ray Davis

No, I find new things under the sun every week, thank goodness. It's just that we don't find them exclusively labeled "experimental fiction in the tradition of...."

Trying to describe what *does* make them new is a quarry worth a lifetime of pursuit or mining. You do it well -- which is why, as I say, I look forward to your treatment of Barth.

Mr. Waggish

(Sorry I'm late to this party; this is a great topic.)

For me, Barth's novelty was not in being generic, but in providing such an attractive academic packaging for his work. Things like Tristram Shandy and Pale Fire use narrative trickery to an end that doesn't loop back on the trappings themselves. Barth's subject, at least from Funhouse onward, is the theory of narrative itself, and so he ready-bakes the theory into the work itself. It's not so much generic as exemplary.

(There's a great Stanislaw Lem story, "Gigamesh," about an author who's written a Joycean extravaganza but has been courteous enough to include a huge exegesis of the work itself as part of the book.)

Authors like B.S. Johnson and Rudolph Wurlitzer wrote chaotically experimental books around the same time that have not endured (not around these parts, anyway), imo precisely because they did not provide any sort of neat context, as Barth did. And Donald Barthelme was a halfway point: not the theoretician that Barth is, but willing to couch his experiments in fairytales and New Yorker tropes.

I've always thought that the impoverishment of post-60's experimental English fiction came with Robert Coover, and his tired, bawdy excursions into metatextuality. Coover jumped on the hypertext bandwagon as well, with little success. Which has made me hesitant to condemn hypertext's trappings until some more talented practitioners come along and also fail to make anything of it.

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