Now it was the three of us driving to Seattle. Our book tour. We had seen an opportunity and we had made it ours. We had built a literature, crammed it into a van, and we were heading for the Rockies. ... Technological advances had cut out the middleman between writer and readers - in effect eliminating the whole publishing industry. We were a celebration of that. And we were in a van looking for a campground. - From what might (or might not) be the first page of The Unknown
I meet The Unknown at a local bar. There are three of them present, but there might be more elsewhere. They are strewn across the country like members of a mega-successful Rock act who can no longer bear to live in the same town with each other. However, The Unknown is not a Rock band. It's a novel.
Of course, The Unknown is not a novel in the traditional sense, but even still, it seems odd for me to refer to the authors of a novel collectively under its title. As far as I know, no one ever called Melville Moby Dick, but then again ...
Listening to Scott Rettberg, Dirk Stratton and William Gillespie talk about The Unknown is a curious phenomenon. Sometimes they refer to the novel in the third person: "The Unknown has been very, very good to us." Occasionally, almost as if by accident, they use the first person.
If you ask The Unknown what The Unknown is about, they'll throw it right back in your face. "You told me that you've been dipping into (The Unknown) occasionally. What do you imagine it's about?" asks Stratton, perhaps the tallest of The Unknown's authors. "How much has our quote-unquote message gotten to you at this point?"
It's an adventure novel, I say. It's an adventure novel about a book tour for a book that doesn't exist, and it has all kinds of ridiculous behavior, drug abuse and famous people who would probably be shocked and none too happy to find out that they are in the novel.
Jane picked up a phone and a butler appeared with a lid of grass.
Jane rolled a joint.
Ted said, "Better be Maui Wowie, Son, or you're in the shitter."
The butler said, "But Dad, all I could get was Jamaican."
Jane, sitting cross-legged on the deck in her steel-blue bikini, took a deep hit, and said, "It's good shit, Ted, it's real good."
After reading that last passage, you're probably thinking, "Where can I get my very own copy of The Unknown? Is it available in stores? Is it only available for a limited time for $19.95 on TV?" In fact, The Unknown has no price tag, just a Web address: www.soa.uc.edu/ user/unknown/trip.htm
Get on the Web. Go to The Unknown. You'll find a novel, probably unlike any you've read before. There is no beginning, no end and no particular arrangement in which it should be read. However, this type of novel - the hypertext novel - is not totally unfamiliar.
Stratton explains. "Hypertext is the fundamental way the World Wide Web works, where you have text and, within that text, you have highlighted words which will take you to another text. And all we have done is take that device of embedded words and the means to move about from text to text and written a novel using that structure."
Gillespie, who has traveled all the way from Champaign, Ill., for this gathering of The Unknown and who has brought his own tape recorder should I be so foolish as to misquote them, refines the hypertext definition even more.
"I think being multi-sequential is at the heart of the definition somewhere," he says, speaking directly into his own tape recorder, "a text that has no single order in which you want to read the parts, but as the reader you can navigate through it. That would include things like dictionaries, for example, where you look up a word and then look up another word, but you're not meant to read it straight through."
So if you're reading The Unknown and you're intrigued by linked words or phrases such as "I ain't dead," "plenty of love," "very frisky" or "your B. Dalton and your Waldenbooks," click away. You will find yourself navigating a completely unpredictable path. Though, according to Rettberg, there is always some logic to the links.
"To say that it's totally anarchic doesn't mean that the links themselves are random. The links all have some form of logic. But they're not always the same form of logic. Some of them are just purely referential. Sometime it's a joke, the equivalent to a pun. The interesting thing to me is that the link actually serves as a kind of new grammatical unit, a new poetic unit, and there are many different applications."
I have spent hours reading The Unknown. It's impossible to know how big it is, because I rarely run across the same page twice. But as much as I hate to read anything longer than a short e-mail or a box score on the Web, I don't mind reading The Unknown, mostly because it's fun. According to Stratton, that is The Unknown's ultimate goal.
"I always want to emphasize that, as far as I'm concerned, the primary value of The Unknown is that you'll get a good laugh now and then. It's entertainment. It's supposed to be funny. It's supposed to be silly. It's supposed to be irreverent. It's supposed to give you entertainment bang for the no-buck that you had to put into it. ... The bottom line is did you get some yucks?"
Although The Unknown is often played for laughs, and was, says Rettberg, initially a sleep-deprived, bourbon-fueled lark, the novel holds its own against anything in the growing genre of electronic literature.
"We were doing it as a joke and then, as it evolved, it became, at least to me, more interesting than the other writing projects I was working on," remembers Rettberg. "And I think also for William and Dirk. And so we kept working on it over long distances. But eventually we were able to build up a hypertext that was as substantial as anything else in the field up to that point.
"There are a few canonical pieces out there (Michael Joyce's afternoon, a story; Shelly Jackson's Patchwork Girl, Mark Amerika's Grammatron), but it's very much a canon being born. It's pretty wide open right now, which is exciting, especially compared to the sort of conventional literary atmosphere that is far from wide-open."
While The Unknown and other works of electronic literature aren't likely to replace the conventional book anytime soon, the publishing world is already preparing for the future. "There is a tremendous amount of capital flowing into the development of better reading devices." says Rettberg. "Microsoft is putting a ton of money in to this E-reader software, which will make LCD screens easier to read. The two big E-book companies were just bought out by a bigger media company that is trying to make a mass market electronic book device that will be more readable. These are things that are half in development, half already developed. It's there."
The Unknown began as a publicity stunt for an anthology of writing by Gillespie, Stratton and Rettberg, but so far no paper anthology has appeared. It seems that the electronic version has taken over, and any attempt to agree on the format for a conventional book leads to battles among the authors.
But maybe it's better that way. As Rettberg says, although they haven't really made any money from The Unknown, they've been able to control its destiny. They're yearning for entirely new publishing models. They're finding new spaces for writers to create.
As part of the University of Cincinnati's Ropes Lecture Series. William Gillespie, Scott Rettberg and Dirk Stratton will give a live interactive reading from the hypertext novel The Unknown, on March 1, at 3 p.m. in Room 53 in McMicken Hall. The event is free and open to the public.