Getting Lost in Narrative Virtuality


2001: A Space Odyssey, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968

by Will Luers

“Getting lost” in a work of fiction is a conventional expression that speaks to the immersive power of narrative. The reader (which here will include the viewer and the player) is so moved or transported by the drama, characters and unfolding terrain that she loses herself to the physical world and perhaps cannot hear the person directly in front of her. Another sense of getting lost in a text, described by Umberto Eco in Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, is a “digressing and lingering [that] helps to enclose readers with those time-woods from which they can escape only after the most strenuous efforts (and which they will want to get back into again)” (69). A degree of predictability (familiar narrative patterns and markers) is needed to follow a plot, but getting lost in a fiction also implies the distinct pleasure and suspense of traveling in unfamiliar territory. Getting lost, considered as a mostly positive reader experience, points to the desire for alterity, for immersion into the unknown. Marie-Laure Ryan writes in her revised edition of Narrative as Virtual Reality, that “immersion is the experience through which a fictional world acquires the presence of an autonomous, language-independent reality populated with live human beings.” (297) The paradox is that a reader, in order to find themselves “lost” in an immersive text, must be able to identify with a narrative world. Getting lost implies an oscillation between a space that is known, the reader’s growing familiarity with an emerging story world, and a space that is unknown as long as the story remains incomplete. A reader’s successful completion of a narrative text is a spatial and temporal understanding of its world and perhaps a virtual model of that world that can be retained in memory.

But what happens if the story remains incomplete for the reader? What if the model of the story never arrives? Even with a coherent narrative space for the user to explore, the affordances of much digital fiction (interaction, computation, random access) tend to make narration and narrative worlds less than solid. Narratives in playable and ergodic texts are processes that change according to programmed contingencies. Rather than propel the reader through predetermined events, such fluid fictions suggest themselves as terrains to be explored, dense with potential meanings and outcomes. In many works of electronic fiction (as well as modern and postmodern fiction) there is a fascination with the disappearance, ephemerality, dysfunctionality or even impossibility of narrative and narration. In Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story, the narrator cycles through unresolved and perhaps unresolvable memories. The disordered texts in Stuart Moulthrop’s Reagan’s Library suggest memory loss. In Mark Amerika’s Grammatron, Abe Golam creates a combinatory creature/machine made of a sprawling “hypertextual consciousness.” A narrative may have good reason to dissolve itself as narrative or question the truth of its own narration. It is no secret that narrative is a challenge in electronic fiction. From the author’s point of view, it is a challenge to retain the reader’s attention to a fictional world that is in a dynamic process of becoming. From the reader’s point of view, attention is a precious commodity and any effort with a text should unfold as a rewarding experience. My aim in this essay, is to explore how narrative and computational techniques can work together (not necessarily in harmony) to create narrative virtuality.

The word virtual is commonly used for something nearly, but not completely, described. In computing, the word implies the unreal nature of digital simulations. All stories are in this sense virtual. Stories are tellings that make simulations in the mind of the reader and assist in full, imaginative experiences. Countering this common view of the technological virtual as unreal or artificial, the older Bergsonian definition, as elaborated by Deleuze and Massumi, sees virtuality as a potential and an essential aspect of the real. In his essay “Envisioning the Virtual”, Brian Massumi draws on a familiar optical illusion, the Kanisza Triangle, to demonstrate the virtual as a dimension of the real.

In the Kanisza illusion, discrete shapes on the page are arranged in such a way as to make undeniably present the shape of a triangle that is not there. The triangle “cannot not be seen” and yet it remains a potential, an abstraction. The actual shapes are a “disjunctive plurality,” discrete and countable. The triangle is an emergent singularity that “pops-out” from the particular arrangement of visible shapes. Both the shapes and the triangle are equally real to perception, but in different modes. (57-58) Massumi describes this difference as a tension between the sensuous and the nonsensuous.

“…the tension between on the one hand the sensuous reality we associate with materiality, and on the other the nonsensuous reality of the abstract that sensuous reality envelops and by which, with equal immediacy, it is supervened.” (62)

This tension is not limited to man-made or naturally forming illusions out in the world. The perception of objects in space arises through “the cofunctioning of the separate senses.” Depth perception, for example, is a “nonsensuous rendering” that comes from reconciling the disparity of discrete sensuous images on two retinas.

A narrative, we understand from narratology, involves a story and a discourse. A tale and a telling of the tale. To use Massumi’s example of the virtual and actual, we might say that a story world is an emergent, virtual phenomenon arising out of the disjunctive plurality of the discourse. In a linear narrative, a virtual story space pops-out easily when the discourse respects the spatial and temporal continuities of embodied experience. Cinematic space is rendered through a grammar of spatially and temporally linked shots (continuity editing). Spatio-temporal unity in a novel is rendered through causal chains and embodied subjects at the level of the sentence. Interpreted through a sensuous interface, a nonsensuous (because it is absent) narrative space pops-out from the discrete signs of the text; an intimate conjunction of the text and the reader’s bodily experience, cognitive processes, skills, memories, imagination, cultural filters and preverbal understandings of the world. When spatial and temporal continuities are not as clearly delineated, narrative virtuality (the story-world) remains a potential. A reader of such a work may be engaged with narrativity as a process and force rather than as the representation of an autonomous world. Massumi’s approach to virtuality, as the nonsensuous result of a limited set of sensuous elements, becomes extremely useful in thinking about digital texts, especially those that weave narratives with dynamic non-linear processes.

Olia Lialina’s “My Boyfriend Came Back from the War” has a narrative virtuality that evokes the emotional toll of an unnamed war on a couple’s reunion. Clicking through the fragments of text or image does not so much branch through narrative possibilities, as activate a spatial montage with multiple views on a difficult moment. There is little logical order to the woman’s attempts at conversation. And yet, clicking any given fragment opens a mosaic of other fragments as if we were viewing clusters of time and thought unfold. What is unique about Lialina’s hypertext, is that she uses a minimalist cinematic language to establish a narrative space. There is an interior domestic setting (the window looking outside), there are characters in a developing tension (close up of the woman, profiles of the man), there is the passage of time (two views of the clock showing the hours that have passed), and here is an end (all frames go black). Does the work have a narrative? Can we talk about what actually happens in the narrative world? Does she love him? Does he love her? Do the couple marry? What happened in the war? We can discuss how war destroys intimacy or any other number of suggested themes. We can also discuss the work’s interface, its stark design, its fractal layout and how these produce emotional effects. But we do not have a hold on the world or its figures. The fascination for the reader is not in entering a fully realized virtual world with a virtual body. It is the failure of such immersion that produces a narrative potentiality, a space that is generative.

Ryan formulates three levels of mediation in narrative texts. Two levels are found in traditional texts: the text as written or “engineered” by an author and the text as mentally constructed by the reader. The third level, found particularly in digital works, is the text as presented or displayed to the reader. (713) We can call this third level the interface, the “disjunctive plurality” from which the singular story world emerges. The authored/engineered text and the text experienced by the reader are equally virtual. Though these levels are always intertwined in any reading, they are useful in the analysis of texts. To orient these distinct levels towards the practice of authoring narrative texts, we can consider them as fields of exploration made available to the reader: 1) the projected or imaginary narrative space as delivered by the narration, 2) the visual surface of interaction that reveals and conceals this narrative space and 3) the cognitive space of the reader’s imaginative engagement, the many ways a reader fills in gaps and personalizes a text’s meaning. In a conventional narrative text, the reader’s cognitive space of engagement is identified with the emerging narrative space. Getting lost in a conventional novel comes about when the words disappear and the story space becomes immersive, but this assumes certain codes in the narrative that make for a smooth delivery. By contrast, modern and postmodern works of literature and film complicate the reader’s access to narrative space, either by limiting immersive possibilities or by using techniques to activate mental activity outside or parallel to the narrative space.

We don’t have a word to properly describe the cognitive space of the reader, the way a text triggers personal trails of thought and imaginary possibilities of an emerging fiction. In Terminal Identity, Scott Bukatman compares the de-narrativized spaces in postmodern literature and author Samuel Delany’s notion of “paraspace,” a term referring to “a science fictional space that exists parallel to the normal space of the diegesis- a rhetorically heightened ‘other realm.’” (157) The emblematic use of paraspace is at the end of Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey, where astronaut Bowman (and we the viewers) experience a loss of narrative and spatio-temporal coherence as he/we enter an alien world. “The intensification of this paraspatial sequence performs an ontological deconstruction within the diegesis as well as for the film viewer.” (177) In science fiction movies and novels, many of these paraspatial techniques draw on avant-garde practices (abstraction, rapid montage, concrete poetry or fragmentary prose) to introduce an unknowable realm within the emerging known of the narrative world. The notion of a space parallel to that of the narrative space and yet within the diegesis; that introduces processes disruptive to coherent narration and yet has a narrative purpose, seems to get at the complexity of narrative virtuality in digital texts.

If electronic literature remains tied to, as Ryan argues, Roland Barthes notion of a plural text – “[a] galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds” (from S/Z in Ryan (3587) – this heritage extends well beyond modernism and postmodernism. Electronic literature takes its expressive techniques from an established history of works of art and literature that make wide open spaces for readers. There is a long list of such influences, but one work in particular displays its techniques with such a direct power, that it is worth examining in light of digital texts. In works of art, the tension between the sensuous and emergent nonsensuous is created through visual techniques. “Everything about the virtual is a question of technique.” (Massumi, 63) Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1498-1510) is structured as a book with a cover that shows the dull-gray earth just before Biblical creation. The panels open to reveal a spectacularly colorful triptych with an apparent linear progression.

As is typical with Renaissance painting, time is made spatial. The left panel begins the story of creation, the middle panel continues the story in the daylight of the erotic garden and the right panel depicts an end in a night of torture and dismemberment. A narrative anchor is the comparatively larger-sized figures of God, Adam and Eve with their appropriate iconography in the left panel. From there the coherence of narrative stops, figuration proliferates as if creation was a force beyond all language. Each creature in the garden of the first panel is a singularity, rarely in a causal chain extending beyond its immediate surrounding. Despite the overall unity and expected narrative entry point, what is clear to the viewer almost immediately is that the painting is a vast network. Visual motifs (birds, berries, bubbles, naked humans) link a multiplicity of micro-narratives. The eye wanders restlessly, seeking patterns in the seemingly endless proliferation of unknowns. Although there are recognizable allegories, figures and motifs (Biblical and Classical), there is an excess of signs that precludes any direct or dominant path. The painting depicts noise, particularly human noise. For the reader/viewer, the experience is both a delight and a frustration. In his insightful essay about Bosch’s most enigmatic work, Michel de Certeau writes:

“The painting becomes progressively more opaque as the prolific epiphany of its forms and colors becomes more detailed. The former hides itself in displaying the latter. The painting organizes, aesthetically, a loss of meaning” (49)

What are the techniques of this 16th century dispersed, networked narrative that are familiar to the composition of today’s digital narratives? The repetition of creatures, gestures and objects create the conditions for networked or hyper-attentive reading. The abstraction of enigmatic gestures and symbols in tension with figuration. An absence of clear causal chains despite the narrative frame. A multiplicity of adjacent/nested, though causally unconnected, micro-narratives. The use of opacity through unknown and unknowable gestures and tableaus that engage thought and speculation. The depiction of noise in which an expected message is lost to or obscured by other simultaneous messages. This list of observed qualities, the organizing principles in Bosch’s painting, induces a process of search; the search for an answer to an elusive riddle: what happened or what happens to God’s creation? It is possible, though highly unlikely, that the key to the painting’s riddle will be found by scholars. But this possibility of a cohesive and meaningful narrative space does not take away the multivalent and distributed nature of the painting’s form. The reader must grapple, themselves, with all of the ambiguities, the horrors and the delights of creation, displayed simultaneously on the canvas.

Paradoxically, the above list of non-narrative attributes can be found in many narrative texts and have become techniques for disrupting the reader’s narrative comprehension and perhaps inducing other mental processes. These qualities are also connected with principles of computation and are found in many examples of non-narrative electronic literature. Nick Montfort’s computational poem Taroko Gorge (and its remix by countless others), is a collective celebration of repetition (looped procedures), abstraction(variables), multiplicity (random variation), absence (constrained data sets) and noise (an orchestrated nonsense). The work is conceptual or nonsensuous in demonstrating the inherent combinatorics of language, and direct in its sensuous depiction of language as a cascading fall.

Many works of digital fiction are what German Duarte calls fractal narratives. The simulation of embodied narrative space has traditionally drawn on Euclidian geometry (Renaissance perspective, for example) to depict single points in space and time. Duarte argues that new kinds of non-Euclidian spaces are made available through cinema and digital technology. Cinematic and hypertextual spaces are multidimensional and recursive because they link discrete points in space and time into a virtual Whole that is infinite, indivisible and in a state of becoming. (XI-XV) A narrative is a constraint– a limitation that can open limitless spaces for contemplation. Narratives that are presented as processes rather than as models or simulations, however, are particularly suited to conceptual processes that the computer makes available to authors of digital fiction. As an example of a fractal digital narrative, I draw on my collaboration with Hazel Smith and Roger Dean: novelling. A recombinant fiction, novelling aims to be “about” readers reading a novel. The narrative is designed as an algorithmic process rather than a fixed, autonomous space for immersion. The surface of the work randomly orders and spatially arranges fragments of image, text and sound in 6-minute cycles. A spatial montage made of short video loops shows four characters in real settings overflowing with contingent details. The characters, immersed in their isolated life worlds, appear to be transported elsewhere by what they are reading. They stare at book pages and screens, into space and out of windows. By looking off-screen (out of frame) their point-of-view directs the viewer’s attention to other areas of the larger screen–other video frames, text fragments or geometric shapes. The text fragments of a virtual (potential) novel point to other fictional characters in acts of reading, observation and interpretation of the world; a fractal narrative space that emphasizes networks of relation rather than immersion. In sound, text, video, computation and design, the work uses techniques of repetitionabstractionmultiplicityabsenceopacity and noise to depict and enact the liminality of reading and authoring fiction.

Ryan asks: “Why, in the end, is digital art so infatuated with dysfunctionality?” (3003) In digital fictions that are open, opaque, chaotic, digressive, cyclical or multilinear, “narrative” can be understood as a process. There is something deep in our brains that understands networks and nonlinear systems; that understands narrative as a necessary construct, but not the complete picture of reality. We know this from experience. The day begins and ends, we are born and we will die. But the stuff in the middle is a “disjunctive plurality,”–dense, multilinear, recursive, fractal and networked clusters of knowns and unknowns. Fiction can bring the reader closer to this thickening of experience and also make evident the fixed narratives we sometimes falsely conjure for ourselves to makes sense of chaotic flux. If every reading is different and there is no “correct” path, then the “narrative” remains an untamed force within the text and may never be completed, extracted or fully mapped by any reader. Is such a text still a narrative? Perhaps not. Some might argue that this is the negative side of getting lost in a fiction: losing the story, losing a coherent narrative space. Others clearly take pleasure in this deferment of a singular narrative space, moving toward completion, in favor of a complex virtuality in which to get lost.

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