Granted, the Internet is changing the way we shop, trade stocks, make travel arrangements and find friends old and new. Some hold that the computer will even alter the basic ways we think, respond and interact with each other and with God. But is it changing the way we write fiction?
If it's true that books as we know them will one day become a thing of the past, maybe now's a good time to take a look at the new, so-called cyberprose.
The supreme example, of course, is the much-ballyhooed online novel The Greatest Tale Ever Told. Sponsored last year by Amazon.com, the mystery was launched by a paragraph from John Updike. A googolplex of would-be Whitmans offered contributions to the narrative, of which Updike selected 40 to include in the final product, which was then finished by Updike. You can read the ridiculous results on the book store's site. The experiment, Updike told Time magazine, proved that "books haven't really been totally ousted yet." Duh.
David Benson, on his No Dead Trees Web site, has taken the idea even further with his interactive novel. So far he's threaded together 380 pages or so. On the first page, readers who can also become writers are given a list of characters, with names like Hoppy, Lydia and Hakim. Through these characters, you don't so much read the novel as explore it.
Production editor for the Atlantic City Press, Benson, 43, launched his novel in 1995. "It wouldn't work as chapters," he says. "It's an ongoing thing, like life. You can go in any direction."
He adds, "It'll drive you nuts."
The writing is spotty, but often innovative and spicy. Here are some lines written by Sarah Goodwin McGregor: "Unveiled, she looked rich and simple. In skin she looked dangerous. The way her mouth worked was wolf."
The interactive novel, Benson explains, is not meant to be read from front to back, but randomly. "After all," he writes, "the Novel is an exploration into hyperexistence that is to have more than one life and several existences simultaneously. This in itself baffles many first time readers. Even those who've followed the Novel since its inception will find the Leap intriguing, as it allows one to read and consider the Novel in new ways."
Of course, a great traditional novel demands that we consider ourselves in new ways.
Other folks are experimenting with post-novel fiction. You can find a list of sites at the home page of the Interactive Fiction Web Ring. According to the rules, people who have sites on the ring must update their stories at least once a month.
But for a truly strange dip into Internet prose, visit The Park, an eerie, fascinating thing written by someone known only as "The Custodian." Spend a few minutes here and even James Joyce's "Ulysses" will begin to look tame.
Linton Weeks can be reached at email@example.com
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Found something intriguing, improbable, insane or especially useful on the Net? Write it up and send it to Joel Garreau or Robert Thomason.
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