Chutes and Ladders: Michael Joyce's "Disappearance"

By Loren EasonAugust 26, 2013

Chutes and Ladders: Michael Joyce's "Disappearance"

Disappearance by Michael Joyce

AND SO the wheel spun round again, past the double zeros, and left me here where I began, or rather where some form of who I am began to veer away from all I knew and led me toward the end where I lost you, my love. But first, well before I lost you, and indeed how I found you, I lost the boy, or he left me, I still do not know which.

I'll try to explain more slowly.

So begins Michael Joyce's latest novel, Disappearance, and so it should be clear from the outset that the novel will be neither straightforward nor without its share of narrative vertigo. One sentence in and we already have a narrator who is diverging away from himself towards a lost love he has yet to meet along with a growing pile of uncertainties.

Over the course of the next chapter you will discover that this narrator, tentatively identified by officials as Mr. Dee, is looking for a young man named Franky Ali, whom the neighborhood urchins identify as a killer. Policemen show up, and Mr. Dee is interrogated. It seems that he is also implicated in whatever it is that Franky has done, and Dee recalls having met the boy as the boy carried a shiny new phone.

"And what were you doing with it?"

"Play," he said. “There is another world there."

"You can bloody well say that again," I said. "There is another world everywhere."

Just don’t get too attached to whatever world you are in, because these narrative worlds and the identity of the narrator who inhabits them appear and disappear with astonishing frequency, held together only by the various threads of memory, technological and otherwise, that provide the reader with a sense of continuity as we shift from one permutation of the story to another.

Reading the initial chapter or two was a daunting and disorienting process. I felt like I knew too little to track all of the elements of the story that were in motion from the start. The novel's opening reads like a modernist mystery, but the habits of mind that sustain a reader through either a modernist work or a mystery only serve to heighten the sense of vertigo as the clues and allusions that gave me my footing in the plot were overwritten and transformed at the close of the chapter. The characters felt human and the mystery kept its mystique despite these shifts, though, so I persisted.

Somewhere in the first 50 pages all the references to games began to gel, and I stopped treating the novel as a story to be read and started treating it like a puzzle game to be unraveled and explored, and my frustration shifted to delight.

I had forgotten with whom I was dealing.

Michael Joyce's best known work is his pioneering hypertext novel, Afternoon: a story, published in 1987 and written on the Storyspace hypertext authoring software that Joyce developed along with Jay David Bolter and John B. Smith. The textual fragments assembled and reconfigured in different orders that comprise the idea of hypertext were the focus of writerly curiosity and experimentation long before they became the invisible paradigm of our online existence. Before there was a World Wide Web and we all learned to follow links and surf from one page to another, there was hypertext and its low-tech cousin, the choose-your-own-adventure book, where the reader of a text could follow his or her preferred path through branching decision trees. The story remains the same, but the plot — the path the reader takes through the territory of the story, (to restore the word “plot” to its original sense of charting navigation on a map) — changes as the reader's decisions change.

Hypertext fiction thus shares its originary moment, along with some important design aesthetics, with another important technological construct that contributes to the setting in which Disappearance takes place: the MUD or multi-user domain that would evolve over the next decade into the MMORPG and other persistent, virtual worlds. Before cable modems, server farms, and graphical engines gave software companies the luxury of creating compelling, fully rendered, three-dimensional virtual worlds, computer geeks were dialing into telnet servers to build their characters out of simple algorithms and textual descriptions. Bandwidth was low, but creative freedom was high. It was not at all unusual for a computer geek to spend as many hours as any of today's hard core gamers building their own domain within the MUD, tweaking text to make the rooms of their virtual mansions come to life and dreaming up the little designer details that would make their particular character come to life for any other user who might happen through.

As a medium, hypertext fiction gives authors a compelling tool with which to explore the relationship forged between the author and the reader of a literary work because the author affords the reader some control over the order in which they encounter the distinct pieces of the work, often called “nodes” or “lexia,” and the author must take care to craft the separate nodes in such a way that they provide a satisfactory narrative experience for the reader in whatever order those nodes are encountered. Exploring a hypertext novel then becomes an experience very much like navigating through a MUD, with each node its own room and the links, explicit or hidden, becoming the bare corridors that connect the various rooms to each other, (an architectural metaphor explored to great effect in Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves). The reader is constrained in many ways by the arrangements of the links, but this constraint becomes an invitation to see and explore the overall shape of the narrative, by foregrounding the choices that traditional print literature make for the reader when the author puts the text together.

Michael Joyce writes prose as only someone who has authored hypertexts or interactive fictions can. He still composes his stories in fragmentary nodes, but rather than trying to approximate the branching structures of those other media in standard print, he strips away the links and the connective text that establish the context in which his protagonist is engaged and resists the urge to give his literary nodes more continuity by giving the reader signposts to help them compile the nodes into a more cohesive narrative. Chapters move towards an apparent development in the plot, revealing crucial facts about the protagonist's circumstances or identity, but at every break in the narrative it seems as if Joyce withdraws as many story elements as he reveals, and each new chapter begins with some important element of the protagonist's world obscured or thrown into doubt.

Readers who have played enough interactive fiction games, or the immersive puzzle games like Myst and Riven that superseded them will recognize this aesthetic. In these games the player's initial task is to scrutinize the surroundings and every conversation to which the player is privy in order to assemble enough clues to determine a course of action that will begin to unravel the mystery in which the player is embroiled, much as Gregory Peck's Edwardes/Ballantyne must in Hitchcock's Spellbound. Like Spellbound, Disappearance begins with a murder mystery and a question of identity, with the protagonist dubiously identified as Mr. Dee. Unlike Hitchcock's narrative, however, Disappearance's plot erases or overwrites as many clues to the protagonist's identity as it reveals, and the setting itself morphs maddeningly, frustrating the reader's attempts to sort through the tangle.

Many texts have an unreliable narrator. Disappearance, however, has a narrator made unreliable by a world that frustrates and complicates the reader's attempts to transcend the protagonist's point-of-view to gain a measure of understanding and control. These constant shifts of scenario would soon wear thin were if not for the alternative thread of understanding that Joyce gives the reader to aid in navigating the labyrinth of his protagonist's tangled past, present, and future — a thread that Stuart Moulthrop, himself no stranger to the design aesthetics of hypertext and interactive fiction, plucks for us in the novel's preface when he notes Joyce's inclusion of Chutes and Ladders, Pick-Up-Sticks, and other games that find their way into the characters' philosophical musings as metaphors for this constant quest to uncover a true self:

"What you are talking about in my country we call Vaikuntapaali, a child's game, but one played by sages, the ladder of life," Cedric said. "You cast the shells and sometimes climb up and other times slide down the serpent's back."

"Chutes and Ladders."

"Yes, exactly. The point is you always eventually get to the end and, while it may be useful to declare that someone who gets there first is the winner, in truth it is what happens within you along the path that matters. Mathematically the game is a Markov chain, future states depend only on the present state, and are independent of past states. It is what mathematicians call a drunkard's walk."

"That may very well be," I said, "but I am the one who is lost."

"You've missed the point of the game," Cedric said. "We are all lost."

Chutes and Ladders, slipping backwards and forwards — not through time, but through memories or imagination — is a governing principle of the narrative. As Cedric tells the Wayfarer: "I imagine that the former [imagining the past] is called memory, my friend." What makes Disappearance compelling, however, is that this slipping happens not just between places and times, but also between personae as the Wayfarer slips between his real life and the other lives that he takes part in through his entanglement in computer games.

The second narrative thread that traces through the maze of the entangled narratives is connected to a game called Ynys Gutrin; the name floats ghostly through the book as the object of the Wayfarer's attention as he sends his agents searching through shops and markets for the game. Ynis Gutrin, however, is more than a McGuffin. The name itself is a reference to the mythic isle of Avalon, and the description takes on elements of this mythos. Fragments of Arthuriana float through the protagonist's hallucinatory consciousness with as much apparent reality as any other feature of his psychic landscape.

It is this proliferation and entanglement of stories that gives the novel its drive and makes the Wayfarer such an interesting character. His life is a composite of his sensory and his mythic realities, and he must navigate a world that shifts between them in ways that he cannot control. Joyce's choices here are particularly inspired because they illuminate so well the tangled ways in which online computer gamers’ lives stretch across and bleed into the experiences of the personae they create for the games that they play.

In Life on the Screen, psychologist Sherry Turkle explores the role that stories and online interaction can play in a person's life and sense of self. As she argues in the introduction:

The life practice of windows is that of a decentered self that exists in many worlds and plays many roles at the same time. In traditional theater and in role-playing games that take place in physical space, one steps in and out of character; MUDs, in contrast, offer parallel identities, parallel lives. The experience of this parallelism encourages treating on-screen lives with a surprising degree of equality.

Or, as one of her interviewee's describes his experience: "RL [real life] is just one more window, [. . .] and it's not usually my best one."

Joyce's narrative recognizes the ways in which mobile devices and ubiquitous computing have placed us always in touch with these multiple windows and multiple modes of connection with other people wherever we are and whatever we are doing. The persistent virtual worlds that we frequent in the separate realms of experience we move between — business, family, school friends, fan communities — are always with us and demand our attention so long as we are connected to our networks.

Joyce creates a protagonist who, while remaining largely a cypher, takes on the poignancy and emotional resonance of a modern day Quixote; his tragic real life experience is transformed by the Arthurian myths that shape Ynys Gutrin and spill over into his perceptions of the world around him just as the chivalric romances — embedded deep in the DNA of World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs — transform Alonso Quijano into something more than just an old man playing the part of Don Quixote. Like pick-up sticks, you cannot move Quixote without also disturbing Quijano, and trying to extract one or the other from the tangle becomes a challenge of its own. It is this shortcoming and its poignant resonance as a metaphor for our own lives that give the novel enough emotional motive to keep a reader involved through the changes of setting and circumstances that Joyce forces them through with each succeeding chapter.

The last few chapters of the novel give the reader the last few pieces of the puzzle that they need to assemble the whole into a satisfying reading experience, but still complex and tantalizing enough to provoke a re-reading. The key to any game is being able to replay it more than once and find new permutations that one did not find the first time through. Disappearance is very game-like in this way, with multiple threads to be followed and different logics at work in the center of multiple competing worlds that all find a common meeting point in the Wayfarer. Each read-through and choice of focus changes your understanding of the book enough to alter your experience in the next reading. And while this is true of most satisfying works of fiction, few manage to achieve this with the degree of self-awareness that Joyce brings to this novel.

In the end, Cedric — the Wayfarer's Sancho Panza — has the right of it: in truth, it is what happens within you along the path that matters.


Loren Eason teaches at the University of California, Irvine. He can usually be found playing, studying, and writing about video games, literature, technology, and identity — preferably in combination.

LARB Contributor

Loren Eason teaches at the University of California Irvine. He can usually be found playing, studying and writing about video games, literature, technology and identity — preferably in combination.


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