Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Multiple Choices

Stephen Marche's Interactive Web Novel
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Multiple Choices

By Brooke Ford

Earlier this month, Toronto writer Stephen Marche (Raymond and Hannah, Shining at the Bottom of the Sea) launched his new interactive Web novel, Lucy Hardin’s Missing Period. Hosted by The Walrus magazine, the Web novel offers readers over 100 story formations with two or sometimes only a single option for a new narrative thread in the form of a hyperlink. The first narrative split offers the reader the option of either going “Back down into the deepest sleep ever” or “Rise to greet the glorious new day,” and this seemingly simplistic everyday decision is suddenly overflowing with possibilities.

“The story began with a character,” says Stephen Marche. “A complicated thirty-year-old Toronto woman of the kind I have known my whole life.” The novel itself began as an impulse to just write a realistic novel about Lucy’s life and consisted of a pile of different endings and pages and pages of just solid text. Marche developed multiple endings, working with The Walrus’s managing editor Jared Bland to map out the whole project. “But then I realized how much of a lie that was. Life is shot through with constant possibility, with explosive plurality,” he says. The form of an interactive Web novel allows for this explosive plurality, both in the direction the story takes and in how Lucy as a character is composed. But for Marche, this is not exactly new in fiction. One of the remarkable gestures made through the form of Lucy is that in one sense, fictional characters always pose ethical questions to the reader, and surely the interactive aspect of the novel calls on the reader to make the choices for Lucy and the narrative. In quite another sense, Marche’s Web novel illuminates the assumption that readers didn’t have that control in the first place. “Readers have always had all the control,” Marche notes. “They make their own story through interpretation. I’ve just provided an open method of interpretation.”

The first time I read Lucy I had a sense of who she was, in relation to myself, as a reader. The second time I read the novel, I chose different pathways, came through a different labyrinth of narrative and arrived at a different ending. My relationship to Lucy and her story was recast and ended up being very different from my initial reading. This dynamic, this sense of explosive plurality, opens up the possibility that there is no whole story. Or if there is, it’s impossible to know it. “I love that,” says Marche. “It’s so much like a real person. We can never know everything there is to know.” The same can be said of Lucy herself, in that there’s no possible way to know everything about her. The question of the novel, Marche suggests, is: “How do we become ourselves? How does Lucy become herself? And this interactive linked form gets to the plurality of that experience better than any other form.”

Indeed, electronic literature isn’t new; the first forms appeared in the early 1990s, using hyperlinks and nodes to string together different narratives and plotlines with various endings. The reader moved through different screens and links, building slightly different characters along the way. Much of the thought behind electronic literature and hypertext novels in their early developments was that they constructed worlds that reflected the current state of readership and authorship. Certainly the present popularity of online publishing and authorship, not to mention the accessibility and ease technology has created in being read, speaks to the instant appeal of Marche’s Web novel. “I do believe that we are in very exciting times for the novel,” says Marche, further suggesting that the idea of an online interactive novel is not something to fear, that the printed book isn’t going anywhere.

Lionel Trilling’s sense of literature as being a way to “make us aware of the particularity of selves, and the high authority of the self in its quarrel with its society and its culture” does everything to give an understanding of how Marche’s novel is working with its reader and form. In many ways, the quarrel is how we are coming to understand and negotiate the impacts technology is having on our bodies, our ways of being and sense of self and how we reflect on freedom. Lucy Hardin’s Missing Period has a good deal to show us in terms of how we can engage in an understanding of self, which, through its various forms and evolutions, is literature’s function and pleasure.

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Brooke Ford is a PhD student at Ryerson University, associate fiction editor with Broken Pencil, and her first novel The Summer Idyll will be released this December.

Stephen Marche is the author of Shining at the Bottom of the Sea (2007) and Raymond and Hannah (2005). He currently writes "A Thousand Words About Our Culture," a monthly column for Esquire magazine, and "Close Reading," a weekly column for The National Post, in addition to opinion pieces for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic,, The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star. He received a doctorate in Early Modern Drama in 2005 from the University of Toronto.

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