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Parsing the Cold:
McLaughlin's Notes Toward Absolute Zero

By Robert Kendall

(also in SIGWEB Newsletter, Vol. 7, No. 3)
[cover date: Oct. 1998; publication date: Feb. 1999]

The hypertext fiction writer tries to spin compelling story strands, laboring with textures and colors in the hope that a compelling reading fabric will be wrought from them. Yet however vibrant and interesting the threads themselves may be, if the digital loom is too hard to operate, the fabric may not get made. Tim McLaughlin understands this well. His Notes Toward Absolute Zero (Eastgate Systems, 1995) offers not just quality writing but also an unusually accessible hypertext implementation. I have found that these qualities make it an especially good introduction to the genre for neophyte hyper-readers. Notes has been particularly reliable in producing satisfying story cloth for students in the hypertext literature class I have taught for several years.

The work's structure makes it easier to navigate than most other large, complex hypertexts. The text is anchored by an opening "Frontispiece," in which an array of postage stamps represents the main sections of the fiction. Each time you click on a stamp image, a different thread of the narrative unwinds. Each thread leads back to the Frontispiece, or in some cases brings you to the "Backispiece"--another array of stamps linked to additional paths. There are many opportunities to leave the main routes and explore digressions and side paths, but no matter where you end up in the text, you can almost always just follow the current default path (by hitting the Enter key repeatedly) to reach one of these philatelic orientation points. This feature helps give you the lay of the emerging literary land. The stamps along the top and bottom edges of the Frontispiece yield mostly historical chronicles, while links to the more intimate story components are concentrated in the middle. It also keeps the reading from stalling.

The hypertext workings of this "philatelic novella," as McLaughlin calls it, depend not only upon elegant navigational design. Equally important is a tightly integrated thematic structure. The entire work revolves obsessively around a handful of connected motifs. This means that regardless of the order in which the reader encounters episodes, a continuous unfolding of thematic associations carries the work forward. The thematic density increases the rewards of returning to previously visited places by making these reprisals more likely to reveal new relationships. In a less well wrought hypertext, such recurrences can all too often seem mere redundancies.

As its name suggests, Notes Toward Absolute Zero is a study in cold--a fitting project, perhaps, from a Canadian writer. McLaughlin explores the myriad manifestations and effects of his subject, both literal and metaphorical. On one level we have a collage of winter scenes assembled from narratives, historical accounts, journal entries, and poems. On another level are shuffled the many figurative accouterments that accrue to the concept of cold.

In the piecemeal fashion typical with hypertext, the diligent reader can put together what little central plot line there is in Notes. Winter and Jericho meet in a hotel where they are both stranded by a train with a frozen engine. They make love a few times and then Jericho leaves without saying goodbye, much to the chagrin of her new lover. We also learn about Jericho's endearingly oddball uncle, Magel, a stage hypnotist who once put his entire audience under and left it that way until the next morning. A large proportion of plot detail comes to us secondhand through conversations among the characters, which contributes to the narrative's static (yes, rather frozen) quality. The somewhat haphazard way we encounter storyline fragments seems an extension of the messy conversational mechanics that let the characters themselves glean bits and pieces of information about each other.

When Jericho meets Winter, she is on the way back from attending Magel's funeral, the closest she ever came to being reunited with this beloved relative who disappeared when she was 11. With her own search ended, Jericho passes the torch of the quest on to the jilted Winter, who (at least in one possible reading) embarks on a dreamlike pursuit of her through city after city. This motif of the lost loved one is echoed in a historical account of explorer John Franklin that is woven through the text. After Franklin's ship was lost in a failed attempt to find the Northwest Passage, his widow financed expedition after expedition to seek his remains.

These loose scraps of plot serve mostly as bits of color for an elaborate kaleidoscope of thematic transformation. The turning of the lens is where the real action is. Different symbolic tones emerge from the narrative materials as they bump and jostle against one another in different readings.

McLaughlin's chronicling of ships trapped in the Arctic casts the freezing weather as relentless destroyer and devourer. This portrayal is frighteningly touched up by numerous descriptions of wintertime train wrecks. Against the backdrop of these disasters, the first meeting of the two snowbound protagonists takes on ominous overtones. We learn that they can't even leave the hotel because of heavy snowfall. Winter soon explains that he is on his way to see his mother, who will take him to visit relatives--the dead ones first. "We go to the cemetery and she tells me about the funerals." Jericho reveals that she has just come from a funeral herself.

If one comes to this confinement scene by a different route, bypassing the disaster sequences, the sinister overtones are less apparent. The perceived character lightens even more if one departs from the default path before the conversation takes a turn for the funereal. A node called "Answer" offers a particularly transfiguring detour. Here Jericho observes that there is something in Winter left over from adolescence. "As if a small part of him had never aged." This passage hardly seems noteworthy until one clicks on the words "never aged," which takes the narrative in a significant new direction: "Instead, I live like photography: static, arrested," Winter says. Then he ruminates on his occupation as photographer, which he sees as a way of capturing the "one perfect gesture in each life," of stopping the perfect moment from passing.

"I wanted to freeze the river going by and then return with a team of horses to harvest the ice. An ice saw, tongs, stone-boat, sawdust, a warehouse well insulated so that even in the persistent heat of summer you could sit inside and be cold."

Here cold emerges as the great preserver, as a metaphorical surrogate for memory, our only antidote for loss.

This theme of preservation through destruction deepens through other "hinges" in the narrative. One text thread recounts the abandoning of a succession of ships that became lodged in Arctic ice. The reader can follow the maritime chronicle or click on the word "abandoned" to jump to this digression: "Perhaps the only building that is truly complete is the ruin." This proposition introduces the story of El Badi, a sumptuous palace built in Marrakech. When the monarch turned to his court jester for an opinion of the newly completed architectural marvel, the man replied, "this will make a magnificent ruin." Soon after, the palace fell.

Another thread about ice-bound ships offers a similar digression at the node "Winter Chronicle":

All these ships and frozen explorers, they've been under the ice for centuries now. Our failures are well preserved; more carefully held than victory or success. When we remember, it is the failure we remember, for the failure contains its own ending. It wraps up nicely, all the stray ends tied together with the tightness of finality.

Yet we refuse to accept failure, and this refusal is what keeps us going. It's also what keeps us reading and perhaps lets us take comfort in a hypertext's lack of ending. It's why we allow the loose ends to dangle from our tightly woven tapestry as we add more and more strands to it.

There may be no ending, but as with many hypertexts, there are certain temporal hierarchies hardwired into Notes Toward Absolute Zero. The most telling of these fosters a gradual accretion of significance to the ubiquitous postage stamps. When the philatelic display greets us at the beginning, it seems no more than just an organizational device. Then somewhere in the middle of the reading we are likely to encounter two episodes that bring the stamps into the narrative's thematic warp and woof: When we learn of Winter's obsession with images, the philatelic analogizing of story elements becomes a reflection of his character. When Jericho claims the belongings of her deceased uncle, the stamps emerge as the shells of personal history. She finds that little remains apart from a suitcase containing a handful of empty stamped envelopes, the letters gone. Finally, in an episode buried deep in the hypertext (and therefore likely to appear only late in the reading), the stamps come to embody the failure of all artifacts--the erosion of original meaning as things pass from hand to hand. In this sequence, called "Conclusion," Magel's suitcase comes into Winter's possession by chance, and he takes an interest in the stamps, unaware that they are his only tangible memento of Jericho. The husk of his love affair. And to us a reminder that all of our tactics against the onslaught of time are ultimately futile.


copyright (c) 1998 by Robert Kendall



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