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Playing the Numbers:
M.D. Coverley’s Fibonacci’s Daughter

By Jane Yellowlees Douglas

(also in SIGWEB Newsletter, Vol. 9, No. 3, Oct. 2000)

In high finance and hypertext fiction alike, less is generally not more; it can be rather decidedly less. Without a wealth of nodes and links, hypertexts can feel conspicuously limited in scope, story, or options for interaction. Short hypertexts like Matthew Miller’s Trip [1] read like an easily interruptible romp, the prose equivalent of a road movie which, while entertaining, once you’ve visited all fifty states, turns out exactly like the writing Socrates complained about in Phaedrus. [2] No matter how many times you return to it, it just keeps on saying the same old thing. Mary-Kim Arnold handled the short hypertext conundrum by fracturing her narrative in Lust into minute, byte-sized snippets of prose and linking them together in a dense web that yields a large enough set of permutations to make reading Lust never quite predictable even after repeated readings. [3] And in their unjustly neglected nonfiction narrative The Election of 1912, Mark Bernstein and Erin Sweeney cycle a limited number of nodes through a powerful centrifuge—a simulation requiring readers to plan and execute Teddy Roosevelt’s third-party Bull Moose campaign. [4] Tidbits about Ida Tarbell, tariffs, or fledgling presidential primaries, which may only merit desultory attention on first encounter, can suddenly acquire resonance when you’re charged with answering a telegram from the original Muckraker herself, sending T.R. to Detroit ahead of opponents Woodrow Wilson and William Howard Taft, or scrambling for electoral college votes.

M.D. Coverley (aka Marjorie Luesebrink) in Fibonacci’s Daughter has clearly discovered several more attributes of satisfying short hypertext fiction. [5] Her short hypertext, published online earlier this year in New River, features rich, multichannel input in graphics, animation, and music; dramatic shifts in narrative point of view; a variety of conduits that convey different chunks of narrative; layers of literary and historical references; and an histoire, or story line, that is conspicuously incomplete, despite its varied possible conclusions. A simple précis of Fibonacci’s Daughter would feature protagonist Annabelle Thompson, the daughter of gamblers, who sets up a stall in California’s Huntington Beach Mall, where she uses numerology and Fibonacci numbers to sell insurance policies that work as hedges against the failure of her customer’s best laid plans. Bet five hundred bucks you won’t get promoted and you win either way: if you get the promotion, the five hundred becomes mere chicken feed; lose the promotion and you collect several grand. Not surprisingly, Annabelle’s Bet Your Life business becomes wildly successful, especially with local high school students who start ensuring themselves against the prospect that they won’t snag dates with high school quarterbacks, will be left off the cheerleading squad, or might fumble their way through football games. When Annabelle fails to open her stall one afternoon, a near-riot ensues, prompting an ongoing, multi-installment feature story by a local journalist, a rendering of the narrative counterpointed by the voices of Annabelle’s teenaged clients and her mall neighbors, Joe and Louise, proprietors of the not terribly successful shop, Cheez Pleez. When two of Bet Your Life’s young clients disappear in November, the local outcry over Annabelle’s business increases in volume, with the nonwagering locals accusing Annabelle of witchcraft, corrupting the morals of youth, and worse. When her two clients turn up dead and Annabelle disappears, speculation runs amok—and Joe and Louise almost immediately open a successor to Bet Your Life.

If all this sounds a trifle pat, the actual hypertext is anything but. The story remains elliptical: Coverley introduces us very entertainingly to Annabelle, Joe, Louise, and two teenaged clients, but not to the victims themselves or one of their possible murderers. While a string of Headline News stories on the saga offers us a hard-headed ticker version of the central mystery as it unfolds, we never really encounter fully fledged details of the possible perpetrators, the victims’ disappearances, or their eventual discovery. Instead, the fiction’s ultimate mystery has to do with the predictability—or otherwise—of life. Is life as orderly as Fibonacci numbers? Or is all life merely a gamble?

For a Web-based hyperfiction, the graphics and animation that constitute hypermedia can be a mixed blessing for users not endowed with a T1 line. Graphics, video, and audio clips can load lumberingly, painfully incrementally, utterly destroying the immersive spell that most readers seek from even challenging narratives. Bestow on your readers too much audiovisual richness, demanding too much bandwidth, and many of them may never venture further into your text than its introductory segments. Or their experience of the text might be largely confined to the boredom and frustration of watching a mosaic of elaborate graphics unfold across the screen for every node. But Coverley has struck exactly the right balance in her New River fiction. Fibonacci’s Daughter contains a few rich graphic displays with animation and sound clips that load swiftly and painlessly. Evocative mood music sets the tone for some nodes and also provides coherence acoustically between discrete segments of text. A Muzak version of a generic country music riff appropriately accompanies nodes set in the equally bland and quasi-cheesy Huntington Beach Mall. Snatches of what sound like Debussy’s La Mer form a haunting background to segments that ponder the relationships between predictability, numbers, death, and life. Similarly, her graphics double as intriguing and visually rich links—mosaic portraits and geometric diagrams that seem to make concrete Fibonacci numbers—or morph and mutate on the page, providing a visual correlative to the transformations the text describes in nodes like “annab.”

Not entirely coincidentally, “annab” also features some of the best prose in Fibonacci’s Daughter, as when Annabelle describes a coming of age shot through with numbers, probability, games of chance:

People thought that Vegas was the place to take risks, but they were living in a whole world of probability. The mink-coat lady, at the roulette wheel with her red-faced husband, was thrilled at the chance of 34 coming up, yet she never noticed the odds against her husband living past 55.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Fibonacci’s Daughter is Coverley’s prose: insightful, witty, yet as light as meringue. You hear the voices of Joe, Louise, Nikki, and Annabelle herself, and as you linger over a particularly fortuitous bit of description, you’re more likely to imagine the character articulating those thoughts than to think of Coverley grimacing with the effort of capturing le mot juste.

Occasionally, the numbers in Fibonacci’s Daughter don’t quite add up. The links for the Headline News segments, for example, remain elliptical. The numbers (1, 22, 7, 42, 33, 4, 40) are neither Fibonacci numbers nor do they clearly relate to the dates of the events in each segment—or to any other quantities in the text. Further, since the hypertext doesn’t use conditional links (such as those that can be created with the Connection System) to enforce priorities in the order in which nodes can be read, some important elements may be encountered before they are adequately set up. Readers can come across two corpses or the plot’s central mystery before they’ve fixed on the boys’ disappearances or even learned who the boys are, much less gleaned something of their relationship to Annabelle and the terrifyingly named Bet Your Life stall in the Huntington Beach Mall. And despite my revisiting Fibonacci’s Daughter repeatedly, I never did quite discover the significance of the numbers in the Golden Section, twice alluded to in the text.

These glitches notwithstanding, Coverley’s hyperfiction benefits from the overlapping allusions and references to its two precedents: Leonardo de Pisa, known as Fibonacci, who discovered the numbers named after him, and Hawthorne’s dark fable, Rappaccini’s Daughter. [6] In the latter, learned scholar Rappaccini has bred and reared his daughter, Beatrice, so that she is both impervious to the most potent poisons and not a little toxic herself. Her touch and breath are so lethal that insects rain dead at her feet, and she is confined to the richly beautiful and equally poisonous garden her father cultivates. When she waxes lonesome, Rappaccini allows visiting scholar Giovanni to glimpse his lovely daughter and tolerates Giovanni’s clandestine meetings with Beatrice. When Giovanni discovers he has become the perfectly lethal partner for Beatrice, he urges her to quaff a vial of antidote. Since Rappaccini’s Daughter is, in some respects, the quintessential Hawthorne tale, however, the flawed man, in trying to make his would-be mate still more ideal, ultimately kills her—and Beatrice is overcome by the antidote. While Beatrice is literally Rappaccini’s Daughter as well as her father’s particularly twisted creation, Annabelle is figuratively Fibonacci’s daughter, a disciple of the plotting and calculation that can ideally render the world a more orderly place. If we view Coverley’s hyperfiction as a modern-day spin on Hawthorne’s fable, Fibonacci’s, Rappacini’s, and Annabelle’s schemes to rob the world of some of its unruliness by constructing a skein of numbers, a sacrosanct and deadly garden, or a highly organized system are all destined to failure, all doomed to be crushed by the very randomness of the world all three seek to evade.

Ultimately, the central narrative of Fibonacci’s Daughter is enhanced as much by what the plot doesn’t supply as it is by Coverley’s seemingly effortless prose. Rather than standing as the plot’s raison d’être, the deaths of Jason Lanning and Kurt Anaka are merely twists in the narrative’s spiral: Just how predictable is life? What is the nature of Annabelle’s business? And is Bet Your Life perhaps a rather more literal name for what her clients do than any of them might care to believe?

Interestingly, Coverley’s narrative and plot don’t map all that neatly onto one another. A similar separation of these two components can be glimpsed in narrative poetry and plays like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead [7] but rarely occurs even in alternative cinema or in descriptions of the postmodern aesthetic. Annabelle sets up her stall; Annabelle makes pots of money; the football players disappear; the football players turn up dead; Annabelle disappears. These plot elements are all relayed to us via a series of links in the Headline News strand, each a mere paragraph of hard news, just-the-facts-ma’am reporting. Yet the bulk of Fibonacci’s Daughter is devoted not to these seminal events but to the everyday actions and emotions of its characters: narrative, or the telling of the story, for once championed and heard over histoire (in the structuralist sense of the word), or plotline. [8] Headline News segments function almost as a Greek anti-chorus, telling us not why or how but what. Conversely, the hyperfiction’s more numerous point-of-view strands, narrated by an intrigued journalist, Annabelle herself, her mall neighbors, and her clients, freely offer more commentary than reportage, describing to us who, where, and, most of all, why.

In mainstream fiction and film, writers and directors usually allow themes and underlying ironies to merely percolate through the cracks in the plot—say, in the occasional piece of quiet punctuating a thriller’s chase or a pause in sleuthing in a whodunit and during the denouement, just before the credits roll. In Fibonacci’s Daughter, the plot seeps through fissures in the narrative: ironies, questions, and motifs swirl around the plot that first set them in motion but are never dwarfed by it. If plot keeps narrative ticking over, plot is also all the richer when narrative is as fully fledged—if not more so—than the plot itself.

While hypertext narratives benefit from the indeterminacy of language generally and from proliferating plot possibilities, Coverley shows us that hyperfiction can also gain immensely from narrative abundance and plot austerity. Did Annabelle murder the boys? Did Joe do the deed? How are Annabelle’s and the boys’ disappearances linked? Can we ever know—any more than we can discover whether Fibonacci numbers accurately predict the future? No matter how many times you dip into Fibonacci’s Daughter, Coverley never reveals definitively who’s behind the deaths, any more than she tips her hand about the magic, chicanery, or dangers of manipulating Fibonacci’s numbers. The very indeterminacy of both Coverley’s narrative and her plot make Fibonacci’s Daughter a rich experience, a series of possibilities that cannot be exhausted even by carefully visiting the hypertext’s every link and node—not to mention an excellent representative of the possibilities of Web-based hypertext fiction.


  1. Miller, Matthew. Trip (Postmodern Culture, Vol. 7, No. 1, Sept. 1996).
  2. Plato. Phaedrus, trans. Walter Hamilton. (Penguin, 1973).
  3. Arnold, Mary-Kim. Lust (Eastgate Systems, 1993).
  4. Bernstein, Mark, and Sweeney, Erin. The Election of 1912 (Eastgate Systems, 1989).
  5. Coverley, M.D. Fibonacci’s Daughter (New River, No. 7, 2000).
  6. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” in Selected Tales and Sketches (Holt, 1970).
  7. Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Grove Press, 1991).
  8. This distinction between narrative text and histoire (story line) is put forward in Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, trans. by Jane E. Lewin (Cornell University Press, 1980).


copyright © 2000 Jane Yellowlees Douglas



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