Reading Victory Garden***

by Raine Koskimaa

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Competing Interpretations and Loose Ends

Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden (1991) is one of the "classical hyperfictions" alongside Michael Joyce's Afternoon (1987) and Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl (1993). Of these three, however, Victory Garden has been all but neglected by the critics - while especially Afternoon has been the subject of dozens of detailed analyses, Victory Garden has been mainly shortly referred to, receiving mentions as a rather traditional, typical academic novel etc. There are, however, several reasons to pay closer attention to this tour de force of one of the most innovative and prolific hyperfiction authors so far, as I shall be trying to show in this article. 

Moulthrop's digital oeuvre is wide ranging. He first started with an adaptation of Jorge Luis Borges' short story "The Garden of Forking Paths" (which included a mass of original text in addition to Borges' source story) using software he had programmed himself for this purpose. He later transferred the text into the brand new Story Space hypertext environment - the work and its reception by a group of students is described in Moulthrop's influential essay "Reading from the Map: Metonymy and Metaphor and the Fiction of Forking Paths" (Moulthrop1991). Victory Garden was published in 1991. After that he has done mainly Web-based works, including The Colour of Television (1996; with Sean Cohen), Hegirascope (1995/1997), and Reagan Library (1999). Hegirascope effectively uses push technology to produce a stream of narrative fragments starting with the highly charged "What if the word would not be still?" header. Reagan Library uses Quick Time VR plug-in to add a three-dimensional panorama illustration to the hypertext - the work can be navigated both through the panorama or through the text links. Reagan Library also uses random operators in selecting the text materials - repeated visits to particular locations add information to them, thus "reducing noise" and giving more coherent picture of the text. 

One obvious difference between Victory Garden and Afternoon or Patchwork Girl is size: Victory Garden includes 993 lexias, and more than 2804 links connecting them (compared to 539 lexias in Afternoon with 951 links, and 323 lexias in Patchwork Girl with 462 links) . In Victory Garden there are also several original features like a menu of preordered paths, and a map of the "Victory Garden" - this map differs fundamentally from the cognitive maps representing the hypertextual structure employed in Patchwork Girl (and in the PC version of Afternoon) (More about these maps and their differences, see my PhD thesis, Chapter 5 "Visual Structuring of Hyperfiction Narratives", http://www.jyu.fi/~koskimaa/thesis) 

Victory Garden - an overview 

Victory Garden (Macintosh version) employs the most simple variant of reader interfaces Story Space offers. The navigating mainly happens through a toolbar with five functions: the backtrack button (takes you back to the previously read lexia), the link list button (opens a window listing all the links leaving from the current lexia, each link is named and the title of destination lexia is told), the yes/no button (can be used to answer possible questions in the text), the print button (makes a hardcopy of the lexia), and the type-in field. Usually each lexia has a default link, that is, simply by pressing the return key the reader can follow a path provided by the author. Pressing the control keys shows the anchor words / phrases by framing them (double clicking these words activates links which may differ from the default link). In short, the reader may move in the text by pressing the return key after reading each lexia, double clicking anchor words, opening the link list and selecting a link from the list, by typing a word in the type-in box (an alternative to double clicking anchor words), or, back-tracking her way. 

From the title page on, the reader has several options for going forward. She can go to the map and choose one of the lexias presented there as her starting point. She can also go to the page listing "Paths to Explore", thirteen preordered pathways through the text each concentrating on different aspects of the narrative materials (some of them loosely organised around various characters appearing in the text). From the "Paths to Explore" there is a default link - which is easily left unnoticed - leading to a lexia listing "Paths to Deplore", offering seven more preordered paths (it should be noted that even when choosing one of these paths, the reader may always choose not to follow the default links and select an alternative narrative strain). There is still the possibilty of going to a lexia where you can build up a sentence by repeatedly choosing a word from two alternatives offered. This way several different sentences can be constructed, each leading to different starting points (some of the sentences coinciding with the starting of "Paths to Explore" & "Paths to Deplore"). 

Once having started reading the reader confronts fragments of narratives (usually several clearly successive lexias developing a certain story strand), letters, tv-report transcripts, citations from books fictional and theoretical, song lyrics and other various materials. Most of the materials are related to the Gulf War in 1991 - either things happening in the Gulf area, or, meanwhile in the home front. The Gulf War figures heavily in all the story lines, if not concretely influencing characters' lives, then at least as a background force for larger changes in society affecting indirectly (but not a bit more weakly) their lives. 

There are direct citations from Jorge Luis Borges' short stories "Garden of Forking Paths" and "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", as well as more or less implicit allusions to them. There are also mentions to or citations from such novels as Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, and Finnegan's Wake ("riverRerun"!). The theoretical materials include citations from Donna Haraway, Neil Postman, Arthur C. Kroker, Jay David Bolter, Michael Joyce etc. 

Victory Garden, like Afternoon, is dominated by plain alphanumeric text. The map in the beginning is one obvious exception; there are also a few lexias with crude graphics (see picture), the signatures in letters are reproduced in handwriting, and there is even one crossword-cum-concrete poetry style lexia. The letters differ from other text by different font type.

 Main story-lines and characters 

The main characters in Victory Garden are people from a University town Tara, most of them teachers or students in the University. Thea Agnew is a professor of rhetorics (or something like that), sisters Veronica and Emily Runbird are her pupils, although Emily is currently in military service in the Gulf War, handling mail in the head quarters. Thea is also the head of a Curriculum Revision Committee (for studies in Western Culture). An eccentric scholar Boris Urquhart is supposedly an expert in Virtual Reality technologies, employed in a top secret project, and also in the Curriculum Revision Committee. Harley Morgan is a television journalist who has refused to go to the Gulf Area, and is spending his "stress-leave" in Tara with his girl friend Veronica Runbird (several years older than Veronica, he has earlier had an affair with Thea, too). Emily Runbird, on the other hand, has an affair with Boris Urquhart, but his former boy friend Victor Gardner (!) is still desperately in love with her. Leroy is Thea's teenage son, who has left his school to make his "On the Road" tour a la Jack Kerouac. Gerard Madden is an F.B.I. agent on a minor job in Tara, and is an old acquitance of Harley. Miles MacArthur, Boris' colleague, provost Tate, and Thea's adversary in the Committee, professor Heidel, as well as Victor's student friend Jude Busch all have their parts in the stories too. 

There are several scenes which occur in most of the preordered paths, identically or with little variation. The order in which these scenes are related differs quite a lot from one path to another, but mostly they can be arranged in a chronological order. As Jill Walker has finely showed in her paper "Piecing together and Tearing apart: finding the story in afternoon", Gérard Genette's narratological concepts dealing with the temporal order of narratives can be employed with hypertext narratives too - even though the narration in Victory Garden is anachronical (events are narrated in a different order from which they happened), and even though there are differences in this anachronical order in different paths, there are still indexes or markers enough to help the reader put them in a particular order (Walker 1999; Genette 1980). That is, we really are dealing with anachronical, not achronical narration (where no definite order for events can be found). This does not hold for the whole of Victory Garden, to be exact, but we can take it as a starting point. 

There is a sequence in which Thea, Veronica, Harley, and Miles are swimming in the Whitman Creek natural park area, when they learn that the area has been sold to a company planning to build a golf course up stream, effectively ruining the whole creek. Immediately after hearing about these plans, their swimming is further disturbed by a protest against the plans, ending with a scene where one of the protesters declares himself to be Uqbari the Prophet, condemns the plans to ruin the creek, and finally, symbolically, urinates into the creek in front of a tv-crew in a helicopter. Later the same evening, there is a big costume party hosted by provost Tate. After quite a carnevalesque party scene the provost invites Thea, Harley, and Veronica to his office to discuss Boris, wondering if he is in his mind (after the Uqbari the Prophet scandal). 

One of the key scenes is another party, this time a much smaller one, in Thea's house, which is disturbed by another appearance of Uqbari - this time he comes up in an army style camouflage outfit, and with a gun which he fires a couple of times in Thea's back yard and flees. Then Urquhart goes to the garage, meets agent Madden there, who asks him a few questions about the security of the University computer network, also inquiring Urquhart's opinion of Jude Busch, possibly in liaison to assumed security violations. Urquhart leaves in Harley's car, and when he sees Madden tailing him, he tries to get rid of him, nearly crashing with a truck, and finally ending up at the student bar Just Say No Cafe where he meets Harley, takes him along and continues running. Finally, they are stopped by the police, who, in a very Rodney King affairesque scene, start beating Harley (who is black). But then the police see Harley's press id, realising he is a CNN reporter - agent Madden rushes to the scene at the same time, and Urquhart uses the occassion to flee once again. He runs to the old observatory, where he was going all along, to meet provost Tate who works there. From that point on the story branches to several variations which I shall be dealing in more detail below.

There is also a scene happening in Saudi Arabia, describing Emily's experiences during the first air raid after the War has finally started. It includes Emily's and her sergeant's discussion about Emily's loves, as well as various stories told by other G. I.s. The overall lenght of this episode differs from one path to another. One of the paths ends in a black screen with no default links suggesting that Emily and her group are victims of an Iraqi missile.  

There are several such quite clear-cut sequences like these, one describing a long and serious discussion between Thea and her son Leroy; a telephone discussion between Thea and Heidel, where the latter informs Thea that he has used fraud means to force Thea to leave her position as the Commision Head; description of the first war evening when Thea and Veronica are watching the television coverage not quite believing the war has really broke out, when their evening is disturbed by Omega-fraternity boys who have come to protest outside "leftist radical" Thea Agnew's house; an intimate scene between Jude and Victor where Jude acts up as Emily etc. 

The sequences listed above are not told in succession like this - they are intertwined with each other so that the reader can follow one scene for some lexia's length, then the focus shifts to another scene, then possibly to a third one, before returning to the first one. This is pretty much like any old modern fiction, where several story lines are intertwined, but usually easy enough to follow. 

Even though the different paths give different weight to different scenes and characters, most of them include at least something of all the central scenes. There are exceptions though: in the "NORMAN - The Path of Glory", for example, Victor (and scenes related to him) is not mentioned at all. After the first readings of Victory Garden one can easily accept Robert Coover's description of it as quite a typical academic novel, after all. But there is much more to it actually. 

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***This articel is part of Raine Koskimaas thesis Digital Literature:
From Text to Hypertext and Beyond
and will be printed in the Cybertext Yearbook 2000. (top)