The Silver Age

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

This idea of a moderate totality brings to mind an essay I found on the Internet a year ago, which still haunts me. (I use the word haunts deliberately: in the absence of real people with whom I could struggle, I fight mostly with ghosts. Because they are ghosts, I mostly lose.) The essay was by the American writer Robert Coover, an early advocate of hypertext fiction. But, and this was in 1999, before most readers even knew what hypertext fiction was, Coover gave a speech in which he declared the Golden Age of hypertext to be over. “Silver ages,” he remarked,

are said to follow upon golden ages as marriage and family follow upon romance, and last longer but not forever. They are characterized by a retreat from radical visions and a return to major elements of the preceding tradition—while retaining a fascination with surface elements of the golden age innovations, by a great diffusion and popularization of its diluted principles and their embodiment in institutions, and by a prolific widespread output in the name of what went before, though no longer that thing exactly. This would seem to be the sort of time we find ourselves in with respect to literary hypertext.

There are a few things I could say about Coover’s position. I know I’m hardly the first person to write a hypertext novel (“immersive text novel,” sorry!), but even so Coover’s Golden Age seems a little grumpy, a little clubby, a little pull-up-the-drawbridge-here-come-the-masses. Also, what the fuck? Which popularization, which prolific widespread output was he thinking of? In 1999, literary hypertext was virtually as obscure as it had been ten years earlier, and the situation in 2012 is not very different. Few people write hypertext fiction and few people read it. And yet somehow when I read this essay for the first time last summer, I thought, guilty as charged. I should note here that my tendency is to feel guilty about everything. I have suspected myself of being to blame for some amazing things… but I’m going to save that story for later.

Here all I want to say is, what if Coover is right? What if my moderate totality is just a watered-down version of some uncompromising hypertext fiction? What if I am a popularizer? I have to laugh a little when I write that: if I were a popularizer, wouldn’t I have, like, more than one friend? But the question will not go away. I am trying to tell a story here, or more than one story. I have gone to some trouble to make Luminous Airplanes usable and not more confusing than it has to be. I even employ, here and there, a little suspense. Are these choices symptomatic of a return to major elements of the preceding tradition, i.e., the tradition of the old-fashioned novel? Does my moderate totality aspire to the coziness of a Victorian three-volume romance? Of course at this point I think of Celeste, who was nothing if not uncompromising. Her work aspired to something greater than moderate totality: I don’t know what you’d call it: total totality, maybe. I hear her ghost reproaching me for giving in to the pressures of the market. (And again I have to laugh: the market! Which market was that, Celeste, again? But as I have already noted, it’s useless to argue with a ghost—they just don’t listen.)

So now Celeste and Bob Coover are standing side by side in my imagination, wagging their fingers at me. And I am remembering something that happened when I went back to San Francisco in 2002. I had already begun to think about Luminous Airplanes, although I was a long way from writing the text you are reading now. I went for a walk in Dolores Park, it was my favorite place to walk, I’d climb to the top of the park and sit on a bench with a view of San Francisco’s downtown and Twin Peaks and a little slice of the Bay. On this particular day it occurred to me that the only way I would be able to make Luminous Airplanes work was if I acknowledged its mediocrity frankly. I could never say, this is my magnificent invention, my airplane of words; I could only say this is my attempt to invent something magnificent. My frankness would save me from embarrassment. I noted this idea in my journal, and went back to not doing anything. Today is the first time I have written about it in any public or semi-public way. And my question is, was I right? Can I save myself from my own mediocrity if I acknowledge that same mediocrity? Or is that question itself a trap, laid for me by Celeste’s judgmental ghost? Shouldn’t I just say, this is what it is, and you can decide for yourself if it works or not?

One thing that occurs to me as I write this comment is, my totality isn’t really all that moderate, as totalities go. It’s actually kind of excessive and weird. But of course my ghosts still won’t let me win. It’s too much, they whisper. You should have left something out! All I can do is let them talk and hope that at some point they will be embarrassed by the way they keep contradicting themselves.

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