Ways Through the Wood

Hypertextuality in Fiction

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In writing my novel The Knowing – A Fantasy, a book which explores borders of different kinds, I have attempted to push the boundaries of not only genre, but also of form. Being more interested in the creative tension between – whether that is between the ‘Actual and Imaginary’ (as Nathaniel Hawthorne put it), the magical and the mundane, the secular and the sacred, the fictional and factual, Fantasy and Realism; or between cultures, countries, people, species… – I have fashioned a story that walks between worlds in myriad ways. To accommodate this porousness I have decided that the optimum way for the reader to interface with this – with the multiple paradigms I offer – is to create, for now, an e-book which allows the reader to interact with the text, to choose whether they wish to know about a particular character or subplot, or to stick with the main narrative (rather than swamp the text with footnotes).

I was mindful to avoid the fascinating, but overwhelming modernism of Ulysses, or the atomised postmodernism of House of Leaves (although I would nick a leaf or two from both of those books*) – that kind of level of experimentation comes at a cost to the narrative, and wasn’t right for my project. Similarly, at the other pole of culture, I didn’t want to evoke the flavour of those ‘Choose Your Path’ books which flourished for a while in my youth (e.g. Fighting Fantasy; or my favourite, Lone Wolf). However fond I was of those back then, that approach wasn’t fit-for-purpose either. This project wasn’t about the ‘deciding the outcome of the story’. I did not want to give away complete authorial control.

However old-fashioned, I still believe in the power of storytelling, and the craft and responsibility of the storyteller. I have a penchant for prose stylists, but also have a weakness for a decent storyline, well-wrought characters, snappy dialogue, and emotional engagement. I want to be swept along by a story.

So, a rattling yarn, but one told with elan and a substructure of complexity – with a depth of ideas and research underpinning the (hopefully) purring prose.

And so I have used hypertextuality to allow for multiple narrative threads to co-exist. I like the idea of each link being a kind of portal to a pocket universe, to another modality or mindset. It bestows upon the reader agency – one that is intrinsic to the novel, for The Knowing, is, on one level, an epistemological enquiry: in plain English – What do we know? How do we know what we know? Why is some knowledge perceived as more valid than others? I, as the writer, was driven by my epistemological hunger (following the idea of ‘write what you want to know’, and developing ‘archive fever’ in my PhD research). The characters are driven by their desire to know. Janey in particular is ‘gifted’ with the ‘knowing’ (Second Sight), which allows her to discover things beyond her experience or 5 senses. She uses this to access the memories of her ancestors, the McEttrick Women, via the heirlooms kept within her mother’s old biscuit tin. Deploying metonymic representation, each ancestor is symbolized by an object. When Janey holds them in her hand, she receives a download of memory. This psychometry I wished to suggest in the way the reader taps on the image in the e-book – which allows them to access that ‘voice’.

Critically, the choice to do this is driven by the reader’s desire to know.

I also like creating visual furniture within the novel – paratextuality – being fond of marginalia, and having discovered, within Robert Kirk’s journals and manuscripts many fascinating and revealing examples. For me, a book is an aesthetic experience as much as a narrative one – this may seem at odds to some with the concept of an ‘e-book’, but even within that format it is still possible to enjoy stunning cover art, fine font, illustrations, and so forth. And so I have delighted in creating motifs for each of the characters, and labouring endlessly over the minutiae of formatting and text navigation.

Also, I do not find the use of an e-reader antithetical to this aesthetic consideration, but intrinsic – for it captures the tension I revel in, between the ancient and the modern. To read the voice (sometimes actual, sometimes fictionalised) of a 17th Century Scottish minister in such a state-of-the-art form makes it more poignant – the ghost in the machine. And the hidden magic of the e-reader echoes the journal that Janey receives from Kirk – written on ‘Janus paper’, which allows a reader to view what the writer is scribing upon its twin, wherever in this world or another they are, attuning to the consciousness of that reader and translating accordingly.

This allows for a ‘hybrid’ voice, somewhere between Kirk’s 17th Century idiom, and Janey’s own – a deliberate choice, for I decided that coherency and fluency was more important to the narrative effect than strict accuracy to Kirk’s idiolect and ecolect. Of course, I have tried to evoke it – and having transcribed his monograph, and poured through his notebooks, I am deeply familiar with it – but have tempered its more obscure eccentricities (erratic spelling; idiosyncratic rendering of Gaelic; obscure references) in favour of clarity.

Still, I hope his, and the other voices I have ‘channelled’ come across convincingly – they certainly felt real to me as I wrote them. Time and time again, it feels like one is merely the amanuensis, taking down the character’s dictation – in the way that Robert Campbell, Kirk’s cousin, took down the minister’s words as he lay upon his sickbed, the words that would become The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies – a lost version of which I would go onto discover in the archives, but that is another story…

The Knowing by Kevan Manwaring is published as an ebook on 20th March and will be available via Amazon’s Kindle store.

*Joyce’s heteroglossia; and Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘leaves’ motif – fragments of text, of experience – symbolized by Janey’s heirloom wunderkammer, her box of leaves.

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