Deena Larsen
Eastgate Systems, 1997-98

Samplers ,"Nine vicious little hypertexts", by Deena Larsen is a surprising achievement in hypertext fiction. According to the Collins English Dictionary, a sampler is "a piece of cloth embroidered with various patterns, which is intended to show the skill of the person who made it", and Larsen certainly shows some skill in these nine intrincate art works who make up a genre on their own. According to the author, she wanted to find out what would happen if someone twisted the links and spaces of a hypertext into a formalized pattern.

"To find out, I took a lesson from quilting: if you want to experiment with patterns, make one square of each pattern and create a sampler quilt to juxtapose your results."

Each square shows a different non-linear way to organize a narrative. Different structures are made explicit by the Storyspace map that is not only a helpful tool for the reader (who can be sure of having visited all the spaces) but also conveys artistic meaning in itself, the patterns giving clues about the meanings that each story explores.

Larsen has successfully shown that hypertext is not about disorganizing but about reorganizing text in patterns that are not linear but do certainly make sense. I recommend that the reader take a look at the story map, and also pay attention to the "links" option. When the links window is displayed, the "Path" column tells us about another side of the story, sotto voce but knowing, wanting to be heard and overlooked at the same time. Of course, the "clicking Enter" option is always possible, but I would say it can´t appreciate the careful weaving of this amazing quilt.

Each of the nine hypertexts deserves a separate review, and yet I don´t want to say too much about them and spoil all the reader´s fun.

Century Cross has a dedication:

"This is for Coyote who should learn to keep his promises"

The story gives the key to this statement, and in a way to the whole work, as it is a story about creation and about telling, drinking from the deep well of Indian myths (Hopi, Navajo and others). A government employee is faced with ancient traditions that force her to reconsider the meaning and reason for her own writing, to understand that telling stories saves us from the Nothing.

Caught out is the tale of a very young girl who breaks a hologram setup in a shop and wonders what they will do to her, how will they punish her for that. Will they close her up in such a box as the one she broke from where she can see the people looking at her and never get out again? She doesn´t know, but she will fight. The narrator looks at the world with new eyes and a poetic mind who defies adult reasoning and its ugly voices.

Mystic Knot uses a biblical style to speak about religion and becoming oneself. The main character is not a human being but a traffic barrier, whose cyclical thoughts are interlocked with the thoughts of the men that come near it, specially with those from the man that decides to adore it. It has a very interesting hypertextual structure.

"His was the way of tracing. And retracing"

Crossed Ends tells us about a family that comes together for the celebration of the father´s retirement. The four main characters are together in the same room, hearing the same words and looking at the same faces, but each one´s thoughts wander away in totally different ways, so that we understand how really apart they are. We can also read what they think of themselves and of each other, more or less explicitly, and learn about the lack of communication to which people are condemned.

Firewheel is a story about "a foreigner in a small Japanese town at the turn of the millennium." The themes here are again isolation, this time because of the strange language, and what it means to be a foreigner. The style is also "Japanese", as few words carry much meaning and need calm thought to be understood.

Conventions shows the intertwined lives of two very different women: a catholic young girl who becomes a nun, and her Jewish school-friend who wants to be "a wanderer". Larsen contrasts the women´s opposite longings for freedom and security, with voices that need each other and envy each other. They will meet after years of separation. Which form of life has been better?

Seed voices is a conversation between two characters who don´t listen to each other. The woman (her text-spaces are green) is pregnant and tells the father (whose text-spaces are black) "too late to take care of it". The reader can listen to them together or separate, life´s voice and selfishness´ voice are not likely to meet.

Interlocked tells terrible stories from the past, stories of sex and punishment and fear. For the main character, memory is as real as the present, and everything keeps on happening not to let her rest. "Click here to hypnotize my memories", says the author, as if the reader could exorcize her dark thoughts.

"Anyone dumb enough to lead her life through a pack of assorted memories deserves whatever she gets."

Devil´s claws is about responsibility and what happens when you forget about it. A family has a terrible legacy: two strange masks who have watched over the family for years, ready to destroy everything should responsibility be forgotten.

"These are the clauses the devil made us put into our wills, passing the mask´s curse on through the centuries. You hold the story of the thirteenth generation."

Deena Larsen shows a mastery of very different styles through the nine short fictions and a remarkable ability to build characters and atmospheres, but the best of Samplers is the deep understanding of how to structure fiction, an understanding that she has chosen to make visible through the map views.

"you know about stories. They need patterns to breed."

It is really a master´s lecture on how to write hypertext, curiously not exploiting a typical resource of hypertext fiction: disconcerting the reader losing her in a hidden structure. On the contrary, Samplers could be taken as an example for the writers of hypertext non-fiction. I think it is not so much a work about choosing as about understanding structures, teaching to see the deep relationship between a story and the way it is told. And it is not only literature about literature, the stories are quite worth reading...