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Originally published in Technology Review, May-June 2000.

The Tome of the Unknown Authors

by Nick Montfort

A review of
The Unknown by William Gillespie, Scott Rettberg, Dirk Stratton, et al.

It's a literary event, a reading of a collaborative novel. Oddly, one suit-wearing author begins by reading a fictionalized account of arriving today at the reading. The story continues, recounting the authors' drug experiences with local celebrities. Then, someone from the audience yells out "hit the deck" — an underlined phrase in the text being read, up on the screen. (This novel is hypertextual, after all.) The reader clicks there, jumping to a new page. One of his collaborators stands to take his place.

The hypertext novel at the center of this gong show is called The Unknown. It can be read, free of charge, at <> and was written principally by William Gillespie, Scott Rettberg and Dirk Stratton.

The Unknown began when those authors simply sat down and started writing one June day in 1998, in Cincinnati. (Two of them were then graduate students and one was a college writing teacher. At the time, they were, as Rettberg says, completely "unknown" as writers.) They ground out the first 80 pages in a single 36-hour session. After this creative frenzy, they revised, organized and expanded the work; Rettberg figures it now contains about 800 pages. Most importantly, they hyperlinked the pages, offering different reading paths through one central narrative: the wild book tour of a group of successful authors. Since similar book-tour episodes take place in different cities, a reader can jump around without getting too confused.

Originally, the authors wanted to use The Unknown to promote a printed book. This so-called Unknown Anthology didn't appear, though — it simply became the central conceit of the self-referential Unknown hypertext, which itself became an award-winning hit and which they have read/performed at Brown University, Georgia Tech, and other venues. A scaled-down Unknown Anthology book was scheduled, at press time, to be offered in May through Web sites XLibris and Fatbrain. [*]

Sampling the novel on the Web is worthwhile. But the real novelty comes at a live reading. The different authors rotate through three roles: One reads, one works the mouse, and one dings a bell to alert the audience to each hypertext link. Audience members interact by calling out when they want to click on a link. When that happens, the authors break away from the page they are currently reading. An Unknown reading makes for a uniquely personal encounter with a medium that is usually about alienation.

The Unknown moves wittly between a megalomaniac register and self-deprecating banter. It riffs on literary styles, lampoons intellectual icons and even insults are reader for reading all the way through a long page. It comments on the nature of hypertext — and makes fun of itself for doing that. (One of the colored navigational paths is called "Metafictional Bullshit.") Amid the wackiness is some interesting story, which writer Robert Coover has praised as "massively rich."

"In some ways it's reacting against closure, the organizing principle of most books," says Rettberg. This reaction is a staple of hypertext fiction, taken up by the first hypertext novel, Michael Joyce's Afternoon. But in The Unknown, it's not just the many paths that keep the work from seeming "closed." The hypertext is also unfinished. The authors continue to add additional text about every other month. More readings are planned as well: Check for details at <>.

[*] In April 2002 The Unknown: An Anthology was finally published. It can be purchased at Spineless Books.

article text 2000-05 / nm 2002-05