(M)App to Print (Part 2)

In the first post of this two-part reflection, I noted Iain Pears’s remark that in the Arcadia project he sought to “create a narrative that was vastly more complex than anything that could be done in an orthodox book, at the same time as making it far more simple to read.” The result was an app that took the form of a multi-stranded subway-style map–or, as I’ve been calling it, a “(m)app fiction.” Again, as I mentioned in the first post, the Arcadia “(m)app” isn’t the only aspect of this story of interest to those of us who study literature’s relationship to inscription technologies. There’s also, as in the case of The Silent History, Arcadia the codex. (Moreover, again following The Silent History‘s path, there’s the codex’s content’s remediation as an Arcadia ebook [so an example of re-remediation], though I won’t be commenting on it here.)

In my account of The Silent History, I argued that the porting of the narrative across media doesn’t fundamentally alter its structure or reading experience; indeed, if anything remediation to print increases the reader’s freedom, as the wheel-spoke structure of the app inhibits movement in the clockwise, or forward-looking, direction. With Arcardia, by contrast, remediation brings significant structural changes. Now, Pears’s paratextual comment (seen in the featured image of the first post) that he “wanted to give you [the reader] the freedom to put the tale together in your own way” might be taken to suggest that narrative structure is now irrelevant–the reader assuming the author’s place as the narrative’s architect. (In her superb post on Arcadia, Emily Short notes that “Pears has said that he wants reviewers to focus on the content of the work and not on its structure,” an issue that we’ll loop back to below.) Certainly, the (m)app doesn’t structure the narrative in the traditional chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene manner–as the print version does, a point to which we will return in a moment. In that case, “structure” is a description of the author’s strategy of fitting together the component narrative material, which the reader then traces. “Structure” is a diagram that we make in our heads as we read. In Arcadia‘s case, the “structure” is something shown to us every time we open the app: the Tube map. In fact, one might argue that Pears’s rebooted hypertext fiction actually increases the immediacy of our apprehension of the narrative’s structure. Look at all of those serpentine lines and nodes where they overlap! (As Pears observes in the Guardian piece: “the story was most easily structured by looking at it visually.”)

Pears has built what we might term a multi-linear narrative environment. (Before we get too excited about how innovative all of this is, let’s acknowledge that the Eastgate hypertexters had already explored these possibilities in the late 80s and early 90s. The authorial traversals of early hypertext works documented by the Pathfinders Project provide much-needed institutional memory of the fact.) This graphic interface allows the reader room to roam in observing the various strands’ development. Arcadia is a study in time travel and world-building; thus, the interweaving of the cascading plot-lines–which record events in a dystopian future on the isle of Mull, the post-Inkling Oxford of 1960, and the Medievaly “Anterwold”–participate in the process of rendering the tale’s notions of time and potential worlds. My point is that the (m)app isn’t just about giving the reader more freedom or helping us to take an accurate census of Arcadia‘s population. The app itself participates to the work of representation: it, too, plays a role in rendering the realities of the worlds that the characters inhabit and their interrelations. The medium’s not just a mental massage; it contributes to the message. More on this below.


Now to the print version. Perhaps the most striking quality of this reading experience, especially when arriving after having engaged with the (m)app, is its minimalist paratext. There’s no table of contents–and why would there be, since that the chapters are simply numbered (1 to 66)? While there’s nothing labeled “table of contents” in the (m)app either, there is a graphic of silhouettes, which opens a Chaucerian menu that lists all of the characters’ threads as “tales”: “The Policeman’s Tale,” “The Assistant’s Tale,” etc. Each lexia (which is more fitting here than “chapter” given both issues of length and hypertextual connection) contains not only a title but also a list of all the character-threads implicated in it:

In this case, the local paratextual notes–in tandem with the map-view–are so many aids to tracking one’s position in the larger system. In the print version, the chapters often contain temporally contiguous or thematically related snippets from the various plot-lines, which are separated into distinct lexia–again, headed with titles and lists of all related character-threads–in the (m)app version. The first chapter of the print version, for example, starts in “Anterwold” with a character named Jay who seems to meet a fairy, shifts to a description of one Henry Lytten, Oxford don, who has been reading the aforementioned section to a group of post-Lewis-and-Tolkien-Inkling-leftovers at the Eagle and Child, returns to Jay, and finally circles back to Lytten. The transitions are marked by asterisks. Each of these patches of text are treated as distinct lexia in the (m)app–and we are alerted that they belong to the “Professor’s Tale” and the “Student’s Tale.”

The print version’s next chapter picks up with a character in Lytten’s present named Rosie Wilson, who had been introduced at the conclusion of chapter 1, as she has a run-in with a confused man from what turns out to be the dystopian future first described in the third chapter. As this brief summary suggests, the print novel emulates its (m)app antecdent in its shuttling back and forth between plot threads. Yet the reader is now following Pears’s lead, and the lack of paratextual support makes it difficult to stray from authorial guidance–whereas, once again, the (m)app enables one to shift easily between threads exactly because of its bevy of paratextual cues. One could, of course, attempt to flip through the codex in the attempt to stick with one thread, but this process would be extremely tedious.

Strikingly, then, the print version puts its handler in a reading posture quite different than–even diametrically opposed to–the one Pears imagines for his (m)app readers: print readers can purchase their “textual freedom” (so easily afforded in the (m)app) only with the utmost expenditure of page-flipping energy. The physical construction of the codex version foregrounds the author’s work in organizing the de-hyperlinked lexia–which, as hinted above, happens through his sequencing of a) baton passes between characters and b) mysterious events that are often explained when a subsequent chapter shifts the reader’s attention to the goings-on a different time/world.


Unsurprisingly, reviewers writing for traditionally print-based media, particularly in the U.S., have concentrated on the print version–sometimes without mentioning its digital precursor at all, sometimes doing so only in an aside. And the reviewers have, again unsurprisingly, made much of the book’s complex narrative structure. For example, Scott Bradfield’s NYT review begins: “Nobody can tangle a text like Iain Pears.” Michael Dirda’s WSJ review begins on the same note. But whereas Dirda relishes Pears’s management of the multiplicity, calling the book “a masterpiece of plot construction,” Bradfield finds the novel chaotic; he’d like to apply some detangler to the text. He concludes by comparing the book to Pears’s beloved An Instance of the FingerPost: “Not quite so successfully, ‘Arcadia’ leads readers into an escalating series of interconnected textual worlds and deliberately avoids helping them to achieve any final utopian vision. Find your own way home, this book seems to tell them. And good luck devising your maps along the way.”

That cutting last sentence gestures toward the app version, which Bradfield, in a parenthetical remark, discusses as follows:

To help readers keep track, Pears even designed an app to accompany the British edition [of the print book]: It resembles a choose-your-own-adventure plot or one of those multicolored subway maps that fill London tourists with the false assurance that they know exactly where they are. (emphasis mine)

Bradfield thus reverses the order of composition: in this account, the print project comes first and the app is an add-on. And, what’s worse, it’s not even impressive or useful, Bradfield suggests: it looks like a low-brow choose-your-own-adventure plot; it’s as worthless as a Tube map in a tourist’s hands. Dirda, meanwhile, sees the app version as something like a director’s cut–with behind the scenes extras!–DVD:

Perhaps some of these apparent loose ends are tied up in the digital edition of “Arcardia,” available as an app that includes both extra material and tools for tracking the storylines. That said, most readers will probably prefer the carefully orchestrated book version. “Qui moderatur tempus intelligit omnia,” goes the Lytten family motto: “He who controls time understands everything.” Doesn’t that actually describe the art of plot construction and its master, Iain Pears? (emphasis mine)

There are many directions that we might go from here, but I’ll limit myself to two. The first is the way that these reviewers assume that the app must be designed to serve the print version. They assume the same hierarchy of media in regard to fiction, which isn’t all that surprising–the novel and the codex have been together since the former’s beginning after all (at least, that is, if you date the novel’s beginning to that great send up of early modern book culture, Don Quijote). Neither seems to be interested in–or capable of ?–what Kate Hayles has called “media specific analysis,” a method which, as the name suggests, takes as its starting point that we shouldn’t carry expectations specific to one medium over into our analysis of another. About what they might be missing regarding the (m)app, I have some suggestions, which I’ll offer in a moment.

I want to note, though, and this is my second issue, that I don’t think that their expectations or analysis in regard to the print version are misplaced. They are, in other words, right to read the novel for the plot. In moving the narrative from (m)app to print, Pears and his Faber & Faber editors set the book up for exactly the kinds of responses that Dirda and Bradfield offer in their reviews. Exactly because of its lack of paratextual support, the print version foregrounds the sequential experience of its pages and thus the author’s work of doling and withholding information about the events in his three settings. Bradfield thus seems right to me to lament the amount of attempts that the book makes to summarize itself, a quality that is much easier to understand (and for which readers may be grateful) in the (m)app where Pears can’t take for granted what the reader will have encountered previously at any given moment. Both reviewers also wish that the novel had tied up more of its loose ends–and thus arrived at a tidier conclusion–a sentiment that while I don’t think reducible only to the fact that they experienced the print version, I do think symptomatic of the kind of expectations that the format engenders (not just because it’s a codex; rather, Arcadia‘s use of the codex form).

While I don’t want to suggest that the (m)app version produces a radically different set of meanings, I do believe that its way of organizing the text and orienting the reader’s passage through it amplify our attention to different aspects of the work. Consider, for example, the first lexia of the (m)app, which corresponds to the first paragraph of the print version:

In the print version, that paragraph leads–without a space or interrupting asterisk–to the introduction of Jay. While I don’t want to suggest that in this scenario this first paragraph is quickly forgotten or seems unimportant (it is the opening after all), I do think that its force diminishes in the print version as a result of the fact that it is succeeded by action and further carefully crafted images of rustic labor. In the (m)app version, by contrast, this lexia is presented more directly as a proem not just to Jay’s plot-line/world but to the whole project. This quality is rendered, as the images above suggest, not only in the imagery but also the haptics of the (m)app: this lexia is the antecedent of six different successors–not only Jay’s thread, but also those dedicated to the “teacher” Henary in Anterwold; the “professor” in Oxford, Lytten; his cat-sitter, Rosie; the scientific “assistant,” Alex Chang; and a thread that features both the “policeman,” Alex More, and the “scientist,” Angela. Everything flows from this incitement to imagine a world.

What we encounter, in turn, is the full scope of Pears’s imagining. While the print version concentrates our attention on the author’s “tangling,” the (m)app constantly reminds us of the totality of Pears’s efforts at world building. The map, moreover, foregrounds the simultaneity of the narrative parts, the print version their sequencing. The (m)app view, to complete a thought begun above, participates in the rendering of Arcadia‘s concern for the co-existence (or, as we realize later in the story, competition) of possible worlds. Again, readers of the print version will certainly grasp that this issue lies at the heart of the project; my point is simply that the (m)app renders the issue more palpably. Indeed, perhaps one can go further: the (m)app reading experience grants the reader agency in regard to which world one imagines most intensely (in other words, which threads we actually read in their entirety), which is, according to the order of Pears’s universe, tantamount to granting that world existence. The characters in this book frequently “get meta” about world building projects; my suggestion is that the haptics of the (m)app create an opportunity for us not only to attend to the character’s speculations but to play along on our own plane.

On this matter of amplification, I want to note one more quality of the (m)app–it’s “material metaphors.” This is a term of Haylesian coinage (actually suggested by Hayles’s anthropologist husband), dating back to Writing Machines. It’s an enormously useful concept, albeit one that can be hard even for Hayles to explain. Here’s her clearest description: “I think of it as a physical object that, through its construction and functioning, acts as a crossroad or a juncture point for the traffic between the physical and the verbal.” Now, friends and students have wondered whether “metaphor,” while necessary to explain the concept, isn’t actually the best category to describe the cognitive process occurring here. Let’s set that issue aside at the moment. I want to seize on the term for what it acknowledges about certain moments of what, to extend Lanham’s formulation slightly, we might call verbal-material oscillation. What I have in mind are those moments when a recursive loop forms between the text and its medium. Consider these passages, both of which record Angela’s reflections on the nature of reality:

“Reality is a piece of string,” “the current strand,” “sort of chain reaction”: while, of course, the print reader may well be prompted by such words to mull the issues of plot construction and “tangle” discussed above (as Bradfield’s metaphor obviously does), these images have an obvious correspondence to the hypertext environment in which Pears composed the narrative and the (m)app reader experiences it. It is, once again, a more palpable issue in this context: time-lines are not just things we might imagine as we read, they are essential elements of what we see and navigate in the (m)app fiction. Hayles’s metaphor of “traffic” seems right to me: Angela’s metaphor calls our attention to the physical experience of the (m)app, while our operation of the (m)app encourages reflection on Angela’s metaphor and its target domains of time and reality. To get swept up in this semiotic traffic between the verbal and the material is to realize that the (m)app version should be classed, to use another Hayles-ism, among the “technotexts”–“Literary works that strengthen, foreground, and thematize the connections between themselves and the material artifacts and the imaginative realm of verbal/semiotic they instantiate.”



I concluded my post on The Silent History by noting the disappearance of the app version from the print version’s copyright page. We needn’t lament that absence from the U.S. edition of Arcadia:

This is progress. Yet I wonder: does “issued in print and electronic formats” tell the bibliographers of the future–even the present–sufficient information? Are print and electronic the right categories? Should ebooks and apps be differentiated in this space? As in the conclusion to my “Artifact from Xerox-land” post, I find myself still wanting a better mode of accounting for the movement and variety of media.


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