Review of Reading Network Fiction by David Ciccoricco
It was hard for me to place how I felt about David Ciccoricco's Reading Network Fiction. Ostensibly the book does everything it sets out to do: it offers the reader a comprehensive discussion of networked fiction both in terms of critical theory and analytical application. Ciccoricco elegantly integrates complex and divergent theorists ranging from Freud to Frasca, and engages in in-depth analyses of several canonical works in the field. The book combines rich theoretical complexity with an overview outlining the historic development of theorizations of the genre, and gives applied analyses and discussions of historically significant work, making it an ideal introduction to critical thinking about networked texts. However, it is this immense scope of the text that is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. In trying to address so broad a subject in the confines of a single volume Ciccoricco begins to pack the text too densely, allowing it to become cluttered, even at times fragmented and rushed. Another stumbling block is the sometimes laborious negotiation of the challenges posed by discussing and referencing network fiction in print. In the analysis of specific works Ciccoricco is compelled to supplement the static quotes necessitated by the print format with lengthy descriptions of the networked flow which weigh heavily on the already overburdened text. This creates the impression of the book as an overwhelming cacophony of information, which is a great pity as many of the chapters show masterful engagements with the subject when considered in isolation.
Ciccoricco introduces Reading Network Fiction by stating that it is divided into three thematic segments:
(1) critical theory that returns to print-based narratology in the light of digital literature; (2) network fictions from the first wave of digital literature published as stand-alone Storyspace applications; and (3) second-wave network fictions published on the World Wide Web. (11)
The first section outlines the history of network fiction, offering the reader a point of entry not so much into the genre itself as into the development of a critical discourse surrounding it. Originally Ciccoricco summarises rather than joins the early debates, establishing a point of departure for his work, stating outright that it is not his intention to add to an "already bloated cybercultural vocabulary but rather to apply existing terminology with greater precision" (4). To this end he clarifies his definition of Network Fiction as writing that "makes use of hypertext technology in order to create emergent and recombine atory narrative" and distinguishes it from other hypertext documents that operate in axial or arborecent formats (4). For Ciccoricco this differentiation relies on a shift in focus from a hierarchical story structure to a slowly emerging narrative in which the central concern is pattern and mood rather than causal plot development.
Central to the book is Ciccoricco's theorization of repetition as strategy in networked fiction. This discussion is one of the highlights of the text. Drawing on the work of Derrida and Deleuze primarily, but also on a host of other scholarly voices, he outlines the main bodies of theory and arguments surrounding repetition in cultural production, then moves on to a more specific discussion of it as used as a strategy in narrative. It is at this point that repetition itself begins to act as a stylistic choice in Ciccoricco's own writing.
In the following sections Ciccoricco outlines different narrative representational models, tracing the shift from the linear, therefore intrinsically temporal, to networked space in which ideas of time take a back seat. Using Jameson's (1993) account of the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles (Ciccoricco 51) he enters into a discussion of the appropriation of cognitive mapping into digital media theory. While this section is not as deeply engaging as his approach to recurrence and repetition, it is still a very thorough and useful exploration.
Ciccoricco begins his close analysis, the bulk of the book, with a chapter on Michael Joyce's Twilight, a Symphony. Ciccoricco's discussion of this text is nothing other than a lyrical masterpiece. Beautifully written, the repetitive nature of the text echoes the 'story of returns' it examines. This chapter effortlessly returns to the work of Deleuze and Guattari and his discussion of the refrain builds on his original theorization of recurrence and return. However, in what turns out to be an annoyance throughout the analytical chapters, he has to spend a great deal of time describing the narrative, the materiality of the text, as well as the experience of reading, as his audience is unlikely to be intimately familiar with the work, and the work cannot be represented in print. He spends much longer on these establishing discussions than a theoretical analysis ordinarily would. As much as the theory was well discussed and set out, the description of a text that revels in malleability quickly becomes tangled. While in his discussion of Twilight, a Symphony his writing style suits the pathos of the narrative he examines, in later chapters his struggles to contain and describe the networked fictions he analyses becomes awkward.
After the flow of his discussion of Twilight, the discussion of Steward Moulthrop's Victory Garden is jarring. Perhaps due to the nature of the narrative he engages with, Ciccoricco's discussion becomes fragmented and disjointed. While still drawing expertly on the theory he established in the earlier chapters, the writing at this point begins to labour under the strain of the subject matter. The recusals and repetitions of description as well as theory begin to work on the nerves, and appear to be less a considered stylistic strategy than they were in the discussion of Twilight, a Symphony. This becomes even more pronounced in the following chapter, which contrasts two works of network fiction that were written by collaboratives rather than individuals, the Unknown Collective's work The Unknown and Linda Carroli and Josephine Wilson's *water writes always in *plural. The two pieces are addressed individually as well as in relation to each other. At the centre of the contrast Ciccoricco establishes are ideas of excess versus restraint. Again, Ciccoricco manages to have his academic writing style echo the style of the works he is discussing - oscillating between a dense almost aggressive excess of discourse and a fluid poetic flow. This unfortunately undermines the analysis, as the value judgements implicit in the writing cast doubt on the validity of the comparison.
By far the most successful analysis in the book, detailed and careful, is the chapter on Judd Morrissey's The Jew's Daughter. The text itself departs from the stylistic echoes of networked fiction that he employed earlier, yet he ties his analysis in to the body of theory with deft precision. The only concern in this chapter is that Ciccoricco again gets tangled in trying to describe the work. The lengthy discussion on p167 which tries to evoke the reading pattern created by the networked links through a numbering system in no way helps to clarify things. In this section of the discussion, as in many of the analyses before, an interactive visual example is called for.
Throughout Reading Network Fiction Ciccoricco's writing style is dense verging on opaque. While this is not a concern in the theoretical segments, the difficulty comes in with the discussions of networked fiction. While the book offers the reader a sustained analysis, the problem is the very nature of networked texts itself. To respond to a text that is inherently confusing and fragmented in a coherent way is challenging, and this is where Reading Network Fiction fails. In an attempt to describe as well as analyse Ciccoricco gets lost in the quagmire he himself outlines. The balancing act between description and analysis is further complicated by the inability to show real, networked quotations in a print format. By having no accessible examples of the texts he examines, the reader struggles to identify with his analysis as it offers no point of entry other than lengthy description. The companion website to the book, which is a promising idea, disappointingly holds no further information. It functions primarily as a sales site where it would have been the ideal opportunity to expand on the content of the text in a form appropriate to the subject matter.
As noted previously, the engagement with the literature fluctuates from dense academic discourse to long poetic passages. It is in these passages where the book shines; in them the reader is more able to develop a sense of the text discussed, even though real world examples are still sorely missed. Ciccoricco's writing style is heavy handed, and the transitions from the lyrical, emotional engagement to the academic discussions are not always handled smoothly. This leads to a disjointed, fragmented reading experience. The book is, however, littered with pearls, beautiful engagements with the theory, useful not only as introductions and explanations of complex theory, but also as detailed investigations into established subject matter.
Over all, Reading Network Fiction is an extremely useful resource. The criticisms I have to offer are all concerned with the stylistic difficulties of the text, and never approach the body of theory that is so meticulously set out. Ciccoricco's contribution to the field is most evident in the theoretical chapters, where I wholeheartedly agree with Joseph Conte's dustcover contention that they "are among the best and most illuminating treatments of the nature of hypertext or networked fictions."