Figurski at Findhorn on Acid

by Richard Holeton

These three essays by the artist, Richard Holeton, as well as scholars intimately familiar with Figurski at Findhorn on Acid, Dene Grigar and Michael Tratner, provide context about the novel’s origins, its migration to the World Wide Web, and its distinctive qualities as a work of fiction that emerged at the start of the 21st century.

Someone, Somewhere, with Something: The Origins of Figurski by Richard Holeton, author

Figurski at Findhorn on Acid, first published in 2001, has been unavailable for most people to read for about twelve years prior to the release of this 20th Anniversary Edition. Having the novel republished on the modern web, especially in this "permanent," sustainable format, widely accessible to readers and scholars, is a dream come true for me. For this I am eternally grateful to the team led and assembled by Dr. Dene Grigar at the Electronic Literature Lab, Washington State University Vancouver, a team whose professional skills are matched only by their grace, geniality, and good humor.

Bringing Figurski back to life seems an opportunity to reflect briefly about how it came to life. In 1995, I wrote a 500-word flash fiction about Theodore Streleski, a real-life, perennial Stanford graduate student who notoriously bludgeoned to death his faculty advisor with a hammer in the 1970s. "Streleski at Findhorn on Acid," which imagined Streleski visiting the New Age intentional community of Findhorn, Scotland, while high on LSD, won First Prize in Grain Magazine's 1995 "Short Grain Postcard Story" contest. The construct of my "Streleski" story—"Someone at Somewhere with Something"—seemed to lend itself to replication, and I began to envision a series of sequels. Meanwhile, I had been exposing my Stanford writing students to hypertext tools such as Apple's HyperCard, Eastgate's Storyspace, and the early web, and I'd developed an interest in composing a hypertext fiction.

What's a "hypertext fiction"? For those unfamiliar with the term, you can think of it as similar to, or identical to, a story or novel in the form of a self-contained website. Before the advent of the web, the earliest hypertext fictions were composed with standalone computers and software programs that created internal hyperlinks and multiple reading paths. Now most people who regularly use the internet have become accustomed to reading online, using buttons and browser controls to navigate forward and backward, and choosing links to click and follow. This alternative way of reading contrasts with the more linear and less interactive experience of reading straight through a printed book or magazine, and in the 1990s, when the web was new and strange, the idea of a fictional story being narrated on a computer in such a nonlinear and hyperlinked manner was still somewhat esoteric. Indeed, one way of understanding this new edition of Figurski is that it's been transformed from a more obscure hypertext format into an online form with which most readers are now familiar.

At some point my idea to write about multiple Someones, Somewheres, with Somethings clicked with the computer possibilities of hypertext, and the synergy between these two approaches became irresistible to me. I envisaged two more characters in addition to Streleski, two more places in addition to Findhorn, and two more artifacts in addition to LSD, within a single structure consisting of every possible combination of one, two, or all three characters with one, two, or all three of the artifacts. (In a nod to the laws of classical physics that the novel would end up violating in multiple other ways, I decided that the characters could not be at more than one place at the same time.) Storyspace was my software tool of choice because it was a fully-fleshed out hypertext writing environment, unlike the nascent web. Storyspace was also an established publishing platform with a stellar list of critically-acclaimed works. In addition, the affordances of Storyspace included, for both writer and reader, a graphical map showing the structure of "pages" and hyperlinks—a perfect match, it seemed, for visualizing and realizing my combinatorial approach.

With a structure conceived—a set of mathematical constraints involving multiples of three with 147 distinct combinatorial scenarios—I faced the exciting but daunting task of filling that structure with compelling content. In this sense, the blank screen is no different from the blank page. Some previous hypertext fictions, I felt, had strayed too far from the expectations that readers carried over from reading conventional stories and novels—expectations for interesting characters to hold onto, and for a strong storyline to keep one reading. In addition, the underlying architecture and linking structures of these early experiments were often mysterious or hidden from readers; portions of the text might even be invisible until the reader followed a particular reading path (e.g., for those familiar with Storyspace, using "guard fields" to conceal certain passages). The result was that these groundbreaking works were intellectually and theoretically exciting but, for me, could sometimes be cryptic and difficult to navigate, and they risked leaving readers, as some critics noted, "lost in hyperspace."

Standing on the shoulders of (or, in Figurskian terms, riding piggyback on) these previous texts, I wanted to write, first and foremost, an entertaining and humorous hypertext fiction. To do so I wanted to combine the emerging conventions of hypertext (smaller chunks of text connected with hyperlinks) with the older conventions of print text (tell a good story!). I wished to demystify the navigation of a large hypertext, to make the structure and linking scheme completely transparent (in today's terms, make the site easy to navigate). I wanted to write a novel with multiple reading paths and a linear plot line, populated with characters and settings and artifacts compelling enough, or satirical or absurd enough, to sustain hundreds of combinatorial scenes. A novel, above all, that would be as fun to read as it was to write. Those were some of my goals, and of course readers will decide the extent to which I achieved any of them.

One early decision I made about the characters would have implications for all nine of the character, place, and artifact elements. When the all-too-real Theodore Streleski was released from prison in 1985, he stated, "I have no intention of killing again. On the other hand, I cannot predict the future." He was paroled while steadfastly maintaining that his murder of math professor Karel de Leeuw was logical and morally correct, and he returned to living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Although Streleski was permanently banned from the Stanford campus, de Leeuw's widow and children still lived at the university—and I and my family did, too! All things considered, I decided it might be wiser to create a fictional character based on Streleski, rather than showcasing the unrepentant Streleski himself as the title protagonist of my novel. Thus was born copycat criminal Frank Figurski. Figurski became the model for the other main characters, who are, like Figurski, imitations or alternate-universe versions of real-life characters; the featured places and artifacts of the novel, too, are various mixtures of the artificial and the real.

The plot of Figurski involves a competition among the three characters for possession of one of the artifacts—a rare 18th-century automaton, Rosellini's 1737 Mechanical Pig, whose authenticity is frequently in doubt because of a clever forgery. The timeline, which can be read chronologically by following a default route through the hypertext, goes from 1993 to the end of year 2000; accordingly, the original Storyspace version of the novel has exactly 2001 links. Figurski's historical and cultural content—from Nancy Drew to Princess Diana, hallucinogens to the Holodeck, Scientology to Saddam Hussein—comes dominantly from the last decades of the 20th century. Thus Figurski is intended to be, besides a hypertext fiction, simply a novel of the 1990s, the turn of the 21st century.

Although I have portrayed the process in neat steps, the composition of Figurski was in reality much messier, its structure, content, and plotlines all created more or less concurrently and with many recursive loops. Along the way I received a great deal of help and invaluable feedback from readers, students, teachers, editors, and electronic literature colleagues. Notably:

  • • An early draft shared in Robert Kendall's pioneering online class at the New School for Social Research, "Hypertext Poetry and Fiction," in 1996, benefitted greatly from comments by fellow writers/students as well as from Rob.
  • • An incomplete draft became one of the texts used in Michael Tratner's course on the novel at Bryn Mawr College in 1998; Professor Tratner shared with me his students' comments along with his own, which contributed to the composition of the novel's concluding section (3.x).
  • • A penultimate draft, which became my 1998 MFA thesis at San Francisco State University, was developed in frequent consultation with my faculty advisors, novelist Michelle Carter and English professor/fiction writer Geoffrey Green.
  • • The final draft published by Eastgate Systems, in slightly different Macintosh and Windows versions on CD-ROM, was fine-tuned in close collaboration with my great editor Diane Greco and Eastgate's trailblazing chief scientist and Storyspace guru, Mark Bernstein.
  • We Descend author Bill Bly very generously helped jumpstart the process of "translating" Figurski from Storyspace to the web.

The definitive versions of Figurski ("Classic" and "Contemporary") now offered on the web are the result of a 9-month intensive collaboration with the Electronic Literature Lab. The talented Holly Slocum, Betsy Hanrahan, and Kathleen Zoller, along with the rest of the ELL team, have seamlessly transformed the text, images, linking structure, and interface design of 1990s-era Storyspace software into a modern online reading experience. Dene Grigar, the visionary leader of that team and a force of nature for the preservation and promotion of electronic literature, discusses this transformation of Figurski in more depth in her introduction.

Finally, I want to offer my appreciation to Michael Tratner, author of four books of criticism, for applying his analytical brilliance to Figurski in his introduction, "The Distinctive Quality of Holeton's Hypertext Fiction," and especially for finding the novel great fun to read. Michael's blurb for the original Eastgate CD, regardless of the extent to which he still stands by it, remains probably my favorite comment about Figurski: "Holeton's hypertext belongs in the tradition of screwball comedy, but it raises that tradition to the level of metaphysics—a cross between Borges and the Marx Brothers." Readers will judge for themselves. As Borges said, "A book is not an isolated entity: it is an axis of innumerable relationships"; added Groucho Marx, "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read." I wish Groucho had said "pig" instead of "dog," but happily, if you're reading hypertext fiction inside of anything, digital displays are illuminated.

Fig. 1. GIF of an original can of Spam the author donated to The NEXT, modeled by Keegan Walden, Creative Media and Digital Culture program at WSUV, 2021.

Migration as Translation: Moving Figurski to the Web by Dene Grigar, with research support by Kathleen Zoller, Holly Slocum, Betsy Hanrahan, Dave Sabrowski, Sarah West, and Greg Philbrook; Electronic Literature Lab, Washington State University Vancouver

"Traduttore e traditore." [The translator betrays.]

Migrating an early hypertext novel originally created with proprietary software programmed in C and published on a removeable disk, to HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript for the World Wide Web, as we have done for Richard Holeton’s Figurski at Findhorn on Acid, is an act of translation—one involving not only the translation of its code, but also of its interface design and its functionality. As such, translation impacts our experience with the work, ultimately betraying it as some aspects of it becomes lost in the effort to make it found by a new audience. In a digital translation aimed at restoring access to a work that has become technologically obsolete, the gain is so much greater than the loss. In the case of Figurski, especially, it means that we can now again read one of the most unique and quirky interactive novels of the early 21st Century.

This translation of Holeton’s novel to the web constitutes Phase 1 of Version 7.0 of the work. Having begun in 1996 as a short, short story for Grain Magazine for its "Postcard Story Contest," Figurski continued to take shape in various iterations, both for print and digital contexts, until it was released on Storyspace 2.0 for Macintosh computers on CD-ROM in 2001 by Eastgate Systems, Inc. This version, Version 3.0, has been identified by Holeton as the canonical version of the work. The PC version, Version 4.0—in production since 2000—came out later in 2001, while Versions 5.0 and 6.0 were produced by the author in 2008 in Storyspace 3.0 but remain unpublished to this day. Though this web-based version, Version 7.0, is not intended to replace the canonical Macintosh version or Version 4.0 still available from the publisher, it does however accomplish an important goal: It makes Figurski accessible to an audience who no longer own computers able to run its software or include CD-ROM drives needed for accessing its format and/or have, since 2007, embraced mobile devices as the primary mode of communication and information-gathering.

This 20th Anniversary Edition of Figurski has been undertaken by members of the Electronic Literature Lab at Washington State University Vancouver with work beginning in September 2020. The project entails the production of an open-access archival version of the work presented in two modes: a Classic mode simulating the original look and feel of the canonical Macintosh version, and a Contemporary mode updating the interface design for a 21st century audience. Additionally, the creation of this archival version is intended to take place in two phases, with Phase 1, released on May 15, 2021, providing the foundation for the Scholarly Edition envisioned as Phase 2 planned for release in 2022.

Because the project has coincided with the university shut-down during the pandemic, one of the first steps taken was to disseminate legacy Macintosh computers held in the lab with the requisite operating systems and CD-ROM drives along with a copy of Figurski to each team member for reading and studying the work at home. Adhering to the Pathfinders methodology that necessitates the use of “historically appropriate equipment” to “ensure fidelity to the original product” (Moulthrop and Grigar 7), we selected the G3 iMac All-In-One (aka “Bubble”). It was available to the public from 1998 to 2003 and, so, could have been used for accessing the work when it was published in 2001. Fortunately, the lab holds nine of them, from the original Bondi Blue released by Apple in 1998, to several from the “Life Savers” series (specifically, the Tangerine and Blueberry) released in 1999, to the Graphite Bubble released in 2000. All of the computers from this series were designed with only CD-ROM drives with processors ranging from 233 MHz to 500 MHz.

The variety of operating systems, from System Software 8.1 originally running on the Bondi Blue iMac to System Software 9.2 running on the 2000 Graphite iMac (along with Mac OS X 10.4.9), provided insights into the loading speeds of the work on various systems.

Leading the project for Phase 1 was Betsy Hanrahan who also served as its web developer, creating the HTML templates for the 354 lexias, re-creating the 2001 links found in the work, and developing all of the scripting for the project. Kathleen Zoller developed the content for all lexias and served as the project’s documentarian. Dave Sabrowski was brought in toward the end of the project to assist with all aspects of the code. Holly Slocum, the lab’s Project Manager, designed the interface and implemented the CSS. Sarah West was also brought in later in the project to provide assistance with the production of most of the images. Greg Philbrook, the lab’s technical assistant, shared his expertise with the web development and ensured needed technical resources. Dene Grigar, the lab’s Director, provided historical and cultural insights into the work and led the overall conceptualization of the migration.

Changes to Figurski
Translating Figurski into a new format two decades after its initial release required many decisions for changes to the original. These fall into four areas: Visual, Navigational, Functional, and Textual.

Visual Changes
One of the first decisions related to developing the interface design was determining how close to the original our Classic mode could be, particularly since Storyspace was designed for authoring hypertext literary works before web browsers were available with built in affordances for creating works as well as a recognizable visual aesthetic of nodes and links. [1] Because current web languages do make it possible to capture a semblance of the original, we opted to re-create the visual design of Version 3.0. One of the main differences remains the Toolbar, which differs greatly in the new version for both modes.

The second decision focused on the way in which the Contemporary mode would update the visual style of the original. In this regard, because contemporary audiences, influenced as they are by video games and streaming media, are accustomed to highly visual environments, we optimized the original art for higher resolution displays and added backgrounds to lexias that followed Holeton’s conventions for organizing the narrative—namely characters, places, and artifacts.

Finally, it also was clear from the outset that because the work was being recreated anew for a contemporary audience, the landing page for the project site would sport a contemporary design while also channeling aspects of the earlier Figurski style, such as the emphasis on the pig highlighted on the jewel case of the CD-ROM (and that figures in the central plot of the story). Additionally, because Figurski is an absurdist novel that pokes fun at counter-culture elements of the 1990s, the design retains a psychedelic aesthetic that features saturated colors and swirling motifs. Used throughout as backgrounds in the Contemporary mode, they provide a consistency for the work across its 354 lexias. It also made sense to provide links on the landing page to both modes so that readers could determine which one to follow; more importantly, the design also includes the ability for readers to switch at any time in their reading between the two modes so as to compare them.

One additional challenge was selecting fonts for the translation. The importance of fonts in early interactive media cannot be overstated. The ability to include full color images was limited by constraints to display and storage. This meant that much of the media produced was textual, with images themselves rendered as ASCII art comprised of a specific number of fixed-width characters. Figurski, published during the period when multimedia was becoming more robust, does indeed include images. At the same time its fonts had been purposely selected for specific parts of the novel in a way that helped to differentiate story sections and, so, play an important role in its design.

Unlike other hypertexts published by Eastgate Systems, Inc., such as Kathryn Cramer’s “In Small & Large Pieces” or Diane Greco’s “Cyborg: Engineering the Body Electric” that bundle special fonts with the works, however, Figurski utilizes typefaces common to Apple computers of the time. This design strategy was a boon for determining fonts for the new version. The Classic mode could retain the serif proportional font, New York, used in the canonical version, and include Georgia, a serif font created in 1993 for the Microsoft Corporation, for computers running Windows. Likewise, the monospaced font, Monaco, could be retained for the lexias associated with the “Holodeck” as they were for the original; Consolas, another monospaced font, was selected for Windows computers for those lexias. [2] Additionally, the monospaced font Courier, which had originally been introduced in 1955 for IBM typewriters and has become a staple of computers, including Macintoshes, could be used for the “Terminal.” Several other san-serif fonts could be brought over for Figurski’s “Map” and “Notes.”

Designing the Contemporary mode was not as straightforward since it required fonts that fit the updated style. The decision to retain the funky feel of the original title led to the adoption of the Adobe font, Cotton, designed by Ray Larabie, for the Contemporary mode. Described as “a mid-twentieth century style casual sans with a vintage t-shirt texture” (“Adobe Fonts”), Cotto— with its letters slightly askew—captures the off-kilter antics of the novel’s three main characters who search for the legendary mechanical pig. Fira Sans Condensed, clean and easy to read, has been used as Figurski’s primary font, while Exo 2 supplants Monaco/Consolas for the lexias associated with the Holodeck. Courier has been retained for the Terminal.

Navigation Changes
The web languages used for this translation makes it possible to retain Figurski’s linking strategy, from the links relating to the Navigator, Map, and Notes, to its hidden links and default reading. The color coding of the links found in Version 3.0 were retained in the Classic mode, with colors as close as possible to the original. Editorial changes were made to 12 links that were incorrect in the original.

Functionality Changes
The differences in functionality between a stand-alone, CD-ROM version of Figurski and an open, responsive web-based version are both obvious and inconspicuous.

Version 3.0 is published and disseminated on physical media that requires no access to the internet for reading the novel. Readers, circa 2001, would have received in their mailbox a CD-ROM packaged in a jewel case with a brightly designed liner featuring a pig. They would have had to pierce the plastic cover protecting the jewel case and its contents before snapping open the case in order to access the CD-ROM. Next, they would have inserted the CD-ROM into the CD-ROM drive of their desktop computer and installed the work. Once installed, readers would have clicked the launcher icon—unsurprisingly featuring an image of a pig—to start the novel. But before the novel would appear, a dialog box would have popped up asking readers if they want to “Begin a new reading” or “Resume a previous reading.” Choosing the former, readers would have then watched as the novel load its 354 lexias and 2001 links. These actions taken to access and read Figurski two decades ago, though different from what was required for a print-based novel, still established a kind of tangible and physical relationship with it. So it is today when experiencing the work on a legacy computer.

Fig. 2. GIF of the Figurski CD-ROM modeled by Andrew Templin, Creative Media and Digital Culture program at WSUV, 2021.

Version 7.0, on the other hand, resides on the web and is created so that it functions on desktop computers, laptops, mobile phones, and tablets. A reader will only need to type the novel’s URL into the browser of any computing device and, depending on the broadband speed of their internet service, can fairly quickly access the work. No installation is required. No launcher icon with a pig appears. No dialog box loads links and nodes. Thus, the physicality apparent in the original is lost, transforming the relationship between reader and tangible object holding the work—the CD-ROM—to one of a reader and the work itself as it is instantiated by code.

One characteristic of the original version we were able to simulate is the dialogue box, mentioned previously, that shows the nodes and links as they load the work. Produced with a JavaScript modal, the simulation is aimed to provide readers with this experience so notable when they engaged with Storyspace hypertexts.

Textual Changes
Textual changes to Figurski are minor ones that fix spelling, usage, and grammar errors as well as errors found in references and citations. To guide our editing, we used the original script Holeton made available to the lab and worked directly with him on the final output.

Migration Is Translation a Third Time
Close to 50 years ago Hans-Georg Gadamer argued that "reading is already translation, and translation is translation for the second time” (Gadamer, in Biguenet and Schulte, ix). For Figurski, reading is also impacted by its migration from Storyspace software and physical media to the web languages and web, adding a third layer to the translation process of the work, for it is not just translation of the code from C to HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript, but the changes, also, to the format of the work that results in a different sensory experience and a different way of reading the work. Lost is the intimacy established with touching the tangible object and the sense of it belonging to us personally. Gained, however, is something more important that should be celebrated: We can now again read one of the most unique and quirky interactive novels of the early 21st Century.

Version 7.0 of Figurski at Findhorn on Acid is like all other translated works in that it represents a new work of art, a new experience, a new way of reading the novel. The Electronic Literature Lab is delighted to make this new version of Holeton’s novel widely accessible to the public again.


[1] N. Katherine Hayles identifies the Storyspace School in her book, Electronic Literature.

[2] Both Monaco and New York were designed by Susan Kare for the Apple Corporation in 1984. See “Susan Kare," Wikipedia

Works Cited

“Adobe Fonts.”

Biguenet, John and Rainer Schulte. The Craft of Translation. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Moulthrop, Stuart and Dene Grigar. Traversals: The Use of Preservation for Early Electronic Writing. Cambridge, MA. The MIT Press, 2017.

The Distinctive Quality of Holeton’s Hypertext Novel by Michael Tratner

The wonder of this hypertext is that it rigidly sticks to an extremely complicated, even tortured, organization (in which every possible arrangement of three characters, three objects and three places occurs) and yet it is a good read—whether you mechanically follow the default route or flip around randomly, you can zip through and enjoy the pages. Somehow Holeton has managed to integrate the mechanical structure, absurd philosophical ruminations, characters defined entirely by eccentricities, and intellectual metafictional commentary into a seamless whole.

The only way to explain the way this text works is to give an example: the characters discover Rosellini’s 1737 Mechanical Pig, which is quite clearly identified as a metaphor for the whole hypertext (e.g., the pig is constructed in three sub-assemblages, each of which has three parts in it, and so on, just like the text); the most important quality of this machine pig is that it can imitate both eating and excreting, so that its various owners stage performances which climax in the pig's eating real food and then producing what appears to be excrement, to the delight of audiences. Holeton's use of this meta-fictional pig is both deeply philosophical and utterly self-mocking: it raises such central questions about computer texts as the line between the mechanical and the organic, and at the same time laughs at anyone (including the author) who would describe this text as raising any cosmic questions at all.

Let me elaborate a bit on the pig to show how far Holeton carries the meta-fictional issues: another object repeatedly brought up in the text is the substance Spam, which is described as created by repeatedly chopping pieces of pork into threes (again, an image of the process of writing this endlessly divided-into-threes text). So the process of mechanically chopping up his stories which became Holeton's method in writing this hypertext novel is mocked by Holeton as his way of producing "processed literature"—Spamfiction. But what then do we make of a scene where the mechanical pig is fed Spam? If the pig and Spam are metaphors for the creation of hypertexts, is the scene of a mechanical pig eating Spam a metametaphor, a metaphor for the processing of metaphors? Is a mechanical pig eating processed pork a twenty-first century version of Stanley Fish's critical category of the self-consuming artifact? Or is it just comical? Holeton manages to ride a thin edge between the most complex recent critical ideas and the most absurd TV game shows. It is remarkable enough that Holeton shows us such a thin edge exists, more remarkable that he would seek to create new literature in such a strange region, and most remarkable that what he writes is great fun to read.

While the novel was being completed, I assigned it to students at Bryn Mawr College (and an allusion to this appears in the text in reference to a Professor Ratnert—anagram for Tratner). Students found the novel enjoyable, but they concluded that the really striking thing about it is that its "difficulty," the depth of its commentary on modern culture, derives from its being "too easy" and "too accessible"—it is a work made of easy, accessible cultural materials, yet it resists the usual ways we consume or dismiss such materials.

As the students noted, while enjoying the absurdity of the text, there are repeatedly references to real sociopolitical issues and even to horrors. The main characters are defined by painful experiences that have in some ways ruined their lives: Francis Figurski is driven to murder by the way he is used by academia in graduate school; Nguyen Van Tho had his hands blown off during the Vietnam war; Fatima Michelle Vieuchanger faces misogyny, ethnic marginalization and has lost custody of her son to her husband. The text takes us into their minds as they repeatedly recall painful experiences. Figurski thinks back to his time as a graduate student: “the graduate studies office is hassling you even though you’ve told them repeatedly to get off your back . . . and your advisor is fucking with your mind . . . and your registration is on hold again . . . and Harvard pays its ta’s 8.5% of pigshit wages, how long before you smash in his fucking head” (1.1.05). When Tho takes acid, he both remembers the explosion that blew off his hands and experiences “Double phantom limb symptoms . . . including intermittent pain”; the text then asks whether reading about such experiences could cause readers to themselves suffer “American post-Vietnam anxieties” (1.3.06). Fatima on acid struggles to “Avoid unpleasant thoughts — fear of heights, losing control, death, pain, misery. Don’t think about Mo [her son Mohammed], those huge brown eyes, the guilt!” (1.1.22).

The text also makes passing mention of numerous global political issues, only occasionally connected to the main characters. In the middle of a fairly innocuous page, there are Canadians chanting “Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Granada, Iraq, Palestine” (1.2.06)—all locations of concern in international politics in 1999, when the novel was written. Later we have an eruption of political commentary in the midst of a general account of the rise of acid as a popular drug: “Acid use declined during the fraudulent wars on drugs initiated by the Reaganites, who instead favored crack cocaine, promoted by the CIA as part of the effort to addict and imprison America’s entire ethnic underclass” (Acid 2.x). And toward the end of the novel, in the Notes, Fatima Vieuchanger provides another summary of issues of the day: “resist the war, protect the environment, liberate women and other oppressed groups, legalize drugs, etc.” (126). But she reaches an unusual conclusion: “Morocco is America’s future (not the other way around). Morocco is run by the wealthy few, its great urban population a mass of low-level merchants . . . This is where you are going, it is practically where you are, but your media keep you in the dark” (126). There are numerous such political commentaries, and the horrors of the main characters are disturbing, but somehow nothing quite dispels the general tone of absurd entertainment.

We might expect the presentation of sociopolitical issues to be due to the misuse of power, but the text essentially never devotes more than a sentence here and there to leaders of any sort. There are no evil powerful figures having a significant role in the novel. Rather the text follows the postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard’s conclusion in Simulacra and Simulations that “power is no longer present” in modern society; power has been “completely expunged from the political dimension, it is dependent, like any other commodity, on production and mass consumption” (179). Production and mass consumption—or we might say the production of those things which are mass consumed—is endlessly examined in this novel, and the novel suggests, as Baudrillard does, that such mass consumption is what is creating the political and personal horrors of the current world. The novel suggests that individuals are simply surrounded by mass-produced objects and distant government agencies, so that individuals have very little agency. One “assignment” supposedly for a class reading this highlights this division: “break down communication barriers between individual consumers and impersonal bureaucracies or cultural icons” (1.3.08). A central theme of the novel is that bureaucracies and icons substitute for actual communication—we think in provided symbols.

Turning to postmodern theory to make some sense of this work is not just what I as an English professor tend to do. Rather, postmodern theory is brought in directly by Holeton: at one point a “conference” is on the topic of “The Writer as Simulation” and concludes that “in a virtual Baudrillardian Disneyland-on-drugs, The Writer is a simulation of a simulacrum” (2.2.08). Holeton is drawing on Baudrillard’s discussion of Disneyland as one way the totality of simulations are covered up: by appearing to be different from the rest of the world because it is entirely composed of obvious copies, Disneyland functions to make the simulations functioning outside Disneyland appear to be “real.” Holeton’s text can be used to do very much what Baudrillard suggests Disneyland does: it gives us the experience of a world entirely full of copies, and we generally react to it as absurd, unlike reality, but that is precisely how the novel misleads us. The novel seems unreal, but yet also suggests in many ways—such as citing Baudrillard—that to see the world of copies in the text as unlike what is “real” is misreading the text.

Baudrillard attributes the turning of the world into simulations to the effects of late Capitalism. Capitalism long ago was concerned with what could really be constructed, with production of real things. But the rise of the infinite variety of ways to modify construction, to make copies of copies and give them value, has changed that. So Baudrillard concludes,

“if it was capital which fostered reality, the reality principle, it was also the first to liquidate it in the extermination of every use value, of every real equivalence, of production and wealth, in the very sensation we have of the unreality of the stakes and the omnipotence of manipulation.” (178)

What Holeton is investigating in much of this work is the “omnipotence of manipulation”—and it is by making us extremely aware of HIS manipulations that the work aims to give us a Baudrillardian reading of the Disneyland that is this text: we can never lose sight of the sociopolitical issues being manipulated by the very Disney-like creations in this work and in the world around us.

The novel thus is a form of criticism that applies to itself as much as to the world at large. Linda Hutcheon, in The Politics of Postmodernism, has called this feature of postmodern literature “complicitous critique” (2), and regards it as the crucial structure of parody: “In postmodern parody, the doubleness of the politics of authorized transgression remains intact: there is no dialectic resolution or recuperative evasion of contradiction” (106). Following Hutcheon’s views, we have to conclude that there is no way to settle on the precise commentary Holeton’s hypertext is making about the world around us. The work is political, and it is pure entertainment, and these seemingly disparate halves are deeply entwined or “complicitous” with each other. To see how deeply the two halves are bound together, I suggest looking more closely at how Spam is used. It is a well-known cheap product that may seem to consist of rather fake meat. But Spam turns out to play numerous roles in the novel. It is an empty Spam container that holds the bomb that blows off Tho’s hands. That suggests that it is not only the Viet Cong who have injured Tho, but American products, distributed worldwide. On the other hand, Spam is also the container in which the “Prime Movers” are found which could restore the mechanical pigs and thus in a sense restore the full order of the entire work. A Prime Mover is something that is essentially a beginning, a first principle, a center, something that clearly is not a copy (though there seem to be two Prime Movers, one for each mechanical pig). The novel thus presents Spam as a vast source of social corruption and as having the potential to carry inside it an answer, a cure for all the simulations surrounding us. Rather neatly, Holeton even extends his world to include two fake containers of meats with names based on Spam but slightly changed, one simply called “Sham” and the other named by reversing the spelling to produce “Maps.” To see Spam as a Sham is to get beyond its commercially promoted meaning as a good form of meat. To see it in relation to maps, on the other hand, is striking and strange—does Spam provide directions to something we should care about? Putting Spam in the middle between Sham and Maps leaves us uncertain where we might go in thinking about Spam—just see it as a worthless cultural icon, a false version of useful food? Or see it as something that could lead us somewhere, perhaps out of the entire world of cultural icons? Holeton has filled this work with popular culture icons which he can then use both for their corrupt involvement in world problems and for criticism of that very corruption.

Another postmodern theorist, Jacques Derrida, argues in a dense essay entitled “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” that an actual “event” in recent history has led to the sense that everything is a copy. And that event was what Derrida calls a “rupture” in the very nature of “structure” itself. Derrida argues that to have an overall structure, there must be a center, something that is beyond the process of defining things in terms of other things, something that just is itself, something that just is a “presence” not needing definition in terms of anything else. Derrida includes a long list of things that have served as that central presence in the history of various structures. He says,

“It could be shown that all the names related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the center have always designated an invariable presence—eidos, arché, telos, energeia, ousia (essence, existence, substance, subject) aletheia, transcendentality, consciousness, or conscience, God, man, and so forth.” (177)

However, Derrida argues that after the critiques of all those “centers” by writers such as Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger, it is impossible to believe in any “presence,” anything that everyone experiences as just itself. Instead, there is only now “repetition in all of the senses of the word” (178). When “repetition” replaced “structure,” Derrida says people began “thinking that there was no center . . . that it was not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of nonlocus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play” (178).

Holeton’s novel is clearly about such a vision of the world, but it is not merely about endless copies. Much of the novel is about the search for a center—which is turned into the search for a fully-assembled mechanical pig. The pigs are of course copies, and one even a copy of the other pig, but what they are supposed to be able to do is perform a central “natural” operation which is part of every animal: taking in food and converting it to excrement. If they can do that, they start to seem no longer merely copies, but versions of the original, i.e., of real pigs. The text describes pigs, humans and all animals as part of the “meat-world” and as “meat,” they are all distinct individuals because they are born through a “meat” process, a process that transforms parts of the parents into parts of the newborn, and all those parts are distinct, not mere repetitions. The natural processes of incorporating and transforming physical substances never fully repeat the composition of what results. As such, things making up the “meat-world” cannot be fully “copies” of anything. Reconstructing the pigs to properly digest food is then part of an escape from the universe of copies. It even turns out that the key mechanical piece needed to have the pigs work is called the “Prime Mover,” identifying the fully assembled pigs with precisely what Derrida says has been lost—a central “presence” that needs nothing beyond it to define it, a first or prime mover which starts the process of building things out of other things and thus the process of creating copies. The latter part of the novel, seeking to insert a prime mover and transform a constructed object into a naturally functioning living thing (a pig consuming food) thus raises the question of whether it is possible to reconstruct a center and restore “structure” to the world of endless simulations. But it is impossible to get a “center” by reconstructing the pigs, because there are two of them and it is impossible to tell which is the “original” and which the “copy.” The same uncertainty surrounds the “Prime Movers” which operate the pigs: if there are two, neither can be the singular “center” that Derrida says is gone: even a Prime Mover can be copied within the structure of the world of the novel. The work itself thus cannot achieve the “structure” that it is in some sense deeply desiring.

But something else happens that counters the hopelessness of what seems for much of the work a Baudrillardian vision of the meaninglessness of everything being a simulation. What happens is that the novel has a definite sense of beginning and ending, which does not “structure” the whole, but hints at an alternative to the chaos which Baudrillard condemns and Derrida in a sense welcomes.

The first few pages of the novel operate in large part as a fairly traditional beginning. One gets introduced to the characters, the places, and the strange objects that people use in those places, all well-defined, in fat paragraphs with no notes on pages neatly titled Figurski 1.x, Findhorn 1.x, Acid 1.x, etc. So a reader begins the novel with a reasonably clear sense of the pieces that make up the story. There are also a few “scenes” using those pieces, and gradually the scenes take over. The scenes have links to the Notes, and the first few notes quite directly speak of a beginning. The very first note says, “The doorway to another reality lies before you” (001)—we are readers are being led into “another reality.” And the fifth note is a quote from an article in a journal called Technology and Culture, but it seems to set out what will follow in Holeton’s work: “Our story begins with the deep-rooted urge of man to simulate the world about him through the graphic and plastic arts . . . The design is a mathematical tour-de-force in elegantly mapping the heavenly vault” (005). And illustrating that quote are eerie images of diagrams that look like the charts for sections of the novel, but made into curves that seem to be hanging or spinning in space. The seventh note says, “In some versions the pigs eventually regain their human shape” (007), hinting at the ambiguity that persists throughout the work about just what the mechanical pigs are. And note 14 quotes Lewis Mumford saying that the extensive growth of technology has created a world in which we might say there is a new kind of center: “the center of authority . . . lies in the system itself, invisible but omnipresent” and all humans are “themselves trapped by the very perfection of the organization they have invented” (014). These notes set up what becomes the central concern of the overall work—is there a structure? A structure to the novel? A structure to the vast array of cultural icons and entertainment figures? A structure to the world of sociopolitical issues? A structure to human reality?

After introducing the major features of the text in the pages and raising questions about the possibility that it is exploring an overall structure, the text then wanders off into numerous amusing or bizarre sections—a series of parodies of Nancy Drew mysteries; several “conferences” where academics discuss various elements of the novel; Holodeck programs recreating Princess Di’s death in an auto accident; and so on.

But the final sections of the novel don’t just wander: they move to a sense of a distinct ending, though not one that recovers an overall structure to the world or to the whole work. All the characters go onto the Holodeck to turn into the people they had been copying: they are described as then “role-playing their meat-world twins” (3.1.06). In a sense, the novel seems to be undoing its copying, as if it were attempting to return to “reality”—to the solid “meat” shapes of these people that cannot simply be copied. But of course it is the Holodeck creating copies of those “originals” and putting those new copies over the old copies which were the characters, so it is not a restoration of the original “meat” existence. But for a while the three characters are in a sense no longer creations of the text. After that all three characters become actively involved in seeking to reassemble the mechanical pigs; they succeed in producing “fully functional” pigs (3.3.03), but as with the people, what appears unique—a pig with a Prime Mover inside—is indistinguishable from a copy.

There is then at the end no complete structure but there is an ending: the pages and the notes change to something else in the last section. The text becomes “picture book” illustrations—cute crayon drawings as if done by children— and the very last page has a whole series of repetitions of the words “goodbye” and “goodnight” including “goodnight moon,” the title of a famous children’s book (3.3.03). The turn to a young child’s “picture book” after all the complexity and intellectualism in the novel is in some ways sad and in other ways hopeful—the work has sought to go beyond the endless repetition of the sociopolitical order, an endless repetition that makes all the problems and all the good stuff in the world seem “old.” But the goal of the work, the last section suggests, is to produce something young and new. And if it could do that, it would end up creating something we adults cannot fully understand, but we can join in the spirit of saying goodbye to a powerful and quite enjoyable text, and with the hope that we are also saying some form of goodbye to the sociopolitical monstrosities it has alluded to throughout.

The Notes, which in the beginning set out multiple versions of an overall structure to the universe, turn at the end to various images of ending without completing any particular structure. The final section of Notes is titled “time/end o’journey.” The first one alludes to “reviewing, re-envisioning each scene” which it says “isn’t possible on the outside, in the meat world” (130). The second one refers to the possibilities of revising and changing all sorts of earlier moments in the text, but including some overall conclusions such as “politics IS cannibalism” (131). The notes then move to the images of Berber and Moroccan places, such as “kasbahs and . . . [a] ruined mosque” (144). Then the final note is presented as a Moroccan way of ending, of saying good-bye—via a move to religious language. First it says that “Good-bye . . . means “God be with ye” (147). And then it claims to present a Moroccan version of goodbye, “Slama Sidhi Barakhas” which the note translates as “Peace be with you, my friend, and blessings on you” (147).

The final words of both pages and notes thus seem to be directly addressing the reader to provide a distinctive kind of ending—not resolution of any of the plot elements, but just a peaceful separation. The reader, assumed to be an adult American, is in a sense being encouraged to imagine a new generation and the possibility of leaving the world the reader knows to go, we might say, beyond culture altogether. The novel ends with the possibility of something we could call “somewhere else,” but possibly currently unknown, created perhaps by people who are young and not yet entirely wrapped up in the vast corporate simulations which the work has explored so deeply. Such is the hypertext novel’s answer to postmodern despair.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulations.” Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1988. 166-183.

Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Modern Literary Theory: A Reader. Third Edition. Ed. Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 176-191.

Fish, Stanley. Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1972.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. 2nd edition. New York: Routledge. 1989.

Fig. 3. GIF of the beach ball used for live performances of Figurski, modeled by Andrew Templin, Creative Media and Digital Culture program at WSUV, 2021.

Dedication and Acknowledgements

Mac OS directions. For best viewing, set your monitor resolution at 800x600, 832x624, or 1024x768. You have several options, explained below, for navigating the hypertext. If you are new to Storyspace, you may wish to experiment with one method at a time, returning to this space as needed to review the other options. Storyspace is based on linked writing spaces or nodes framed as computer windows, such as the current space you’re reading, titled “Introduction.” These spaces work similarly to web pages, but with some important differences:

  1. Click on the double arrow icon (<=>) in the Storyspace tool bar, or simply tap the Return key twice, to follow a preset, default route from space to space through the narrative. If there is no default link from a space you’re in, you must choose a path using one of the other methods below.
  2. Hold down the Shift key while clicking on the double arrow (<=>), from any space, to go back the way you came. You can retrace any number of steps backwards this way.
  3. Double-click on underlined or colored text to follow navigational links (including those provided from the main NAVIGATOR space).
  4. Hold down the Option and Apple keys together to view other “hidden” text links, which will appear highlighted in wireframe boxes. Double-click anywhere within linked text (highlighted or not) to follow these links.
  5. Hold down the Option key and click on the double arrow (<=>) to see a list of all links (both navigational and hidden) from a given space; select one of these links then click the “Follow” button.
  6. Click on the question mark icon (?) in the tool bar to view a Roadmap based on the current space. To navigate from the Roadmap, select from the lists a recently visited space or a link to or from the current space, click “Make Current,” then click “Open this space.”
  7. Use the map view in the map window to see different views of the hierarchical structure and to navigate through the hypertext based on its structural elements.
  8. The NAVIGATOR space includes a navigational link back to the Introduction; follow this link whenever you want to return to this space for a reminder about various ways to move through the narrative.
  9. Note that a scroll bar will appear if any space contains more than you can see in the visible window.