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An Overview of the Dysarchitecture of Douglas Cooper
by Nancy Costigan, translated from the French by Sebastien Adkikan
We do not live in cyberspace: we move through it. Douglas
Cooper, author of Delirium, the first novel serialized on the Internet, is one
of many creators who have opened a passage into this virtual world. His approach
is interesting not because he has used this new form of media, but because of
his willingness to progress from the real to the virtual, to explore its possibilities
and limitations. Not only does Cooper quite cleverly use all the technical means
available to him to create innovative stories, but he is also able to readdress
concerns that have troubled the human consciousness for many centuries. This
is a fragmented exploration of his protean world.
Amnesia: The Division of Oblivion
Douglas Cooper published his first novel, Amnesia, in
1992. It is a standard book, divided into four sections of near-equal length.
These tell the twisted tale of three characters winding their way through a
Babylonian city called Toronto. The first character works in the city archives
and does not have a name in fact, he does not even have a birth certificate,
and we eventually learn that he can only remember the last two years of his
life. While waiting in his office one day, a few hours before his wedding, he
is accosted by a man named Izzy Darlow, who proceeds to tell small fragments
of the unnamed man's forgotten ghostly life. This leads us to Katy, a mysterious
woman who was violated in her youth and who subsequently lost her memory, her
past life buried in the recesses of the corpse-filled ravines of the city. Some
of the other characters include Izzy's two brothers: Aaron, a future engineer,
and Josh, a writer-surveyor who perceives and transcribes fragments of time
during his night-time meanderings. Throughout this unbearably beautiful novel,
each character struggles to deal with the destruction and reconstruction of
his or her identity.
The Eternal Labyrinth
Each fragmented tale in Amnesia can be seen as a distinct
section of a labyrinth, which, when assembled with the other pieces, forms a
perfect whole - a single story told in four parts. By following the path laid
out by Cooper, the reader realizes an impossible city, where, as the nameless
archivist says, "everything exists simultaneously." This development
recalls the actions of Izzy's father, who has patched up a semi-detached dwelling
into an expansive yet convoluted home for his family. In both cases, the constructions
are complete: all times and places are bound within them.
The narrative structure of Amnesia is founded in various tales, locations, and myths mentioned by the
narrator: Shakespeare, Coleridge, and the legend of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur,
among many others. At one point Izzy even says, I am a confluence of stolen
narratives and my own story has been stolen too and fed through a foreign mouth
Throughout Amnesia, we return to the same environments; sometimes we recognize
the landscape, but other times we stumble onto an event whose origin is unknown.
Added alongside the prevalence of flashbacks, lapses, and uncertainties, this
reinforces the role of the labyrinth in this story as a coldly efficient circuit
from which there is no escape.
Delirium: The Disappearing City
Contrary to his first work, which used a traditional
format despite its multilinear structure, Delirium was designed for the Web,
and released a short while after Amnesia was published. It appeared as a serial,
with chapters published at regular intervals, and invited the reader to individually
decide the order in which the sections would be read. Although Cooper did not
use the full technological capabilities open to him, the product was immediately
considered a "hypertext" because of the freedom it offered its readers.
Only the first part of the story was published online; the full novel was printed
in 1998. Because the Internet version of Delirium is no longer available, we
must now rely on the divisions of the hard copy if we wish to imagine how the
hypertext version was laid out.
Delirium tells the story of Ariel Price, an architect
who decides he must murder his biographer - a man named Theseus Crouch - because
Crouch has discovered a horrible secret: beneath one of the office towers designed
by Price lies a young woman who was buried alive. Again, the novel becomes an
intertwined collection of stories: Ariel, Theseus, Bethany (the buried victim),
the legendary Mary Magdalene, and even Izzy and Josh from Amnesia. Themes from
Cooper's first novel are also featured, such as labyrinths, architecture, and
Jewishness. During an interview, Cooper once explained that the maze-like structure
of Delirium arose from its original mode of publication: "I was trying
to create a novel in the shape of a labyrinth and here was this medium already
in the shape of a labyrinth. I could fill it with words".1
By first posting his story on the Web, Cooper became
a pioneer in the commercialization of this new publishing medium. Everyone began
talking about this event, and many even criticized Cooper for not pushing the
literary frontiers of cyberspace further. The original version of Delirium is
no longer available, and its existence has therefore been strictly ephemeral.
It was nothing more than the electronic manifestation of a literary happening.
But what about the printed version? Obviously, the fact that it was originally
designed for the Web must have had an impact on its structure, on the connections
between sentences and sections, and also on the relationship between the reader
and the story. In addition, the fact that it was one of the first stories to
be called a "hypertext" made it attractive for some readers regardless
of the actual story that was told. Cooper confirmed this interpretation in another
interview: "We had a bulletin board on Pathfinder...I'd receive comments,
but most seemed to concentrate on design and navigation; rarely did anyone comment
on the text."2 While the structure of Delirium appears to have been influenced
by the electronic medium it used, its fragmented aesthetic makes it part of
a larger movement of which cyberspace is only one manifestation.
Evidently, the printed version of Delirium cannot reproduce
the nonlinear nature of the serialized version. The novel had to set an arbitrary
order in which the sections would be read, though Cooper did give interested
readers the opportunity to read along nonsequential paths marked by him through
various means. For example, they could follow all of the sections in italics,
or all those titled "Parallel Life." Moreover, if we compare his two novels,
we notice that they both use multiple voices to tell their stories, and that
they evoke a similar spatial organization. In Cooper's opinion, authors and
architects are the same, in that they only determine how a structure will be
The architect designs a floor plan; he doesn't dictate the order in which the
rooms are to be experienced. He gives over the options of navigating that building
to its occupant. This doesn't make the architect any less of an architect, any
less the author of a building. The walls are set in place. The plan is the plan.
Similarly, my book on the Web has an unvarying plan. You can navigate it any
way you like, but I wrote it.3
Architecture plays a pivotal role in the works
of Cooper, even more so than in cyberspace. Labyrinths, cities, imaginary structures:
they are all spaces that allow Cooper's protagonists to move through and beyond
them. The fact that Delirium first appeared on the Internet does not affect
its essential nature, as Amnesia proves, since it shares the second novel's
manifold construction. At best, using the Web as a medium made Delirium more
appealing to some readers, and therefore exposed it to a greater audience. But
in no way did this lead to a profoundly new way of telling stories, at least
as far as the works of Cooper are concerned. Delirium moved into cyberspace,
settled briefly, and left certain traces when it departed, but it would have
never remained there.
The Waiting Room of Memory
In parallel to the fictional worlds of his novels, Cooper
has also created a Web site that chronicles his artistic and media experiences,
entitled Dysmedia. This site is divided into four parts - "Ancient Media," "Old
Media," "New Media," and "Dysmedia" ("Ancient Media" is of course dedicated
to books). It contains a few unpublished texts, as well as a "user's manual"
called Anxiety in the Age of Digital Reproduction - an artist's statement rooted
in the notion of reproducible art put forth by Walter Benjamin.
However, the most surprising section is the one devoted to reviews of Cooper's
novels. While this section features links to literary reviews, they have been
sorted whimsically by Cooper without any attempt at rigourous classification
- some reviews even appear under multiple categories. In addition, Cooper has
selected only some of the many reviews of his work which are available, as a
search on the Internet will quickly confirm. This highlights the role of the
Internet as a marketing tool, but it also represents Cooper's reaction to critics,
whom he considers "nightmarish."
Through this manipulation of his critics, Cooper reaffirms his willingness to
obliterate barriers between categories. As for the name of the Web site, Dysmedia
indicates a dysfunction, a misstep, but also Cooper's desire to invest in this
new virtual medium.
While contact with new forms of media forces artists
to call into question the frontiers of their knowledge (and ability), Douglas
Cooper has focused instead upon the necessary interaction between these forms.
The Internet can be a useful tool for artists, because it allows them access
to a freedom that is unavailable in traditional media. Without constraints related
to distribution, anything appears to be possible. In the case of Delirium and
Dysmedia, the Web has simply been a way station, a laboratory where a narrative
could be transformed and transmuted from its unfinished and virtual status,
into a kind of illusory material completeness.
Nancy Costigan is finishing a master's degree in literature at the Université du Québec à Montréal. She is working on the relationship between words and images in the films of Peter Greenaway. She is also a part of the NET, the Groupe de recherche des nouvelles expériences de la textualité (New Experiences in Textuality Research Group).
1. Andrew Loung, "Building a Mystery," in Varsity Review, March 1998.
2. Claire E. White, "Interview with Douglas Cooper," in Writers Write, April 1998. [http://www.writerswrite.com/journal/apr98/cooper.htm]
3. Ned Cramer, "The Plot Thickens," in Architecture, July 1998. [http://www.architecturemag.com/july98/spec/interviewinterview.asp (link no longer active)]
[http://www.dysmedia.org (link no longer active)]