Boundaries, Negation, and Truth in Fiction— A Conversation With UAlbany Professor Emeritus Eugene Garber
In the early 1990s the Internet existed more as an arena of possibility than a fully-realized technology. This potential inspired speculation from all stripes on the thrilling, dangerous avenues that this medium might traverse. One of those was hypertext, a departure from prior literary endeavors so radical that it threatened to devour the production of print media itself. Robert Coover declared in his article “The End of Books” (six months before I was born) that hypertext offered both reader and writer “true freedom from the tyranny of the line.” Like novels, these stories were composed of pages but hypertext, free from material binding, could cascade outward into interactive tales, threading its words with images and sound. Hypertext was not only disembedded from the limitations of print media but irreducible to its confines, an art form exclusively designed for the rapidly expanding networks of cyberspace, destined to proliferate far beyond the limitations of the printed word.
Except it didn’t. Eugene Garber, a writer of both hypertext and novels, just published a quite compelling but very much physical book, pages and all. You’re reading about it now on a webpage that works much the same as it would have ten years ago, on a phone slightly larger or smaller than the one you were holding back then too. The printed page was never surpassed, condemned, or burned away after all.
However, as the reader discovers upon entering The House of Nordquist, the story is never so straightforward. The physical house to which the title refers is a ship frozen in ice on an aborted voyage in the lower Hudson. Then, in a voyage of another kind, the house burns to the ground. This isn’t a spoiler, the reader is told of this fate from the start. But as Alice, one of the playfully enigmatic narrators of Nordquist warns us, this story is not only composed of facts but what swirls around them.
The House of Nordquist switches between three initial frames: a conversation between Alice and her husband Paul; a set of singed letters between Paul and his teacher narrowly salvaged from Nordquist’s flames; and an interview between Alice and an amorphous “agency” investigating the cause of the fire. Garber expands the story from there, inviting the reader to reconstruct meaning from these fragmentary recollections— the facts, the characters that mediate them, and other forces lurking just beyond the sight of reason.
Just as Nordquist itself is at once a house, a frozen ship, a mystery to unravel, and a vessel for still darker journeys, The House of Nordquist is not only a book. It is also the third and final installment of the Eroica Trilogy (Vienna ØØ and O Amazonas Escuro precede it), and the physical counterpart of another Eroica— one you can find at your local bookstore, the other exists only here, in a hypertext reimagining of the trilogy of tales, its spectral mirror image.
The multi-authored hypertext Eroica is more of a labyrinth than a strictly linear story; readers chart their own journey amongst distinct pathways of nodal entry points arranged in inverted cones. It’s easier to see than to describe. Once you choose a path however, the alternative routes close behind you. Each piece reveals a fragment of the story, voice actors provide dramatic readings of the semi-poetic verse set to eerie, dissonant chords and echoes. The superimposition of images that drift and dissolve immerses the reader further, replete with silhouetted or obscured photographs, cave paintings, whirling abstract images, and mythological stone carvings.
This virtual space both overlaps and enriches The House of Nordquist itself, as I found while exploring them both. Watching artwork from the ancient world enveloped so seamlessly within the hypertext tale resonated with this passage from Nordquist, “we use old metaphors to signify the lurking villains of the digital age— topless towers of data brought low by Trojan horses, monumental corpuses of information corrupted by worms and trolls.”
The word Eroica itself refers to Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, a transitional work between the Classical period and the Romantic. Eroica the hypertext makes frequent reference to Beethoven and establishes Eric Nordquist as an opposing figure. As The House of Nordquist reveals, Eric is the far more ambitious composer, his project the birth of an anti-music free from the normative tyrannies of harmony, scale, instruments, or language, sounds harvested from the human body itself to create “a new pattern for reality.” What compels the reader further into The House of Nordquist is not the bare facts of the tale as they initially brush us by, but the mounting pressure of these resonances as the narrative spirals further within.
Given that the novel’s fragmented narrations recursively meditate on truth and the treacherous path towards it, I reached out to Eugene Garber to gain some insight into the motivations behind this story. Garber was happy to help, warning me ahead of time that authors can often be forgetful, incorrect, or untruthful. I think the interview, like a good novel, is worth the risk.
Julian Mostachetti: In 2017 you wrote an article about truth and post-truth. In House of Nordquist, your intertwining narratives all revolve around some sort of limit in the ability to find truth. Do you suppose this post-truth or even anti-truth lingered with you in some sense from the article to the novel?
Eugene Garber: In 2017 I was revising the House of Nordquist, but the timing between the article and the novel is not of the essence. What’s important are the limitations we face when seeking the truth. In the article, I was confronting the wages of a set of socio-political practices that virtually apotheosized big-time liars. In the novel no one is engaged in nefarious misrepresentations, and yet you’re right. The truth is hard to get at.
In the novel a house burned down. Who burned it down? Why? What was going on in the house that created the tragedy? What are the consequences? What’s the truth? Note well, there is no omniscient or even quasi-omniscient narrator able to enter any character’s mind. We have only dialogs, interrogations, letters, and oral narratives. We have seven sources: three living witnesses (but one unavailable), three dead witnesses currently residing in Hell, and one auditor who has a second hand account from one of the living witnesses. None of these wants to misrepresent the truth, but because they are vastly different cognitive and emotional filters they all are imperfect witnesses. So, the novel is built on the basic premise that there are no unmediated truths, only versions. Some readers have relished the navigation among witnesses. One reader wrote me, “You have only unreliable witnesses, and the more unreliable the more interesting.” Others have decried the narrative practices of the novel as an abandonment of the author’s responsibility to find the truth in a complex world. To each his own.
JM: Though the truth is always mediated, it seems in your story to have set boundaries as well. The House of Nordquist also deals with various forms of negation— voids, irresolvable narratives, the space between moments. How does one write a story about negation itself?
EG: This is a super question. The first novel of the Eroica Trilogy is entitled Vienna ØØ, the double null set a play on the fin siècle (1900) emptiness of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though it produced great artists (Mahler, Klimt, Schiele et al). The second novel of the trilogy, O Amazonas Escuro, though it has echoes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, makes its deepest foray into nothingness in the preaching of a weird missionary who tries to use the theology of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics to convert tribal people. ‘In its ultimate form nothingness is not merely evil but the supreme adversary and assailant of being.’ This, the missionary says, produces existential fear.
In The House of Nordquist, third in the trilogy, Eric Nordquist, a bona fide nihilist, means to extract the horrors of the Holocaust from the body of one of its victims, converting her woundedness into sounds from which to create a hellish music that will create the ultimate Void. Already Eric has sailed with his mad father to the edge of the universe and looked into the Void. Prefiguring the Void, Eric negates all words. When his acolyte, Paul, the central character of the novel, offers that nature hates a void, Eric treats him to silence. The Void is metaphysical, beyond nature. When government agents, Paul’s wife, an old schoolmate of Paul’s and Paul himself plunge into the mystery of Eric’s destructive enterprise, they enter a black box, never to escape, all disappearing into one kind of fatal illusion or another.
JM: Reading this last installment of your Eroica Trilogy naturally drew my curiosity towards its corresponding digital text, the hypertext Eroica. Though these stories are clearly intertwined, in many critical ways they also stand apart, and I wondered if that was simply a consequence of changing form. How do these works relate to each other?
EG: In Eroica, mother of the Eroica Trilogy, each of the three scenes of action (Vienna, Hudson River mansion, Amazonia) has a four character set: avant-garde artist, his lover, his helper, and an antagonist. In The House of Nordquist the character set is more numerous and complex: an avant-garde artist, a lover cum victim, two helpers, two antagonists, two interrogators, and one reporter. The result of these additions is a richer and ultimately more ambiguous representation of the roots and meaning of Eric’s project. In the hypermedia work there is no doubt that Eric, his lover/victim Helene, and his helper Berndt mean for the work of destructive to clear away the horrors of World War II to make a space for a renewed world rising from the flames like a phoenix. But in the novel only one character sees Eric’s work as potentially leading to a phoenix-like resurrection, a character whose views are dubious.
Barth will help again here. The Eric of Eroica, however dreadful his actions, allies himself with the saving concept of death and resurrection. But the Eric of The House of Nordquist pledges allegiance to the ultimate unending Void, Barth’s assailant of Being. Or does he? Because he will not speak his own intentions, we have only the speculative inferences of others.
Frankly, I had not thought much about this seminal difference between the two Eric’s until you asked. Thanks.
JM: One last question, a bit of a longer one. You mentioned in a previous correspondence that with Eroica you were exploring the limitations of hypermedia. There was a time when some writers predicted (I’m primarily thinking of Robert Coover's “the End of Books” here) that hypertext would, by virtue of surpassing the limitations of physical books, become a predominate mode of storytelling in the twenty-first century. Having pioneered hypertext, you've now published a physical novel that I think bends the limitations of narration in other ways. Has pushing these boundaries been a consistent motivation for you? And if so, how has this changed with emerging conditions?
EG: Your question is provocative, but places too much weight on the originality of my digital work. The seminal pioneer of hypertext is Michael Joyce, who published with Eastgate Systems, Inc. the first highly admired hypertext novel, Afternoon. It was this pure hypertext, not hypermedia, work that Coover was referring to in his essay.
In working with a team of nine artists on Eroica, I made no claim to explore the limits of hypermedia, but we may have. The work is large and makes heavy demands on “readers” to construct the meaning of the work for themselves, negotiating narrative leaps, filling in gaps, reading horizontally and vertically, interpreting the oblique meanings of scenes. The result is that very few have persevered to experience the whole work.
All of this definitely carried over into the novels of the Eroica Trilogy and especially into The House of Nordquist, particularly the creation of atemporal narrative pathways. The novel is composed of relatively small blocks, typical of hypertext/hypermedia. In some novels, like Julio Cortazar’s Rayuela (Hop Scotch), the reader is invited to read in any order that pleases. I do nothing so radical in The House of Nordquist. The reader is expected to read the pages in order, but even so the blocking creates a hybrid experience— reading a text, tessellating a mosaic. And reader construction of events and meaning remains an unavoidable imperative.
The future of serious fiction, of ‘experimental’ fiction, digital or print? I try to remain optimistic.
Julian Mostachetti is a 2018 UAlbany English M.A. graduate teaching at Albany High School and working with Capital District DSA. His interests include lit., theory, politics, contemporary music, and weird fiction. Sometimes he writes on this blog www.threshold.one.