Taking a Nosedive: Exploring the Complexity of Communication in Christine Wilks’ “Tailspin”

When stories want to describe a place as “abandoned” or “eerie”, “desolate” or “lonely”, words such as “quiet” or “still” are usually used, a phrase like, “no sounds of life” thrown around. Rarely, have I thought hard on those descriptions and, more, what they implicate–that life is noisy. The click of my computer mouse, the creak of my desk chair, and, yes, the sharp clang of cutlery against my plate are all distinct communicators of actions–affirmations of those actions, even–but, so easily taken for granted. These everyday sounds are background noise.

But, what if they weren’t? What if they were loud? The volume in your own head already at 100 but it’s like someone is lead-footing the control on the remote. Those clicks and creaks and clangs now ring in your ears. Everything hurts.

In Christine Wilks’ Tailspin, this scenario is not some hypothetical what if–it is an experience. Felt and internalized. Upon entrance into this experience, the clangs and scrapes of cutlery are almost completely devoured by a persistent, high- pitch ringing sound–that doesn’t abate. A cluster of spiraling animations appear on the screen, accompanying these sounds and overlaying a diagram of the inner ear. They mimic the shape of the cochlea, the tiny organ in the ear responsible for, simply, translating sounds into messages. A quick Google search reveals that Tinnitus is commonly caused by damage to the cochlea.

Moving your cursor over these cochlear, downward spiraling animations, makes text appear on the screen. It fades slowly into focus, almost hazily. Lilian Wang (Electronic Literature Directory) describes the text as appearing, “almost reluctantly.” It’s as though the reader is dredging up these memories. And, these bits of text read as scenes from memory, each pulsating spiral revealing some nostalgic or repressed moment. Audio clips seem key in distinguishing which feeling each memory fragment is trying to provoke.

The twitters and tweets of birdsong tend to sound when a nostalgic memory appears on screen–usually when the grandfather, George, is recalling his dreams of being a fighter pilot. Though, they sound as well when Karen is remembering a time she tried to help some baby birds without disturbing her father only for that to blowup in her face. So, these sounds communicate messages specific to the characters themselves as well.

Explosive or crackling sounds, alarms screaming, tend to arise when George is remembering his time as an airplane fitter but alarm sounds also go off when more “present” memories appear, such as when George is telling his family that anything can set off his tinnitus. So, stress seems to be a connecting element. When paired with the nonstop ringing in the background, these alarming and explosive sounds certainly provoke feelings of frustration. Why can’t everything just be quiet? What will make it all stop? The sounds of everyday life that flow into this narrative become added irritants when paired with that continuous ringing, as communicated by the text and associated audio–shouts.

It’s interesting to not that George’s frustration seems primarily communicated through the use of audio and accompanying images–animations of birds and planes flying when he waxes wistful about wanting to be a pilot–while Karen’s frustration seem most intimated through text. “She has an urge to smash the plates….” One of the cochlear spirals reveals, no sound but the persistent ringing to accompany it. “but doesn’t.” In another slide, Karen wonders, “Why does he [George] never listen to her?” And, in another she admits, “It hurts.” That sound is more emphasized by audio when the scenes are in George’s perspective versus how sounds–or their lack thereof–are more often referenced in text in Karen’s POV seems to highlight the fundamental problems of communication in George and Karen’s relationship. Too much sound has made George demand silence while too much silence has made Karen resent it. More, all the sound seems to represent shame and failure to George–images of flames and planes flying every which way accompanying the barrage. “He fears the shame,” one of the spirals reveals, a pounding alarm and an image of smoke and fire assaulting the reader. But this deeper level of meaning never goes addressed, instead fading into the ringing and the screen, symbolically and metaphorically never reaching Karen or the rest of George’s family.

As a reader, you move through these slides of spirals as if sinking deeper into the psyches of the characters. Text–memories, dreams–incite sounds and images that give way to other sounds and images. This story could have been presented in a traditional, linear way–past to present–but by presenting it in spiraling, free-form, organic manner a kind of consciousness is created, assumed. The audio brings the reader into that consciousness. It’s not George’s ears that are ringing but ours. Sound immerses us in this narrative, the communication disconnect between George and Karen something we can not only read but hear, feel, and see.

At the end of Tailspin, a red spiral takes you to a slide with a tuning fork on it, black-and-white lines reverberating outward from it. The words hang onto deafness for dear life rest in between 2 reverberating lines. These words along with that continuous ringing seem to echo the lack of closure received from the story. Karen continues to speak from her father’s deaf side, tells her children to leave their grandfather alone, doesn’t reach for him and George doesn’t extend his hand either, instead remains like that boy trapped in the downed fighter jet, surrounded by so much noise, his screams unable to be answered. They exist in endless staccato. They exist in deafening silence.

“She was extending a hand I didn’t know how to take so I broke its fingers with my silence.” ~ Jonathan Saffran Foer

This whole piece made me think of this quote I had to hunt down on Google.

Image courtesy of WebMD

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Closing the Distance

There is something about entering a story for the first time, ignorant yet to all its mysteries but oh so ready, willing to discover, to listen, that is magic–or, at least, the closest thing to it we humans will come. Stories occupy spaces beyond any one understanding or purpose yet still offer a kind of universal escape whose impact is second, perhaps, only to that of music. But, really, are songs not stories put to music? Melodies and harmonies not stories of notes?

Stories are magical, the clearing of a storyteller’s throat or the cracking of a book’s spine practically a spell in action…. But, what about when the story is no longer tucked snug between pages of print? Kept warm by the constant lull of a speaker’s voice?  What about when the story’s space is now online? How does that affect the magic?

Sharif Ezzat’s Like Stars In A Clear Night Sky is a great example of how the magic of the story is not so much affected, meaning positively or negatively–one way or the other, but, more, transformed. Upon entering this story’s space (i.e not by flipping any pages or parking oneself down before a speaker but by clicking a link on a computer screen), a reader is greeted by a man’s voice, deep and soothing and decidedly not speaking in English which may be disorienting at first, especially when paired with the English words appearing across the screen in-time with the man’s voice. He is speaking in Arabic the English sentences appearing and disappearing across the otherwise black screen. This understanding (that the voice and words are communicating the same sentiment) takes less than a second or two, leaving just enough time for it to settle in before the realization that there is music playing hits.

It is a tinkling sort of lullaby, one that reminds vaguely of Twinkle, Twinkle Little StarPerhaps of wind chimes, swaying gently in the breeze. Either way, the tune seems to appear from the blackness same as the words, the voice, and, then, the stars, specks of white that flicker into being slowly, leisurely dotting the space behind the words on screen that are just beginning to taper off. It’s as though the words give way to the stars, the man’s voice their incantation. Some of the stars (9 exactly), glow blue. Once the opening narration (I guess you would call it?) ends, these stars become one’s guide, each one titled with a bit of text–from the narration–that appears when the cursor hovers over them. The stars are not in any specific order–their positions different each time one enters the story space–nor are there any guiding symbols like numerals or arrows pointing from one to the next. It is up to the reader to decide where to start.  Go in the order in which the story titles were mentioned in the opening narration? Follow the stars in a circle? Zigzag? Left to right? Up down? “Most interesting” title to “least”? Choice is yours.

Well, the choice is yours insomuch as you have 9 options and no definitive starting point so….

Anyway, hovering over one of the blue stars causes it to pulsate–blue-to-white-to-light blue-to-blue and back–as its title appears in white, script-like text beside it. Clicking on a blue star makes text appear in the center of the screen, sometimes long, sometimes short. In essence, each star is its own story, an elaboration upon the morsels mentioned in the opening narration. As their are no guides for reading, each story can be read as self-contained or as pertaining to a greater whole. I know I said earlier that the reader can “start” wherever they would like but there is no “beginning” story, one that a reader could point to and say, “This is where the story begins. This event came first.” Subsequently, there is no “ending” to this story, this story space, beyond the one a reader creates when they finally exit, click that “X” in the upper right-hand corner. There is no chronology in these stories. One speaks about the stars and their distance while another speaks about a sister and her inconvenient love. One tells of a boy and his dreams while another tells of an uncle and his indiscretions. Should the one about the stars and the universe come first? The ones about the uncle and sister later? And, what of the boy dreamer? Where does he fit in?

While Like Star In a Clear Night Sky certainly differs from printed literature, it still has enough traditional elements to it–titled stories/chapters and lines of organized, stationary text–to make readers want to look at it from familiar viewpoints. Who is the main character? Who are the other characters? What is the plot? What connects it all? The impulse to answer these questions is like a steady thrum at the back of the mind. There has to be something in the text that connects all of these stories. Perhaps they are about the narrator and he is the boy, the brother, the nephew, the cousin, the lover. That each story is represented by a blue star surely isn’t enough to connect it all, is it? That this story space “reads” like most traditional literature is perhaps what makes it more difficult to digest and navigate. You want it to be like a book with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. It looks so much like a book! Just online. Just different.

Perhaps if one realized story won’t appear, maybe it best to read each star as a vignette? After all, each star offers a coherent stringing-together of text. Poses some questions, as well. Maybe they’re poems. Prose.

The desire to categorize this story space is almost overwhelming. Each star offers such a magical experience but, oh, wouldn’t it be perfect, transcendent, if they, altogether, constructed one large magical moment?  It’s very difficult to accept that these stories may be interconnected–or not–by something not evident, behind the screen (like coding). It’s frustrating that they are only almost chapters.

And yet, I think it is this frustration, this feeling of standing on a precipice, that makes Like Stars In A Clear Night Sky as magical and as enchanting as any other story experience. Books put you on that precipice through a careful groundwork rooted in an organization meant to titillate and arouse. The navigation is clear–forward–one page to the next, chapter to chapter. Reveals are planned and placed in precise locations. The precipice is a point, identifiable. The rising action and the denouement. With storytellers, much is the same, with the addition of one’s tone, the cadence of their voice. Stories are spells. They enchant us over and over again, wouldn’t you agree?

Well, doesn’t Like Stars In A Clear Night Sky do that as well? As frustrating as it is to have so many almosts, isn’t there something enchanting about it, too? Something that invites you to come back again and again? To read over and over, to wish upon stars, to stand on that precipice one, twice, thrice? It’s like a curse, no? An enchantment? A spell? Magic.

Sometimes the best stories are not always the happiest or easiest but the ones that transform.

“The finite limitation was himself!” ~ Shall I tell you about the boy who dreams the world? , Sharif Ezzat

photo credits to nasa.gov