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 Star. Perhaps 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