“The Human Mystery” by Alan Bigelow tells the fictional story of the socially anxious Harvard anthropology professor, Orville V. Wright. “The Human Mystery” does not fall neatly into any genre of electronic literature we’ve discussed, but I would say it’s most similar to hypertext. The story is made up of seven different sections accessed through a timeline menu; the reader drags an arrow along the timeline to select a segment. The sections can be accessed in any order and once finished disappear from the screen. Each of the seven sections is named after a different stage in human evolution, starting with Prokaryota in the primordial ooze and ending with the Present Day. Every segment has two parts, one giving Professor Wright’s explanation and thoughts on the title organism and a second detailing Wright’s life as an academic and his failed marriage. The surprise end of the story is within a postscript section, I won’t spoil it for anyone.
The layout of every section features a text box on the right with arrows at the bottom allowing the reader to move forward or backward in the text. A large picture, which differs in every section sits on the left at some point throughout the text other images float or flash over this background picture. These can be controlled sometimes by clicking on footnotes in the text. The images that appear generally relate to text, such as the divorce paper that appears when Wright’s divorce is being discussed. Other times the images pop up to highlight an aspect of Wright’s story. The ability to control what text appears on the screen is similar to hypertext fiction’s use of links to move the story forward. In “The Human Mystery” the control is much more straightforward within the sections with only a right arrow to go forward, a left arrow to go backward, and a double human symbol indicating the end/beginning of the subsections. This is different than hypertexts such as Robert Kendall’s “Dispossession” or Shelley Jackson’s “my body – a Wunderkammer” which have a large amount of narrative permutations depending on the order in which links are clicked. In “The Human Mystery” the sections can be accessed in any order the reader desires, but once inside a section the story is strictly linear, forwards or backwards. Although you can read the sections backwards, I would not advise it because the narrative is forwardly linear.
“The Human Mystery” is very different from the other works I’ve read/watched/experienced by Bigelow, “Brainstrips” (which I wrote about before) and “American Ghosts” (also covered on our blog). “The Human Mystery” can be seen as a dressed up version of a traditional text-only story with moving and still images compared to his other works. “Brainstrips” is a multi-genre work combining aspects of comics, hypertext, and kinetic typography. “American Ghosts” is a series of videos with text running along the bottom. Both “Brainstrips” and “American Ghosts” lack the cohesive narrative found in “The Human Mystery.” Instead they focus on the fallibility of human knowledge and the lives of people named after historical figures respectively through several different narratives.
One aspect all of these works share is the inclusion of background music and sounds. In “The Human Mystery” each section has a soundtrack relating to the title organism, for example the section on Homo habilis, an early tool-making hominid features a soundtrack made up of the workshop sounds of hammers and someone sanding. “The Human Mystery” soundtrack sets up a mood for each section that works well with the story, unlike in “Brainstrips” in which I turned off the sound halfway through because it distracted me from the story.