Death, and again: A Critical Analysis of J. Yellowlees Douglas’ “I Have Said Nothing”

Jane Yellowlees Douglas, or J. Yellowlees Douglas, is Director of the Center Written and Oral Communication and an assistant Professor of English at the University of Florida. She completed her undergrad studies at the University of Michigan and received her Ph.D from New York University. She has spent years researching the influence hypertext has had on the construction of digital technologies. The End of Books or Books Without End and I Have Said Nothing are popular works of hers and have received good reviews and undergone intensive scrutiny; the latter appearing in the Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext, a “primary source for serious hypertext” according to Robert Coover from The New York Times Book Review. The themes present in Douglas’ works are usually morbid, and in most of her works she frustratingly tries to illustrate hyperfiction’s effectivity as a narrative modality while underlining that their writers are often separated from the text itself. All this and more is available on the Web.[1]

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 The remainder of this text will concentrate on Douglas’ I Have Said Nothing, a work not only comprised of two fatal car accidents, but also one that uses fragmentation to capture the way people handle death.

Initially the user is presented with an uncomfortably bright red screen containing two icons on the bottom left of the screen. Both icons are individually colored black and white. The top icon’s image looks like a winding-road-ahead sign and is referred by Douglas as “El”[2] and has underneath of it two links entitled “Do you remember?” and “At Christmas.” This icon frequently appears throughout the text and so can interpreted as either A. Click to Start The Dangerous Journey Ahead, or B. There’s More to be Explored. The second which is underneath the entitled links of the first is referred to as a “cloverleaf.”[3] Its image is rendered unintelligible and below this icon are five links arranged in this order: “Move,” “It falls,” “We were weaned,” “Eight years later,” “He was holding her feet.”

Like all hypertext, the starting point of the narrative is determined by the user’s choice. The writer of this analysis chose to begin with “Do you remember” and was starkly confronted by the death of Sherry, a character in the text the narrator directly asks the user whether he remembers who she was. The details of her death aren’t immediately given, but what is is a piece of her character. Sherry presumably drank a lot, enough to be considered an alcoholic, having after all thrown a half-empty bottle of Beefeater Gin[4] at the narrator’s brother’s head when he told her (i.e., Sherry) to stop drinking. Following this succinct but ambiguous anecdote are the two aforementioned icons; El having the entitled links “Bound to happen” and “He was holding her feet” underneath of it, while underneath the cloverleaf is the link “We were weaned.” I arbitrarily click “Bound to happen.”

It’s inevitable that Sherry was going to die since she not only consumed too much gin but also as it is revealed in this link took too many Vivarin.[5] She also had a cartoonish view of life, believing that cars would not only “scream” toward her but also stop abruptly a few paces from her feet the way “the cowcatcher of the locomotive quivering just inches away from Bugs Bunny and the whole nine yards” would. Put differently, she thought the animators recreated or duplicated reality. The interesting part though is that the narrator keeps addressing the user as h/she is telling him (i.e., the user) more about Sherry. The narrator says, “remember how we used to eat” – referring to the Vivarin –“ those getting ready for exams?” Perhaps the anonymous narrator isn’t addressing the user at all and is instead conversing with another character in the narrative? The user would then be a silent observer. If this is so, then it could be argued that the anonymous narrator has deliberately (or maybe unconsciously) picked the negative aspects of Sherry’s person to remember so that h/she (i.e., the narrator) could confront death, or really just the inevitability of her mortality. It seems clear the anonymous narrator doesn’t have a high opinion of Sherry; she did after all chuck a bottle at h/her brother’s head. And this link is entitled “Bound to happen.” Therefore, Sherry’s death was anticipated, expected, not only because death is inevitable but also because she lived a drink/drug fueled life, or better yet an uncontrollably drink/drug fueled life.

There are two icons present in “Bound to happen.” El is the only one with links however: one entitled “All it took” another “He was holding her feet.” I press the former.

More about her death is revealed. Not much more though. Just that it took approximately four quarts of Beefeater, a bunch of Black Beauties,[6] awful timing, and six-inched-spiked heels. Again the only icon with a clickable link is the El; this one entitled “Anatomy.”[7]

 In this link the narrator prompts a question, asking perhaps another person in the room, or the user himself whether he knows what happens “when a Chevy Nova with a 280 engine hits you going 75 miles an hour?” The tone is a mixture of shameless pleasure, as if h/she wants the person in the room, or the user himself to provide an answer to this seemingly rhetorical question. Another stance could be argued. The narrator processes death through amusement in order to reduce its severity, consequently rendering death itself as something rather cartoonish. A joke. A form of entertainment, really.

“Anatomized.” The entitled link blow El. “It fractures your collarbone; your scapula; your pelvis; your sacral, lumbar thoracic, and cervical vertebrae.” “It fractures your skull and bruises your brain.” The description is vivid and answers the previous question in depth. I click “Every one.” It’s the only link available.

It sums the preceding answer in six words: “It breaks every bone in your body.” At this point it’s evident the narrator enjoys telling the person in the room, or the user, the macabre details of what can presumably be the details of Sherry’s death. And the narrative goes on.. “And then” I click.

Then nothing. Which can be interpretive as death, the end of life, or how ever you’d like to word it. Interesting enough though is that the narrative doesn’t end there, at the end of life so to speak, at the end of Sherry’s story. A few more clicks and the user is brought to yet another story, one which I won’t mention in this post. Yet with the fragments Douglas has given in the account of one of two fatal accidents, what can be said of the way death is confronted and/or verbally/mentally evaded? or when the death of someone who lives an unhealthy existence is “bound to happen” is it okay to find amusement in that person’s death? to view it not so much as a tragedy but instead as a gripping story to tell someone else and then move on as if it happened in a book of fiction or a cartoon? or maybe these fragments are simply just “tough” and “hard-edged” recreations of how we, Douglas says, “fragment ourselves to avoid pain, to avoid the inevitable – death.”

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[1] Her book “The End of Books – Or Books without End?” is available at citeseerx.ist.psu.edu.

[2] According to the O.E.D, “‘El’ is an elevated railroad or section of railroad, esp. that in Chicago.”

[3] This icon is presumably the junction at which all the other links are joined.

[4] This kind of gin is roughly 47% alcohol (94 proof).

[5] A psychological stimulant used to “wake up” or restore alertness in the consumer when h/she is feeling tried or fatigued.

[6] A capsule of Amphetamine (Speed).

[7] I forgot to mention that to the far right of the screen is another icon, which looks like a double helix, that when clicked on the entire hypertextual structure of the text displays and shows exactly the place in the story the user is.

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