:: Article

The Wandering Path: a Review of Seed by Joanna Walsh

By Julian Hanna.

Seed by Joanna Walsh

Joanna Walsh, Seed, illustrated by Charlotte Hicks (Editions At Play, 2017)

At first everything is dark and mysterious, slightly sinister, almost like a horror film but closer to enchantment and delight. Vines appear with snaking tendrils that suggest Victorian illustrations, their flowers still in bud. Circling around the plants are bioluminescent forms, possibly fireflies or fairies too small to recognise. There is no sound: only blackness, vines and silence. Or wait, perhaps I’ve switched the sound off. I keep doing that by mistake. Bloody phone. Nope, no sound. A single pulsing word invites me into the story: tap. I tap. Then I’m asked to swipe: swipe. The background shifts from dark to light and words appear. And we’re off.

As an English professor working at an interactive technologies institute (life is indeed like a snaking vine), I see my share of experiments in interactive narrative. Most leave me a bit cold. I find myself asking: What does technology bring to the experience? Do the benefits, such as originality, outweigh the drawbacks, such as built-in obsolescence and maddeningly slow loading? When I sat through a presentation of fairly underwhelming story projects recently, I asked a storyteller what he liked to consume in his spare time. Without hesitation or irony, he said: “Oh, documentary films, mostly.” Traditional, single-medium documentaries. This was the expert talking; what hope has interactive media for the rest of us bookish Luddites? The uneven quality of digital storytelling is understandable, since the technologies and techniques are in their infancy. But having been personally involved in digital stories which became mired in frustrating technical difficulties, and as a result lost the primacy and vitality of the story itself, I opened Seed with more trepidation than if it were a new paper-based collection by the same author.

Nevertheless, I persisted. I had read and enjoyed all of Joanna Walsh’s previous books, so there was trust. And despite my reservations I still have faith in the potential of technology for experimental literature. I hoped that the author of Hotel, Vertigo and Grow a Pair: 9 ½ Fairytales About Sex would not lead me astray, or would lead me astray only in the best sense of the idiom.

I was not disappointed: astray is exactly where the 18-year-old protagonist of Seed wants to be led, and astray is where she leads us with her story of a transformative summer between adolescence and adulthood. Of course, it isn’t as simple as this synopsis suggests. The narrator herself admits, in one of those statements that leaps importantly off the page (or screen): “However many times I tell it I still don’t know what anything means.”

In the beginning I had some trouble with devices. I have the largest hands of anyone I know, and, perversely, the smallest phone (an iPhone SE, since hardware matters). My eyesight isn’t great either. I gave up reading on my phone almost immediately and switched to my laptop, where I was met with a firm nudge back in the other direction. I ignored the nudge; it seemed to work well enough, and I read to what I thought was the end. Then I borrowed an iPad and read it again, quietly acknowledging the superior navigation and general functionality. Seed is a collaboration between London-based Visual Editions and Google, and the design is really quite flawless. (Walsh was also involved in production.) On the second pass I discovered new parts of the story, which left me wondering how much story there actually was, and wanting more.

Reading on a device of any kind adds a technical layer to the subjective experience that isn’t present in a traditional book – screen size, available internet speed, the distraction of other apps, the use of controls. From the authorial point of view, of course, control can be a nightmare: why even describe a character, when your readers will inevitably just imagine themselves or their friends or lovers or whomever they choose? Put the book into the reader’s phone and you lose control by a few more degrees. As William Gibson once wrote: “The Street finds its own uses for things.” Creative misuse. Literary readers might be a fairly compliant bunch, but as soon as you introduce technology you introduce the possibility of hacking.

So I wondered, how could this story be hacked? As a child reading Choose Your Own Adventure books I always skipped ahead to check every possible outcome before committing to one path. But as it turns out, in Seed the game elements are flexible enough that hacking seems pointless – the reader is free to wander, so there is no need to break windows or trespass. In fact, as Walsh described Seed in a recent interview, any sense of a lack of control is wholly intentional: she wanted readers to “have no sense of reading left to right, of the weight of the book, of how far they were through, or, sometimes, of direction within the narrative”.

When I finally stopped tinkering and fell into Seed I discovered, as the opening statement promised, “a story that grows and decays, that becomes entangled and disentangled”. To navigate through the story the reader taps on different flowers or plants along one of several vines, each story point bearing an enigmatic title, for example ‘Remembrance’ or ‘Pool’, along with a date to orient the reader along the timeline of the summer, for example “August 1988”. When you finish reading one episode you move along the vine to the next, or jump to another vine altogether. At times I felt lost, wandering along a strange path in a strange land, some signs seeming familiar while others were not. The vines are tangled and it is easy to forget which one you’re on. But I was always intrigued; this was clearly a work of subtle craft and layers of quiet, intricate beauty – perhaps not everything had to be understood. The technology felt unusually natural, even organic.

Seed by Joanna Walsh - Screens

Engagement with the natural world is a key part of Seed, which is at once slightly odd and highly relevant. We engage with raw nature less than we used to, especially those of us who grew up before the internet. Also, this is a digital book, disembodied, not an object made of natural materials that can be touched, smelled, and experienced directly through the senses. So while there seems to be a certain nostalgia for the pre-digital world, it is paradoxically expressed in a shiny, postlapsarian, Google-labbed form. The effect, however, is pleasantly disorienting, like listening to a garbled cassette of Graceland through Bluetooth speakers.

Sex comes into the story from the first line: the narrator thinks: “I must stop doing it.” Seed is wonderfully erotic, often with a dose of humour (“I cannot imagine a penis”). But also always with an edge: pleasure in competition with fear or anxiety, for example. The deadpan narrative voice and slightly magical, fairytale atmosphere are also familiar from Walsh’s previous stories. The voice reminded me at first, strangely enough, of Kay Thompson’s Eloise – the single-sentence paragraphs, not always clearly connected; the simple, declarative statements of observable facts (“A grass whistle makes the loudest sounds”, “This is everything I know about the valley”); the protagonist who is both naïve and canny, coquettish and bold. She is more introverted than the six-year-old id, Eloise, but there is a similarity in the innocent enumerating of observable reality, which could also be compared to (stay with me here) Thoreau – for trying to see things as they are, and thus to make sense of things; including, by extension, the wider world. “I have never been more than ten miles from here,” she says at one point. What she lacks and desires most is the knowledge that comes from experience.

Despite her naivety, the narrator is self-conscious and aware. “Wait!” she cries, “I have forgotten to describe myself!” And suffers at times from an excess of this self-consciousness, wishing herself invisible or wanting not to stand out. “If I’m quiet,” she thinks, “I can fit in with anyone.” She is in the process of learning to write: “I like this jump of time. Cut the boring bits of the story.” Always lurking in the background is the feeling of wanting something to happen, but also of being the passive thing that things usually happen to: “I had been waiting for someone to come into the garden.” Period touches from the 1980s, such as a telephone stand in the hall, carpeting in the bathroom or a cassette Walkman whose foam-covered headphones barely cushion an uncomfortable metal skeleton beneath, give a light colouring to the otherwise neutral setting.

At the centre of Seed is the process of writing and remembering, and the difficulty of doing so honestly and accurately: “I remember these things, but I don’t remember anything we said.” Part of this difficulty may be universal to writing in general, but the problem is also local and specific, a particular cultural reluctance to speak about unpleasant things. How can you write when you were always taught not to speak honestly, or to speak at all? As the Northern Irish side of my family used to say, even concerning the most apparently harmless subjects, “Whatever you say, say nothing.” How then are you meant to be a storyteller?

All this is doubly true, it seems, for women. Having her period is an example of the protagonist being forbidden from expression: “It asks to be mentioned but is unmentionable and it asks and asks again.” The world is filled with embarrassing, unspeakable, inconvenient things. Curiosity about her mother’s tampon is summed up as follows: “She didn’t tell me. I didn’t ask.” Her parents watch television; no one knows or discusses anything about the real world, the one outside the house. This again is very poignant for the present: our fraught relationship with nature, our modern alienation from everything real. The difficulty of finding a voice is exacerbated by the fact of never being the focus of any story: “No words have been used here.” This absence, however, is precisely what gives the narrative its meaning and drive: “For something to be real it must be said. Stories are the only real things.”

In the end, the familiar events of a liminal teenage summer – being appalled by parents, thinking about sex, worrying about the future, reading books, riding a bike, working, masturbating, wandering between the village and the housing estate, contemplating the mysteries of the body, crushing on boys and girls and waiting, always waiting (“What am I waiting for?”) – all these events in Seed are only surface clues to deeper mysteries: of memory, subjectivity, and storytelling itself. The genre-defying prose that Walsh has always excelled in producing is perfectly suited to this new digital medium, in which the reading environment can, to an extent, be tailored for a bespoke experience. The shimmering, quivering, intertwining vines sit in perfect harmony with the ripening fruit that hangs seductively before the reader. I picked and devoured the fruits of the tale until they were gone, picking in whatever order they came to hand and mouth; and then, when I finally reached the end, I searched in vain for more, retracing each sinuous vine to make sure I hadn’t overlooked a single morsel.

As Thomas McMullan observed in a recent review, the “reordering of pages is at the heart of a lot of digital literature, precisely because it is at the heart of the digital”. He mentions Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual and B. S. Johnson’s novel-in-a-box, The Unfortunates; the circular structure of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the cut-up method of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch or Chris Ware’s Building Stories also come to mind. But these comparisons are somewhat beside the point, as McMullan’s statement suggests, since digital stories always have parallel paths and alternate endings, restarts and repetitions – as any 12-year-old gamer knows.

Nevertheless, just as there is an “Opening” to Seed, there is an “End” – even a conventional one. We emerge from the underbrush like disoriented lovers to rejoin the main path. “All my life, I don’t hear from Rosemary again,” the narrator tells us, only the use of present tense making it strange. Telling is always interpreting, just as remembering is making sense – if you have ever tried to write out an old memory you know the feeling of discovery and strangeness. This is one of those stories that won’t leave you alone, that demands to be told, until you give up trying to find the words to tell it “straight” as a single, unified story – and discover something wholly new.


Julian Hanna

Julian Hanna was born in Vancouver and is currently Assistant Professor at Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute in Portugal. His writing on literature and technology often appears in academic journals; his creative essays can be found in The Atlantic, Berfrois, Minor Literature[s], Numéro Cinq and elsewhere. He is a previous contributor to 3:AM. Twitter: @julianisland and @crapfutures.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 18th, 2017.