Lost at Sea: Nonlinear Storytelling in Disappearing Rain

by Sydney Glenn

! There are spoilers for Disappearing Rain in this blog post !
To avoid spoilers, look for the (SPOILER) tag bracketing certain lines.

Upside down underwater amidst a turbulent storm– that’s what my first two hours engaging with Deena Larsen’s hypertext fiction Disappearing Rain felt like. Confused and blinded by the darkness of the water, I flailed against the torrents, waves hitting me from all angles as I struggled to discern up from down. Yet despite the turmoil, I was already absorbed in the mystery of the narrative– the disappearance of Anna Mizunami. As I fell down a rabbit hole of hyperlinks and haiku, like Mat Anderson and Patricia Tomaszek, contributors to the Electronic Literature Directory, muse in their eponymous article about Disappearing Rain, “Larsen … orchestrate[d] [my] own disappearance in the virtual reality of the Internet,” one that, as I would soon realize, mirrored the disappearance of Anna herself (Anderson and Tomaszek).

Disappearing Rain follows a cast of six family members caught up in the sudden disappearance of Anna, one of the twin daughters. Players can follow multiple characters’ story paths, including Amy, Anna’s twin sister, as she delves into the depths of Anna’s computer looking for clues, Kit and Richard, the twins’ parents, as they fight their increasing desperation over Anna’s whereabouts, and Sophie and Yuki, the grandmother and great-grandmother, in their own stories of credit card fraud, navigating memories, and the preserving the souls of their ancestors.

The story of Disappearing Rain is scattered across 144 different webpages connected with over 1,000 hyperlinks, forming an intricate spiderweb of plot points. While the prospect of piecing together so many story fragments may intimidate first-time players, Larsen has already taken this into account; she provides multiple diving spots into the story via the home page. The most visually striking examples include two links attached to kanji characters “mizu” and “kawa,” meaning “water” and “river” respectively. Accompanying the characters are the titles “Part 1: Water Leavings” and “Part 2: River Journeys,” which, along with Larsen’s description of the work, inform the player that the story content divides into two thematic halves. The description also holds four more links associated with the storylines of specific characters or character pairs as well as the title itslef. Finally, two unassuming lines, “Come on in” and “The water’s fine,” are the last remaining hyperlinks.

The home page of Disappearing Rain.

For my opening dive, I clicked on “Water Leavings,” and my eyes were immediately inundated with tons of visual stimuli. The “Water Leavings” and “River Journeys” pages contain a series of haiku– one central, bolded haiku reading from top to bottom, and a series of smaller, unbolded haiku reading in lines from left to right that branch off the individual lines of the bolded haiku. Clicking a link on an individual line or segment of a haiku links to another page with a short section from the story, each typically containing multiple linked words to another webpage’s story. And at the bottom of each page lies two haikus oriented horizontally– the bolded haiku (associated with part 1 and part 2), and the haiku subsection linked to the particular line of the bolded haiku. Thus, the haiku form an organizational system resembling a table of contents– the story divides into two thematic parts, represented with a bolded haiku; each line of the bolded haiku links to a sub-haiku, each line of which contains a page of the story. Thus, each line of the bolded haiku functions like the chapter of a book, containing a series of pages as represented figuratively by the individual parts of the sub-haiku and literally by the contents within these parts’ webpages.

The Water Leavings “home page.”

Upon my first entry into Disappearing Rain, I was not able to glean this information about the “Water Leavings” page, so I simply clicked the first word that appealed to me. And thus, for my next two hours of engagement, I followed the flow of the haiku, often clicking page-embedded links on a whim, or following each individual haiku to its end. The experience was gripping to say the least– sometimes I would read a particularly cryptic linked phrase from a webpage and click it, only to be delivered to a seemingly-unrelated anecdote. Other times, the connection would be more apparent, or occasionally, contain an entirely new piece of the story from a much later or earlier point in time. The latter type of link never ceased to shock me as it felt like I was stumbling upon plot spoilers; since my experience was nonlinear and chaotic, I had little context for the plot or characters, and the sudden skips in time only exacerbated my confusion, albeit magnifying my excitement for the mystery tenfold in the process.

Only after examining the constitution of the home page and discovering the organizational structure of the haiku did I perceive a straight path through the narrative. Despite it appearing obvious in hindsight, my discovery that the horizontal haiku of “Water Leavings” page were entirely chronological– both within the sub-haiku and between the sub-haiku –I was thrilled and proud of myself at the discovery, as I also was when I investigated the haiku on each character page and discovered them to be chronological selections of haiku lines from both “Water Leavings” and “River Journeys.” These character haiku extracted chunks of the story from within both parts and arranged them linearly; they can feel a bit disjointed to read without context of the full plot, but they glean insight at what moments Larsen thinks is most impactful in the journeys of the characters.

To properly reveal the ingenuity of Disappearing Rain, I will circle back to the quote I mentioned at the beginning. Larsen attempts to replicate the experience of disappearing into the Internet for the player by dropping them into a pool of stories without any imposed pathway through it. While she does offer structured paths in the forms of the Water Leavings and River Journeys haiku and the character-associated haiku, the novelty of the hyperlink fiction medium to most players will likely invite them to jump in headfirst, attracted by the appeal of clicking on the links, and the embedded links within the pages will form a disjointed path through the story. Unbeknownst, or possibly partially realized by them, they will mirror the experience of Amy, jumping from clue to clue without any particular logic– and if they were like me, spend hours engaged, with strained eyes, an actualized Internet binge.

I simply wanted to piece the story together, but my current approach was doing me no favors. So I returned to the home page, and after a critical examination of the Water Leavings page structure, found a chronological way through the study. I restrained from clicking any of the mid-text links to prevent myself from confusing my understanding of the plot. This experience was rewarding in the sense I achieved a fairly clear knowledge of what was going on with each character and where Anna actually disappeared to. It also brought me smaller revelations, such as, (SPOILER WARNING) the realization that the home page linked lines “Come on in. The water’s fine” were what Amy says to us, the readers, to invite us into the Internet with all the other disappeared souls, as well as what Sophie said to Amy at the river where she contemplated suicide (SPOILER END). However, while uncovering the story was indeed satisfying, something about concluding my experience with Disappearing Rain there felt wrong.

In hindsight, I think this disappointment stemmed from the conflict between my hardwired need to perceive Disappearing Rain as a story versus a recreation of the imagined experience of disappearing online, which I believe is closer to what Larsen intended. Viewing it as a story, the only way to have a traditionally-satisfying reading experience is to read Disappearing Rain from beginning to end. However, if this true, there is no need for it to be written as hypertext fiction– if the goal is purely to understand the story, a linear novel would suffice. Thus I’d claim that Larsen envisioned a concrete purpose for her choice of hypertext as a medium for the story, and I’d argue that it intends to simulate the experiences of Amy, Anna, and potentially Yuki as well.

The connection to Amy is fairly obvious– in scouring Anna’s search history for clues, bouncing from topic to topic without context, similar to how we experience the sudden skips between events in the story. However, I feel like the act of skipping through time is better explained by the descriptions Yuki’s (SPOILER WARNING) battle with Alzheimer’s. She hallucinates Anna’s ghost (as indicated by the “Hallucinations” link in “snow falls” linking to a description of Yuki with Anna’s spirit in “crystal edges”) and is brought to tears only to forget moments later; and when she dies, her memories begin to congeal in one pocket in time– in “murky puddles,” Larsen describes Yuki’s memories “shift[ing] like the water bubbling from the back of the fountain,” no longer fixed linearly but overlapping on top of each other. Yuki struggles with remembering individual memories, which Larsen describes as “push[ing] the water of her memories into the forefront of her mind.” When she tries to select one, the multitude of them “[cascade] out again like the waterfall in the fountain.” But perhaps most important is Yuki’s specific inability to discern days and faces from each other– this directly mirrors the new player’s experience should they choose to stumble from link to link before experiencing Disappearing Rain chronologically. Entering the story with no knowledge, like Yuki into the space of her memories, they stumble upon a random moment in time with no conception of when it exists in relation to the others, only to be redirected to a completely different one at a different location in time, with only small, abstract hyperlinked-threads connecting the two. (SPOILER END)

I can’t help but feel that the nonlinearity of the experience might connect to Anna’s (SPOILER WARNING) and Amy’s experience inside the Internet, yet due to the story’s evasive descriptions of the Internet-space, I can’t conclude anything decisive. But I still wonder, how does Larsen envision time working in the online space where Anna and Amy reside? Do they skip from future to past to present, like us readers? Or do they experience the flow of time linearly, occupying the same space in time as their family? How does this work with the letters they write to their family and contacts on the outside world? (SPOILER END). Perhaps the intentional ambiguity reflects Larsen’s and the world’s collective uncertainty with the Internet and the mystical viewpoint many adopted towards it– an interesting phenomenon to observe 22 years later when the Internet is as pervasive and ordinary as ever.

For some readers, piecing together a story nonlinearly by navigating hyperlinks can feel uncomfortable or stressful; clicking on a link could be a source of anxiety if the abstract, seemingly random connections between pages instill a fear of experimentation, of clicking a “wrong link” and being shunted off to irrelevant plot point and tainting one’s experience of the narrative. I believe Larsen’s choice to include multiple entryways into the narrative aims to bridge both approaches– the existence of both the haiku table of contents pages organizing parts 1 and 2 and the mid-text links allows the reader to determine what degree of linearity they want to experience the story.

There is so much more potential for analysis beyond these discussions of linearity– the content of the haiku and choice of linked words, both in the representation of their pages, the two parts, and of the characters, the magical properties of water and rivers, and more story secrets, such as (SPOILER WARNING) the identity of the person writing Anna love letters, (SPOILER END) to name a few. With all these tools and mysteries at its disposal, Disappearing Rain justifies its existence as hypertext fiction and establishes itself as a multimedia art form, setting a satisfyingly-high bar for future works of hypertext fiction to reach.


Citations

Tomaszek, Patricia, and Mat Anderson. “Electronic Literature Directory.” Disappearing Rain | Electronic Literature Directory, 19 May 2010, https://directory.eliterature.org/node/516.

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