t was shortly before our reading in Goerings Book Store in Gainesville, Florida that we read about ourselves in The New York Times. In spite of our best attempts to get publicity for the hypertext, attempts which had often hurt us more than they had helped our cause, we had received virtually no press, and zero in terms of grants and awards, until that fateful day in Gainesville when I cracked open the Times in search of material for a quick newspoem.
We were eating breakfast at the Swamp restaurant. I had a plate of biscuits and gravy and a cup of coffee. Scott had Eggs Benedict, a small orange juice and a cup of coffee. Dirk had scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage links, Canadian bacon, toast, a small orange juice, a cup of coffee, a Bloody Mary, a glass of grapefruit juice, a glass of water, and a Coca-Cola.
There was the usual stuff about the turmoil in Washington (5 resignations, 2 accusations, 4 appointments of special prosecutors, a color photo of Larry Flynt handing out million dollar checks), and the fear of a Y2K stock market decline, on the front page. But what caught my attention was the headline on page 17. I chuckled and then began to read:
IN DEFENSE OF NOVELIST KRASS-MUELLER
The case of Manson v. Krass-Mueller pending before San Jose U.S. District Judge James Ware, which will undoubtedly go down as one of the strangest libel cases in the history of the sport, has taken yet another deeply surreal turn.
Mary Lyn Manson, a former professional tennis player, is suing best-selling author Krass-Mueller for libel because his 1996 novel In Cold Jest portrays a sexually promiscuous, drug-abusing character with severe psychiatric problems named “Mary Lyn Manson.”
Multiple defense motions to dismiss have been denied. The jury selection has been completed after much to-do. The defense team attempted to load the jury with Krass-Mueller’s peers, who are MacArthur Fellows, or “Genius Grant” recipients. The prosecution attempted to remove all jurors who testified that they had read a work of fiction within the last twenty years. Judge Ware reached a compromise, loading the jury with an ethnic mélange of undergraduate students from Pomona State University, majoring in Education and Communications.
After the prosecution’s overtly dramatic opening argument, which featured, in part, a wildly weeping Ms. Manson alternately rending garments from her flesh, popping Valiums, and dry-humping her attorney as footnotes from Krass-Mueller’s best-selling but obscure novel about addiction and junior tennis were read to the jury, Cochran led the jury on a veritable literary tour (de force) through a whole series of classic literary texts. He and Dershowitz read in two-part harmony from James Joyce’s Ulysses. They read excerpts from both the “Oxen of the Sun” and “Cyclops” portions of that novel, followed by a reading from a 1904 Dublin Society Registry. From Joyce, they moved to a reading from Thomas Wolfe’s novel Look Homeward Angel, followed by contemporary editorials from an Asheville, North Carolina newspaper.
The most bizarre moment in this strange legal circus came when Cochran directed the jury to fasten their eyeballs on the screen which lowered from behind the dais. The lights in the courtroom were dimmed, and Cochran used a remote control to turn on a projection unit connected to a high-end G3 Macintosh computer. A Netscape browser appeared on the screen, and Dershowitz typed in the URL: www.unknownhypertext/boston.htm.
“What you are about to read,” Cochran announced in deep stentorian tones, “is a hypertext novel that will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, beyond the smell of a garlic-filled breath, beyond the slight uplifting whush of a whispered aria, that what Mr. Krass-Mueller, the genius novelist who may have this very day composed fifty thousand words which would have moved American literature to the next level for the 21st Century, were he not forced to sit here on trial for his MacArthur money, indeed for his very reputation in the pantheon of great American writers, that what this shining star in the cosmos of American letters, is accused of doing, is in fact a common practice among the generation of novelists who are today taking their place at the table that is constructed in the shape of things to come in contemporary American fiction. What you are about to read, once the images load, since Alan did not have time to load them into the cache earlier, are pages from The Unknown, a hypertext novel that has very quickly become a cult classic. If you say that what Mr. Krass-Mueller, one of the greatest novelists of 1996 and the recipient of many grants, the author of many stories which now have movie interest, if you say that what this great writer comparable to Dostoevski and Jerry Kosinski and William Gaddis, if you say that what he has done is slander, is libel, then indeed I must ask why the work of these hypertext novelists the Unknown is so widely available for free on the World Wide Web where anyone can read it at any time. Mr. Krass-Mueller, a great writer whose time and money are worth so much more than that of these young hypertext cult figures, must sit here today, his hours being wasted, while these young hypertexters, rank amateurs, are free to sit in a bar in Gainesville, Florida, sipping an exotic variety of beverages, in preparation for a reading tomorrow afternoon at Goering Books near the University of Florida followed by the spectacle of an alligator wrestling match later that evening in Tallahassee alongside of novelist Harry Crews.”
“How did they know about that? Man, these people do their research,” Scott said.
“We’re wrestling alligators?” Dirk asked.
“Er, you are,” Scott said.
“I’m not finished,” I said.
“That guy Cochran makes Frank sound short-winded,” Scott interrupted.
“This all seems a little implausible,” Dirk muttered.
“It’s a weird time to be a living writer,” Scott said.
“I’ll finish now, if that’s okay,” I said impatiently. Dirk and Scott sipped their coffees and nodded their heads.
“A stunned jury listened to pages from The Unknown, including ‘boston.htm,’ in which sordid details of Krass-Mueller’s own life were laid out in a satirical feast that also implicated Sexual Blood author Mark Amerika, followed by ‘iowa3.htm,’ which implied that The Public Burning author Robert Coover had smuggled a controlled substance from a greenhouse at Brown to a hypertext novelist’s kitchen in Iowa City, followed by ‘florida.htm’ in which the entire proceedings of this very trial were held up for ridicule and scorn.”
“Now that’s weird,” Dirk said.
“That’s the postmodern legal system for you,” said Scott.
“Can I finish, damn it, please, can I fucking finish without being fucking interrupted? Please, please, fucking please, fucking shut up please and please let me finish?” I asked.
“Sometimes you take things just a tad too serious,” Scott said, “and that in turn makes me feel insecure.”
I stabbed him through the hand with a fork. He yelped. I finished:
“Though this hypertext novel is widely unheard-of, evidently it is popular in cult fiction circles on the West Coast. None of the editors or reviewers at the Times offices have heard of it, but word from our friends at The New Yorker is that Arthur C. Danto has been contacted, and will have something in time for the Tuesday edition of the weekly magazine. Times editors asked Laura Miller to review it for this publication, but she has declined. Times editors are now in the process of attempting to reach technology critic Sven Birkets at his cabin on Walden Pond.
After Dershowitz had read these pages from this large and offensive literary monsterpiece, in a very serious, accusatory tone, Cochran, using the remote control as a device for emphasis, uttered the words which will doubtlessly become the catch-phrase that will characterize this strange proceeding from here on out: ‘If the Unknown do it, you must acquit.’”
“Hmmm,” said Dirk.
“I’ll call Marla. We should probably let Frank know, too,” Scott said.
“Alligators?” Dirk said, befuddled,”Why alligators? Why me?”
“It’s your turn,” Scott said, and then cupped his bloody hand over the cell-phone and dialed Marla.
“Dirk, get back to work, Dirk,” I sang, and then I had an idea for a sonnet.