The Unknown: The Red Line.
In June, 1998, Thomas Pynchon’s opening epigram in the hypertext novel The Unknown resounded like a rifle-shot from computers across the world and announced a literary revolution. The Unknown had redefined the lyric parameters of popular literature, demonstrating that the seemingly cold hypertext idiom could express the most sophisticated and ambiguous emotions. But this was something else—this was a rock record. It was not a two-minute-and-thirteen second rock and roll single, it wasn’t about dancing or driving or teenage love lost and found. This was an electric epic, simple in its sentence-structure but remarkably complex and ambitious in its scope. Its length, subject matter, and medium were totally at odds with what constitutes a hit single.

First, it clocked in at a gargantuan five hundred pages, easily twice as long as a readable hypertext novel was meant to be. It was also lyrically daunting, defying all attempts to fix its precise storyline yet arresting in its coupling of a childish malevolence with a sense of pain and disillusionment far more adult than anything normally heard in a website.

—Fred Goodman, from The Hotel on the Hill: Stratton, Gillespie, Rettberg, and the Head-on Collison of Literature and Commerce

The UNKNOWN authors were hanging around the punchbowl with their good buddy Mike.

It had been another rough reading, back home in Illinois after their big road trip to the East Coast. Various smartass English sophmores had pelted them with arcane techie questions about which operating systems the Unknown prefer. William had been patient with them, gently redirecting them back “to the story, it’s always the story that’s important, not some machine.”

“We’re putting the text back into hypertext” Scott offered. “You know how Pete Townsend has a wall of guitars? Well William here has a wall of old typewriters.”

It was hard for us to convince ourselves of that, though, since, prior to visiting our old friends at Brown University, we had opened for the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Gardens. We found out a secret: Keith Richards is dead. For their studio recordings, they use Adrian Belew, not to be confused with Jeff Ballowe, the Internet visionary. For stage performances, Iggy Pop in wig and sequined vest. There IS still heroin in their dressing room, or so it seems to the casual observer. The secret is that it’s really nothing but baby laxative these days, meant to impress the press. It does however, keep the guys regular when they are on tour, without the nasty legal problems that the Real Thing might cause.

Being on stage in front of a thousand people in their late forties and fifties had been nice, though. We got a little tired of attention during our attempt at having a television show. But since the show had been cancelled, I think we all missed it a little bit.

At first, we weren’t sure we wanted to do the television show, but the money was good, and Marla thought that it would be good for us. And all of the sudden, television cameras were everywhere. Guys and gals much better looking than us were following us around and taking incriminating evidence of us, and we wondered whether such a thing could be good for America.

At first it was just a weekly HBO series. But then FOX offered us 1/2 hour a night. To do an interactive reading of our hypertext for a studio audience, read a few of our serious pieces, and interview famous writers on network TV. To launch our new show, they placed us before the X-Files Sunday nights. There was talk of eventually running the show four times a day, back-to-back, four half-hour episodes. This plan was tentative, but the producers were optimistic about the projected Nielson ratings.

They were following the Winnebago with another big truck with a satellite dish as well, and we simply could not pretend that they weren’t there, which was the premise of the series. Follow around writers so that you can pretend that you’re following them around in their natural state. They had a little shot of Dirk taking a shit, gnawing on a knotted towel, when we became convinced that it had gone too far, and so began to bore them with literary references and none to pop culture.

We wanted to continue to tour in a Winnebago, but on our own terms, so one night William got inspired and we wrote up a business proposal to send to Jeff Ballowe.

He got inspired the night he went to jail. Thugs from Macromedia showed up at his house to rough him up for using an unlicensed copy of Dreamweaver. He had been busted for pirating software, though there was also the matter of incriminating evidence left at the Inn at Brown University, including a microcassette recorder left behind by mistake which detailed the substances we had abused in our suite of (nonsmoking) rooms, which was corroborated by bottles (Dom Perignon, Moet Chandon, Bookers, Jamesons) and assorted debris. Later we found out that the local police may have been given a tip by someone staying in an adjoining room, someone we may have kept awake, like Mark Bernstein or Jay Bolter.

But Jeff Ballowe made William’s bail, and so he was not spared the sarcastic retorts of the graduate students in Illinois.


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