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Alice and Aftershocks - combined image 

Unanswered Questions


New media fiction, by Kate Pullinger and Babel


New media documentary, by Martha Deed

reviewed by Edward Picot

Inanimate Alice is a blog with a story attached to it - or rather several stories, although only one of them is viewable at the moment. Each story is an episode from the life of the (fictional) blogger, Alice. The blog starts:

Hi. My name is Alice. I'm a games animator and I'm about to start a fantastic new job. It's a big deal. A lot riding on it. At last I can try out my character Brad in the real world, well, if you can call the game world \‘real'. Brad's amazing. I thought I'd start a new blog in order to chronicle my new life (new job, new city, new haircut, no new boyfriend…)... During my spell of self-inflicted unemployment this year I made a series of multi-media short stories, a kind of girl's-own story-of-my-life... I'd love to know what people think of it [the first short story]. Post a comment and let me know.

The format may be familiar to some readers: the young female character who promises to tell us about her life; the Bridget-Jones-style tone ("new job, new city, new haircut, no new boyfriend"); and the invitation to interact with her, even though she's a fictional character. In all of these respects, not to mention its title, Inanimate Alice resembles Tim Wright's Online Caroline. There is another point of resemblance too, which is less apparent at first glance: both Inanimate Alice and Online Caroline, innocent and girly though they seem at first, eventually lead us into deeper waters - conspiracy theories and mind-control games in the case of Online Caroline, and environmental catastrophe in the case of Inanimate Alice.

In the first of Alice's multimedia short stories, "China", she is eight years old, living in Northern China with her parents. Her father is an oil prospector, two days overdue from his latest expedition. Alice's Mum, desperately anxious because she hasn't heard from him, packs herself and her daughter into the spare jeep, and they set off to find him. Alice passes the time by playing a game called Ba-Xi on a handheld device called a Zeron player. She has also used this device to create Brad, her animated character.

Inanimate Alice image 1Strange things happen on the journey. When Alice turns on her Zeron player "it registers all the new locations [transmitters for the game] and goes a little wild". Then the sky starts to hum. "The sky hums up here, I don't know why, as though it's electronic." Wierdest of all, it's Brad, Alice's animated character, who eventually finds the lost father: "I hear Brad's voice in my head and he says 'Go that way', and I say to my Mum 'Go that way', and she does. And we see my Dad."

The story has its stylistic weaknesses. Most obviously, it's very sparely-written at the beginning, with no more than ten or fifteen words per screen, but suddenly becomes wordy at the end, after Alice's Dad has been found. Babel's visuals seem to become more muted at this point too. For the most part, the multimedia setting for the story is beautifully designed, brilliantly inventive, a model of clarity, and essential to the way in which the narrative unfolds. Babel divides the screen into text areas and image areas, but keeps altering the layout to keep things lively; he puts the Zeron player on screen and makes it interactive; he even gets us to switch it off for Alice at one point; and he manages to convey the feeling of a night-time journey through China without actually showing us anything much in the way of detail. But at the end of the story his work is pushed into the background by the text: "And when we reach him he tells us that his jeep broke down and there's no signal here, not for miles around - he walked and walked trying to find one, but he couldn't, how strange is that? - and that it's a kind of miracle we found him, that my mum must have the instincts of a bloodhound..."

Kate Pullinger and Babel want to convey the idea that Alice's Dad has lost touch with her Mum because there has been some kind of breakdown in the ethernet, but they haven't quite managed to find a way to do this through the story itself, or through Alice's eight-year-old voice. As a result, Alice's character, overburdened with explanations, wears a bit thin in the closing screens.

"China" does function effectively as a "page-turner", however. It holds our attention by posing a series of questions. What has happened to Alice's Dad? Why does Alice's Zeron player go crazy when she switches it on? Why does the sky start humming? Why couldn't Alice's Dad get a signal? What's the story behind the story? But if we read the "China" more than once, other questions may occur to us, which tend to undermine its credibility. Why does Alice's Mum set off by herself, instead of contacting somebody else and asking for help? Isn't the Dad working for a big oil company? Couldn't they send a helicopter or something? Aren't there any police in China?

Inanimate Alice image 2The unanswered questions in the story also seem less compelling if we know how the Inanimate Alice project got started. It was commissioned by a company called Sensory Perspective, which markets a device called The Electrosmog Detector. The Inanimate Alice blog carries a link to the Sensory Perspective website, one of the blog entries ("This interests me - take a look") directs us to a writeup of the Detector on a site called Gizmodo, and a couple of others focus on Alice's concerns about the ubiquity of microwave transmissions. According to the Sensory Perspective site, a medical condition called "electrosensitivity" is "widely thought to be caused by over-exposure to microwave radiation from mobile phones, DECT cordless phones, bluetooth enabled devices and other wireless technologies... leading to an array of health effects from severe headaches to cancer." These emissions are otherwise known as "electrosmog", and the Electrosmog Detector, as its name implies, has been developed to measure them.

The Inanimate Alice project, although it's certainly more than just a big advert for Sensory Perspective and/or the Detector, has been written to a brief, as a means of drawing people's attention to the existence of electrosmog and the problems it may cause. Both Kate Pullinger and Babel are happy that they haven't compromised their artistic integrity by working in this way: Pullinger points out that she has known Ian Harper, one of the directors of Sensory Perspective, for several years, and was helping him out with ideas for a film about Alice, Brad and electrosmog before the Detector came on the market. The Inanimate Alice project came about as a spin-off from this collaboration. Babel adds that "The brief we were given was extremely open - I think if it was intended to be an advert [for the Detector], it fails..." But one effect of the commercial relationship between Inanimate Alice and Sensory Perspective is to make the mystery at the heart of the story seem a little bit too easily-explained. The humming in the sky, Alice's Zeron player going wild, and her father not being able to get a signal - once we know about electrosmog, they all start to make sense, and some of the mystery goes out of the narrative.

The real fascination of Inanimate Alice lies in its conceptual structure rather than the details of this particular episode. The blog and the story-within-the-blog both play games with the dividing-line between fiction and reality. Brad is an invented character, yet at the end of Alice's story he speaks to her and tells her how to find her Dad. Alice herself exemplifies a very similar confusion between fiction and reality: she is fictional, but wants us to interact with her online ("Post a comment and let me know"), and if you do post a comment on her blog she will respond to it just like a real person.

Another interesting aspect of the blog and the stories-within-the-blog is that they have a paradoxical time-structure. Alice is eight years old in her first story: yet we can tell from the details of that story (especially the Zeron player) that it must be set either in the present day or slightly in the future. The grown-up Alice who writes the blog is evidently at least a teenager, and more probably in her twenties ("I'm a games animator and I'm about to start a fantastic new job"): so the date of her blog must be at least ten years after the date of her first story. In other words, the blog is being sent to us from the future. This has a distinctly mesmerising and teasing effect once you start to think about it. Like all paradoxes, it's a question which can't be answered properly; and it lingers in the mind for precisely that reason.

Aftershocks image 1Like Pullinger and Babel's "China", Martha Deed's "Aftershocks" should be seen as part of a larger whole. She has been working on something called The Montstream Project for some years now, and other parts of it can be seen at . "Aftershocks" is the biggest piece of work in the project to date, however, and it can be viewed as a stand-alone. It differs from Inanimate Alice in a number of ways: it certainly isn't as brilliantly-designed or as technologically advanced, and (link-clicking aside) it doesn't have any interactive elements. More importantly, perhaps, it is based on a true story.

38-year-old John Montstream was shot dead near Rochester, New York in 1998, allegedly by Michael Northrup, who was his wife Annette's lover at the time. Annette had a whole string of lovers, and she seems to have asked all of them to help her murder her husband, as a policeman who worked on the case recalls:

"Then [ie. after the murder] the boyfriends started calling. They all said the same thing. 'I've got to talk to you.' 'I didn't have anything to do with it.' Six or seven of them. Their stories were almost identical."

Annette confessed to conspiring to murder her husband and has been in jail ever since. Northrup confessed too, but despite this he was tried three times and eventually went free. The same policeman comments:

"This case played a part in my retirement: The conspirator cooperated, the guy confessed, the victim's blood was found on the guy's gun under his bed, and he walks.
"Then you think, Maybe it's time to retire."

"Aftershocks" does have a soundtrack: a song called "Waiting Here (for You)" which was co-written and co-recorded by John Montstream with his friend Michael Marshall before the murder. Other than this, however, it consists of a sequence of straightforward HTML pages. Each of them presents an interview with one or two members of John Montstream's community, friends or family. At the top is a picture, usually a colour photograph showing the interviewees. Below are a few hundred words of text describing who the interviewees are, summarising what they have to say, and giving several verbatim quotes:

Valerie was probably the last person who knew John to see him alive. Years later, she is still upset that she didn't stop to talk with him. John was standing in the entrance to Wegman's. "He looked deep in thought. He had something on his mind."

The photographs play an immensely important part in establishing the story's authenticity. Behind the interviewees we catch glimpses of their everyday environment: comfy-looking living-rooms, a decorated Christmas tree, a shuttered bungalow or a white church. The interviewees themselves smile and put their arms around one another's shoulders, as if posing for a family album instead of a murder documentary. They are white, middle-class, solid citizens, often grey-haired, sensibly dressed and with sensible haircuts. Here and there, however, individuals who have asked to remain anonymous are represented by sinister, beaky-looking silhouettes on white backgrounds, somehow suggestive of the effect the murder has had on their lives.

This effect, in some cases, has clearly been life-changing. "How am I supposed to explain to my children that they have to be careful with their friendships when my best friend is a murderer -- and I didn't see it?" asks one of the interviewees. "My view of humankind is less optimistic as time goes on," admits another. "Now I don't trust people," agrees a third. Those affected by the murder, in other words, have lost faith in their fellow human-beings; and their faith in the American legal system has been shaken too:

[Valerie] testified at all three of Michael Northrup's trials. She had never been involved with the judicial system before. "To see what happens and to see the system fall apart is a shocker."
[Jim] says, "I'm an engineer and a scientist. I'm used to facts and the scientific method along with using your common sense. Nothing about this was rational. I can't deal with it." ...More than three years later, he can't talk about the murder without losing his composure.
"Where is the integrity in the legal system? How far can you go before you cross a line?"

Aftershocks image 2The question of religious faith is also touched on - more specifically, how the local churches have dealt with the tragedy. Gary Jones [name changed by request] was a pastor at the Clarkson Community Church, where John and Annette attended. He became John's best friend, and John confided in him about the problems with his marriage: "John would ask me, 'Why does she have to scream at me all the time?'" After the murder, Annette started a rumour that she and Gary were having an affair, and "wrote letters to church members complaining that Gary had abandoned her".

Gary says he will never have a best friend in his church again.
In Spring 2002, Gary Jones left the ministry. A few years later, the family moved out of state.
Gary doesn't think John's murder is the cause of his leaving the ministry.

By contrast, the Bishop of the Episcopal Church to which John's parents belong strikes a positive note:

Bishop McKelvey says the Montstreams must have been people of strong faith before this happened, because he sees people driven out of the church by tragedy. "They blame God or the church fails them. Sometimes the parishioners and pastors fail them, too. But in this case, the church, parishioners and pastor have pulled together."

This may be a work of nonfiction, and a new media work at that, but Martha Deed uses some classic novelistic techniques. She moves from the particular to the general. Every part of her story is full of detailed references to the specifics of a particular place, a particular community and a particular set of circumstances; but she builds outwards from these to the wider themes of law, the Church, religious faith and the inscrutability of human nature - themes which make the story relevant to all of us. And like the short story from Inanimate Alice, "Aftershocks" holds our attention by presenting us with questions. What went wrong with the legal system? How did Michael Northrup manage to escape jail? Exactly how was John Montstream killed? We gather from one statement ("the victim's blood was found on the guy's gun under his bed") that Montstream must have been shot, yet one of the other interviewees refers to "a vile container" which was discovered at Gloria Jean's Coffee Shop where Annette used to work - "This must have been the first batch of poison." Did Annette poison Montstream as well as having him shot? The narrative throws up numerous unanswered questions of this type, and each question is like a little tendril which draws us into the story. We keep reading because we want to know the answers: we want to know if our guesses are right or wrong. But the unanswered questions serve another purpose too.

John was standing in the entrance to Wegman's. "He looked deep in thought. He had something on his mind."

What is Wegman's? A shop? A bar? Evidently an establishment of some kind. The fact that the name goes unexplained, paradoxically, reassures us that there must be an explanation: that Wegman's must be a real place, "out there" in the world beyond the narrative, otherwise it wouldn't be referred to so casually, as if everybody ought to know about it. And what was John Montstream thinking? What was on his mind that day, just before his murder? Was he really deep in thought, was he really brooding about something, or was that just a false impression picked up by the interviewee as she drove past? We can never know, because Montstream, the only one who could tell us, is now dead. And again, paradoxically, the fact that there is no answer to the question reassures us of the authenticity of the narrative. It resembles our own experiences. We pick up these impressions about other people all the time - that they're unhappy, or that they've got something on their minds - and more often than not we never find out what's actually going on. We live in a world which puts into our minds more questions than answers. The fact that Martha Deed's narrative does the same gives it a certain kind of verisimilitude - makes it feel authentic. It also encourages us to believe, or to recognise, that her text refers to a "real" world which is too big for it to encompass. In this respect the questions in "Aftershocks" are different from the questions in Inanimate Alice. In Kate Pullinger and Babel's work we sense that some things are left unresolved deliberately, as a device for retaining our attention, like a "cliffhanger" chapter-ending in a novel; but that others may be unresolved because the world of Inanimate Alice is a fiction, and sometimes the material from which that fiction is constructed lacks the inexhaustible detail and coherence of everyday reality. Martha Deed certainly raises certain questions as a means of capturing our attention, but there are others which hint at something else: that she's writing about reality, and therefore having to cut out a lot of material in order to keep her text manageable. It would be impossible for her to fully explain or investigate everything to which she alludes. In her unanswered questions, we feel the weight and complexity of reality pressing up against the boundaries of her narrative.

Both "China" and "Aftershocks" use unanswered questions as a technique for capturing our attention. They exploit the fact that when things are left unresolved, we feel more obliged to read on, in search of a resolution. But both stories go further than simply arousing our curiosity. The paradoxes in "China" and Inanimate Alice have a genuinely enigmatic quality. They call attention to the artificiality of the narrative, they challenge our credulity as readers, and by doing so they hint at the flimsiness and self-contradiction of all human thought. It will be interesting to see how these paradoxes are developed and played on as the story develops. The challenge facing Martha Deed is a different one. If subsequent sections of the Montstream Project go into more detail about the murder and the court-cases which followed, many of our initial questions will be answered, and it may be difficult to retain the same air of mystery and resonance which permeates "Aftershocks". Her trump cards, however, are the authenticity of her material and the austere skill with which she has organised it. As long as she continues in the same vein, the Montstream Project could grow into something really exceptional.

© Edward Picot, November 2005

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