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Philippa J. Burne's "24 Hours With Someone You Know"

Karen Keen

Philippa J. Burne's "24 Hours With Someone You Know..." is a deceptively simple hypertext that follows a "choose your own adventure" design. The reader begins on a title page that focuses on the link into the story, a black and white photographic image of a city street. Once inside, the reader "becomes" the protagonist, an individual who attempts to pay his cousin, Jess, a surprise visit and instead is drawn into the strange hipster world of Jess's former roommates. The hypertext opportunities and structure of "24 Hours" support the text's themes of societal vacuity and the inevitable futility of information-gathering.

Burne uses a simple HTML structure appropriate to the Internet fashions and technology available in the work’s copyright year, 1996. Each “page” is comprised of an individual scene with one or more navigation options embedded in the text and a small black-and-white photographic image related to each scene’s setting. The reader chooses an option, and that page opens in the original window, forwarding the narrative in a superficially linear fashion. The reader has the option to abort his direction at any time by clicking on the clock icon () at the bottom of the page to return to the title page or simply hitting the “back” button on the browser to return to the previous choice. These considerations are important in that these options remove the author’s traditional level of control over the information that the reader receives and the organization therein.

But first, we must consider the images. Each page has an accompanying photograph that sets the scene either with the setting or an individual in the scene. The photographs are generally subordinate to the text; in only two instances, the title page and the coda, do images stand alone. The final image, significantly, refers the reader not to a conclusion to the narrator's search but to the cousin's absconding prior to the action of the story, which ties off one thematic thread. Otherwise, the images only provide a backdrop, one easily ignored. All are small, comprising no more than one-sixteenth of each page, and set either directly above the text or to its left. The images are very dark on most computer screens, obscuring most detail. They serve only to visually anchor the pages and conspicuously provide bare surface information. Only one, the title page image, serves as a link elsewhere.

The reader is then forced to focus on the text as the entrance into the world of the piece. The overall style of the text, however, is deliberately confounding. The author often ends questions inside dialogue with periods (example: A girl appears behind him. 'Jess? Jess moved out weeks ago. Who wants to know.' The guy shrugs and wanders off.), giving the impression that one will not be provided with, nor even desire, answers. None of the characters are described physically beyond the gender inherent in their names. As the protagonist, the reader has many questions: Where is Jess? Under what circumstances did Jess move out? Who are these people, and what are they doing and thinking? We sense that there are momentous happenings, but can learn only superficial information. A large crowd, including a juggler, gathers to protest the leadership of "Jeff," apparently organized by the union movement; what position Jeff holds in the government and why he is so reviled is not revealed. The roommates speak of each other and the missing Jess with antipathy but without providing real reasons.

Despite this, the protagonist perseveres: " There is still time to get out of here, get home. But your curiosity has got you now. You want to stay and go to this party and talk to these people and find out more... although why you're not sure." Only twice does the protagonist find a genuine connection with the world around him. At the pool, the protagonist momentarily abandons the pursuit of understanding and drifts both physically and mentally, accepting the support of the "icy cold, crystal blue" water. In another track, the protagonist goes for a solitary walk and again drifts, this time soothed by the sensual effects of nature in a park. He encounters a group of mourners scattering a person's ashes. Only this group, of all the characters, is shown through visual details. Gray ash falls on one man's dress shoes and trousers as he scatters it from a box; "his control is not total; his face is anxious." A woman approaches and mud collects "on her high, black shoes." Instead of following or speaking to these people in the hopes of edification, the protagonist retreats to contemplate on his own: "You have no place here. But you wonder who it was, and what they did. And you think about death. And appropriate burial." Too quickly, however, that potentially fruitful line of thought is abandoned; the protagonist walks "faster" to return to the house and the search for answers.

The "choose your own adventure" design initially gives the reader the impression that there are infinite, or at least several, different directions that the story can take. He might decide on his first reading to take the most direct route, always choosing to follow one person or staying at the house as much as possible. A second try that focuses on diversions, however, is disillusioning because all choices feed back into the direct storyline, in which the protagonist follows various housemates from party to party and finally falls asleep on their couch, having received no answers.

The first page that offers a choice of avenues demonstrates this well. The protagonist, after learning that Jess no longer lives in the house, is offered the choice of coming in and meeting the crew or going elsewhere. If the reader goes elsewhere, the new choice is between a bookstore, candle shop, flower shop, or cafe. The first three options lead only to each other and the cafe. At the cafe, one of the housemates grabs the protagonist and leads him back to the house, where the story continues as thought one had chosen to meet the crew in the first place.

"24 Hours With Someone You Know" comments upon the medium in which the piece itself is embedded and the society that this medium engenders. This piece enacts movement in place of comprehension. At one juncture, the protagonist visits Kate, who is glad he has come to distract her from her class reading. Almost immediately, however, she suggests that they leave. If the protagonist goes on to see Polly, she casts her tarot cards and gives him a reading. The protagonist rejects the possibility that the reading or the cards could hold any meaning, and Polly also suggests that they move on. Movement leads never to rest and knowledge, but only to further movement.

On the penultimate page of every possible path through the story, the protagonist directly asks Ned, again making a statement of the question: "'So,' you say,' Will you tell me about Jess.'" Ned ignores the question and instead retires for the night. The protagonist settles down to sleep as well, thinking only, "It'll all still be here in the morning." The final page is only an image--a man loading his belongings into the back of a car in the night--and a icon to lead one back to the beginning. In the end, we know only the tantalizing bit of information we began with--Cousin Jeff absconded without paying his phone bill. The research will continue all over again the next day.

Burne uses "24 Hours" as an example of how individuals approach and utilize the relatively new technology of the Internet. One can only solicit information from the Internet, usually through the clumsy and frustrating intermediary of a search engine (example 1 and 2), not interact with it or force it to provide needed context and conclusions. One can reach other people as well, but these interactions tend to be far more impersonal or bluntly focused on a common goal, or even flat out deceptions. Burne posits a youth subculture that mimics this paradigm, putting individuals in the positions of thoughtless seekers and reluctant databases.

Works Cited

Burne, Philippa. "24 hours with someone you know..." 1996. April 2003 <>.



copyright © 2003 Karen Keen

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