TECHNOFILE

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The Independent Culture
NAfter writing about the pleasures of e-mail a couple of weeks ago, I got a message from one of my correspondents in which he described an exchange of e-mails with a friend. "We'd both been reading the diaries of Diana Cooper," he wrote, "and we came to the conclusion that we were the contemporary equivalent of two Edwardian ladies writing to each other across London."

Although the style of private correspondence may conform to what is expected in polite society, its content need not. In the middle of the Great War, Diana wrote to Raymond Asquith, the Prime Minister's son, of how she and his wife had lain "in ecstatic stillness through too short a night, drugged in very deed by my hand with morphia".

Much more recently, in an adjacent vein, Forward Anywhere: Notes on an Exchange between Intersecting Lives (a floppy disk from Eastgate Systems, www.eastgate. com) includes an e-mail from Cathy Marshall to her co-author Judy Malloy recalling how she once sabotaged her flatmate's dinner date with a cunning plan ("Hah!") to spare herself the sound of his girlfriend's "preternatural moans" through the bedroom wall. "We fired up a load of crank before he left ... He came back early and I turtlewaxed the Le Mans in the dim garage while he puttered around under the hood, disconnecting and reconnecting hoses and wires for most of the night." Sorted, as Lady Diana would never have put it.

Judy is an artist, assigned to work in a collaborative programme with computer scientists like Cathy at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center. The two groups can readily be distinguished: the scientists wear t-shirts and the artists wear black. In their joint work, it is Judy who provides the background tone of sober propriety, while Cathy's recollections are punctuated by chemical handbrake turns. As Judy's memories become more recent, they are dominated by a traffic accident which causes grave injuries to her leg.

Partly because of this mishap, and partly by design, the women's communication is almost exclusively via e-mail. The work, which was compiled between 1993 and 1996, takes the form of "screens" of text, based on messages in which the pair sought "to exchange the remembered and day-to-day substance of our lives". It therefore grew out of what the women decided they had in common. After all, hypertext is about exploring links.

Forward alludes to the function in e-mail programs which allows a message to be sent on to other parties. As well as a control for moving forward, there is one entitled Anywhere, which makes random jumps, and another called Lines which selects a screen containing related material.

Cathy describes the text as "neither literal truth, nor fiction, but rather a single hallucinatory vision made up of two pasts". Her claim stands examination. Forward Anywhere is not just jottings about how each author would like her past to be seen, but a subtly worked epistolary text whose own concerns seem to take precedence over those of the two individuals. Read forward or randomly, it both coheres and surprises. In keeping with the abbreviated e-mail style, each section is about one screen in length, and most aim for the expressive economy of poems.

My favourite is the scene in which Cathy goes to a motel with someone else's husband. From the bathroom, he says that the soap is the kind his wife likes, but she can't get it at the drugstore. He slips the little bars into his overnight bag, to take home.

Marek.kohn@mcr1.poptel.org.uk

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