I ended up reading through the entirety of Robert Antoni’s As Flies to Whatless Boys before ever making the journey over to the accompanying website. In hindsight, I’m not sure how I did that — the asterisks and symbols that coincided with the information on the (then unseen to me) website confused me a little, but I kept moving along, happy to get lost in the story otherwise. After all, it was easy to get lost, to submerge myself completely in the multiple stories that, despite time, place, and narration differences, all seemed to integrate seamlessly to become the piece of work I held in my hands every morning on the Queens-bound A train. When I finally came to the end of the book, though, and had given myself a few hours to fully disengage from the world I’d been living in for the past few days, I went on to the accompanying website to see what more I would find.
I’m not sure what I was expecting — probably a site like many that I’d been directed to by fiction books, where there were neatly arranged links that would take me to summaries, an author biography, a few excerpts from the book, and, possibly a link to buy the book on Amazon or some other online web store. I didn’t find any of that.
I was faced immediately with the title of the book, stylized the same way it is on the cover of my copy of the book. Underneath it, the words “Appendix” and seven links. Nothing else. I refreshed. Still nothing else. So it wasn’t simply a loading error, there just wasn’t anything else on the page. Still a little confused, I simply grabbed my copy of As Flies to Whatless Boys and started methodically down the list of links, still (mistakingly) thinking that I’d find something I’d already read in the book.
What the website does, however, is give you what you didn’t see in the book. It gives you Etzler’s machines (complete with patents) and his blackface play aboard the ship. It gives you Willy’s wordless (day)dreams with Marguerite in full screen videos that convey those moments that he savored for the rest of his life. It even gives a copy of William Tucker’s notebook, in its’ entirety. Ultimately, it aids the reader’s full understanding of the novel, allows them to understand the things that are too bulky and technical or long-winded or simply not fully conveyed by the use of the novel’s prose. It even gives indirect insight to the images inside the author’s mind and what he wanted the reader to see and hear and feel when reading through the book.
This experiment, this merging of the physical literature and digital media into a more complete view of the story and setting and characters, is an exciting one because of the opportunities it presents. If the website is seen after reading the book, as in my case, then the story puts on weight and texture, fleshing out into a fuller story with sharper images to accompany it. If read together, then reading becomes a multimedia experience, where the words on the page may now have music or diagrams that immerse the reader in the universe of the page. And even if the website is viewed before the reader even picks up the book, then it manages to tantalize without spoiling the plot, using video, music, and diagrams to give a taste of what lies ahead in the novel. It really makes me excited for possible future projects where a website isn’t just to promote a book — it also complements the text. Without the need for Hollywood movie budgets or even illustrations, an author can now show the reader exactly what they want them to see. Exact voices and accents can even be embedded in audio clips, giving dialogue texture. The success of this book-and-site pairing, for me, lies in its promise for later similar projects that can and will go even further. Rather than pitting the book page against the webpage for relevance, they work synchronously and bring even the most whatless reader to a better understanding of the novel’s world.