August 12, 2015
MarkBernstein.org
 
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Pry

Danny Cannizzaro and Samantha Gorman

Winner of the 2015 Coover Award, this iPad app is an art installation that invites the viewer to “pry open a troubled mind and hold its thoughts in your hands.” It’s thoughtful and serious and certainly worth $2.99. What it’s not is precisely what it claims to be: a novella.

Pry is the story of a demolitions expert, returned from the war in Iraq. The work invites you to either pry open the space between lines, which often reveals hazy video clips, memories of past traumas and their banal surroundings, or to squeeze them shut to reveal impressionistic word animations that (sketchily) represent unconscious or subconscious thought. The interstitial videos — or is this really video with interstitial texts? — are intriguing, but Pry really gets going in the most textual episode, Chapter 6, where prying lines apart leads to more lines and still more lines. This works – at times spectacularly – for the iPad, and it’s the most convincing use of stretchtext I’ve seen. The animation of the revealed text is superb; Polle Zellweger’s research in the late 90s argued that this sort of polished animation would in fact reward the effort, and Pry make that case nicely.

There might be some sophisticated commentary on hyperfiction here, too, though I can’t quite see where it’s going. The work’s site is “PryNovella.com”; is that an allusion to afternoon, a story, or just a way to find a vacant domain? There’s a girl and a scud and broken glasses: is that a nod to Victory Garden or is it just that the broken soldier always has a girl and a scud somewhere? I think there’s a nod to Garp, too, but I’m not sure it goes anywhere. And of course, once again, we have a hypertext of ruptured bodies and crashed vehicles; that could be homage, or it could be showing us all How To Do It, but it could simply be walking into the same tropes again. It’s hard to be sure.

This is the latest in a line of electronic artist books, starting with Myst and Inigo Gets Out, in which we dimly perceive a depopulated world and in which the poverty of our perception and our lack of agency or reflected in the protagonist’s current paralysis and past impotence. The writing is sometimes fine and sometimes not.

From a chinese restaurant six blocks away, the sound of frying echoes.

Are the fried echoes served with rice? Six blocks is nearly a kilometer, and blocks are found in cities: who can hear the echoes(!) of the sound of frying over the song of the city? Writing about his fraught relationship with Jessie, The Girl, we are told that

Relations between two NCOs were prohibited based on rank, class, and subordination.

I’m not sure what sort of “class” we’re talking about here, and it looks to me like Section 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice could prohibit relations between non-commissioned officers of identical rank. “Relations” is a tricky word here: it suggests specificity but withholds it, it gestures at clarity but remains ambiguous. Why dance around it? This is Forbidden Love – maybe twice forbidden because I think The Girl is already My Brother’s Girl.

Once again, we apparently have a story about a fellow who goes to war, is changed forever by the war, and who doesn’t do very much or think very much about the war and his place in it. Here, too, we have the conveniently impersonal SCUD missile stand in for the improvised explosive device, perhaps planted in the road by three kids whose sister was hurt in a raid last month, or whose aunt was the collateral damage of a drone attack, or whose grandfather went to Abu Ghraib. No one mentions Bush and Cheney; we play with those silly cards with the drawings of Famous Iraqi Bad Guys but we don’t spend any time on the fact that the whole thing was ginned up, a war in pursuit of a lie, itself in pursuit of a permanent Republican majority.

Is Pry a novella? Things have happened, yes, but most of those things have already happened. That’s not a merely a framing story: our interest is so often focused on our current helplessness and its contrast to our past as a running kid, a thoughtful soldier, the man in charge of the explosive charges. There are words, sure, and lots of those words are good, but I’m inclined to think Pry a personal video installation which happens to employ a lot of text.

Despite its awards, this is apparently a work in progress. That, too, seems odd; once you have let your work out into the world, it’s out; you can extend it, you can write a new work that envelops it, but the work is the work. If it was good enough to show without chapters 4 and 5; perhaps there are no such chapters.


Jhave Johnston has a long and thoughtful review in the LA Review Of Books. It’s among the most intelligent reviews of a new media work I’ve seen in a nonspecialist publication.