15 Aug. 2003
Good Introduction: 'Charmin' Cleary' by Edward Falco
Bridie James

Charmin' Cleary by Edward Falco, http://www.eastgate.com/Charmin/Welcome.html 2000.

Edward Falco is an established author in both print and hypertext and his hypertext short story, Charmin' Cleary, is testament to the skill that brought about his international success. This story revolves around an incident in which high school student Charmaine Cleary injures her teacher, Professor Blat, because she claims he sexually harassed her.

This web-like narrative interweaves the stories of Charmaine Cleary, Professor Blat and a collection of onlookers. Falco makes the voices of the different characters distinctive through varied use of colloquialisms, levels of grammar and, in the case of Blat, frequent literary references. These techniques also make the characters seem authentic, which adds to the credibility of the story. Through these characters Falco questions our definition of sexual harassment — when does simply looking go too far? Who is really to blame? Falco poignantly expresses differing answers to these questions. A woman having a discussion with a male co-worker makes the following comment:

I'm trying to find the words to explain how his saying that this girl wearing a short dress might make her responsible for being attacked feels like a threat to me.

The contrasting recollections of the event recalled by Cleary and Blat create a sense of uncertainty regarding what did actually happened. The readers find themselves asking "Who can we trust?" and, in this, I think Falco is seeking to highlight the impossibility of proof in situations such as this, when there is no way to know for sure who is speaking the truth. Falco aligns more sympathy with Cleary as the story progresses, and this occurs through Blat's own version of events. Blat seems perverted by the end of the story, even though we still don't know how far he took his desire. For example, Blat imagines giving Cleary advice:

A husband has needs! ... And don't tell him how you weren't brought up to do that kind of thing. He won't want to hear it. Or you're afraid it might hurt. If you love him, you'll be willing to risk a little pain. A man is creature of many needs. A good woman knows this and satisfies those needs.

Falco explores the culture and power structures surrounding our perceptions of sexual harassment. He does this through examining the issues of favouritism and gender stereotypes. These ideals are clearest through the eyes of the onlookers in the story. Two students in a dorm think that Cleary will not be disciplined because she is star of the school basketball team.

If you or me slugged a prof, we'd be out on our ass.

You and me, Jim says, are not the best basketball player this school's ever had in its history.

A female worker fears she will be stereotyped as "What a bitch. Two-to-one she's gay."

I found the cyclical structure of the story to be very effective, as the lexias can be read in any order without any meaning being sacrificed. The reader can also keep navigating the story for as long as they want, always with the option of returning to the beginning.
The only criticisms I had of the piece were technical. Firstly, in most lexias I had to scroll down to read all the text. This was not because each lexia was particularly lengthy, but because the font size was very large, and the lines were not single-spaced. Secondly, the links were not immediately evident, as they were not highlighted or underlined, and did not change when the mouse hovered over them. It was only after much experimentation that I figured out that clicking on the top paragraph followed Cleary's story, clicking somewhere in the middle followed Blat and clicking on the bottom text followed the onlookers. Clicking on the white space at the bottom of the screen took me back to the title page. I felt frustrated because I didn't know how many different options I had. Once I figured it out though, I liked the control I had in choosing which story to follow. I felt more empowered than in a hypertext where the links seem random and I have no idea of where I'm going.

I think this piece would work as a good introduction for people who are new to reading and appreciating hypertext. It has enough structure not to be alienating, yet it empowers the reader and incorporates multiple viewpoints and non-linear form — all of which are integral to good hypertext writing.