Exploring Christine Wilks' 'Tailspin'

From Cacophony to Narrative Harmony in an Electronic Story

Metal spiral.
Image courtesy of brian.

'Tailspin' by Christine Wilks is a short work of electronic literature that is included in Volume 2 of the Electronic Literature Collection. Created in 2008, 'Tailspin' tells the story of George, a man whose hearing impairment is a constant source of tension between him and his family, and Karen, his daughter, who feels caught between accommodating her father and protecting her children.

Audio

One of the first things you'll notice about 'Tailspin' is the audio.

You'll hear a constant heartbeat and an eerie, repeated, tinny melody. As the story opens, you'll also hear someone humming and the sound of utensils scraping across plates. The screen itself is mostly black and white, which helps foreground the sound.

If you drag your cursor over the swirls that emerge on the screen, you'll be bombarded with footsteps, muffled shouts, birdsong, the squeals and laughter of children, and the sounds of television shows and video games. Over the course of the story, the sounds change according to the content, but there's a constant din.

The effect of all this noise is nerve-racking but also brilliant, considering that this is a story about hearing problems. Confronted with such a cacophony, it's hard not to sympathize with George. If you're like me, you may find yourself turning the volume lower and lower -- but if you turn the volume too low, you'll miss part of the experience, just as George misses experiences by refusing to use a hearing aid and by lashing out at his family so that they withdraw from him.

Navigation

Each screen features seven or eight spinning swirls. When you rest your cursor on each swirl, you'll hear a different sound and see some written text. It doesn't matter what order you follow; the story is about the cumulative effect. Once you have touched all the swirls on the screen, a new, blue swirl appears in the center of the screen, and you can click it to move forward.

A small, discreet pie chart appears in the lower left corner of the screen to let you know how much of the story you've completed, a feature that I find particularly useful.

The Story

Karen and her family are at her parents' house for Sunday lunch. Some of the sections describe Karen's thoughts as she tries to decide whether her children are making too much noise and should be quieted, or whether her father is simply being unreasonable. In other sections, she flashes back to memories of her childhood, when her father always seemed to be shouting at her, ignoring her, or telling her to be quiet.

Some sections show George's frustration with his grandchildren's noise, as well as the guilt he feels when he shouts at them. Other sections flash back to a plane crash he witnessed as a wartime aircraft mechanic.

Karen tries to convince George to try a new type of hearing aid, but past hearing aids have exacerbated his tinnitus, so he refuses to consider a new one.

Dovetailing

'Tailspin' is elegantly written and constructed, with themes and imagery that complement each other beautifully and thoroughly.

For example, on the title screen, a faint drawing of the inner ear emerges behind the title. The coil of the cochlea foreshadows the spinning swirls that readers will use to navigate through the story.

These spinning icons also complement the tailspin of the plane crash George witnessed during the war and the sense that things are "spinning out of control" in the family's interactions with each other.

Karen and George fight because of his hearing loss. But they also "turn a deaf ear" to each other, refusing to imagine the other's perspective and consistently choosing anger over compassion. When Karen tries to bring up the idea of a hearing aid, George "won't give her a fair hearing."

George is riddled with fear and shame when he remembers the war. He suffers the shame of not having fulfilled his dream of becoming a pilot, instead serving as a mechanic because of his "dud ear." Yet he is also ashamed of his "cowardly relief" at being spared the fate of the pilot he witnessed die in the crash and all the other pilots who never made it home.

In the present, he's ashamed of his angry responses to his family, especially his grandchildren. Wilks writes:

"Seeing them freeze like that, eyes wide … he feels bad … more angry …"

He's stuck in a cycle (a swirl?) of escalating shame, frustration, and anger. In fact, his interactions with his family are described in terms of war. He strikes preemptively, shouting "before things get out of control." He uses "words like bullets," and Karen's argument in favor of a hearing aid gets "shot down in flames."

The pilot in the crash screamed pitifully for his mother; George, in turn, provides no comfort for his daughter or grandchildren. Generations fail to connect. Throughout the story, birdsong and the peaceful flight of birds -- in contrast to the flight of war planes -- seem out of reach for everyone.

The closing line of the story, on a screen all its own, is "hang onto deafness for dear life." George's bad ear saved his life, but he and Karen cling to other forms of deafness that may be costing them dearly.