[...] reality is neither the subject nor the object of true art which creates its own special reality having nothing to do with the average "reality" perceived by the communal eye.
Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
Vladimir Nabokov's 1962 novel, Pale Fire, is widely considered a forerunner of postmodernism and a prime example of the literature of exhaustion. The novel has four distinct sections. The first is a "Forward" by a man who calls himself Charles Kinbote. Kinbote, who claims to be a scholar from the country of Zembla, relates how he befriended the American poet John Shade. Following Shade's untimely death, Kinbote was entrusted with the manuscript of the poet's last major work, a long autobiographical poem called "Pale Fire." Despite the many reservations of others concerning his authority to do so, Kinbote has edited the work for publication. The second section is the poem itself, divided into four cantos. It is followed by the third, and longest section, Kinbote's own idiosyncratic commentary and line by line glosses. The fourth section is an index in which Kinbote provides brief capsule descriptions of the major people and places of the text and its accompanying commentary.
The novel, however, is something more than a satiric look at the solipsistic excesses of academic exegesis. Kinbote's commentary gradually transforms the heterogenous elements of the text into a labyrinth of dazzling complexity. Kinbote's status as a reliable narrator is subverted early in the book; by the end of the Forward, we suspect him to be something of an opportunist who has made off with Shade's manuscript before the grieving widow can gather her wits. His commentary supports this suspicion. Shade's poem seems to be a fairly straightforward bit of personal reminiscence, as unmarked by worldly concerns as it is by any hint of literary talent. Bending every word of Shade's poem to ludicrous extremes, however, Kinbote proceeds to unfold the story of the overthrow of the last King of Zembla, Charles II. The story of Shade's composition of the poem is made parallel to the story of the approach of an assassin named Gradus who is coming to America to slay the exiled King.
Subtly, Kinbote's identity begins to merge with his stories of Charles II, even as Shade's poem is gradually co-opted by the Commentary. Kinbote, it appears, may in fact be the exiled King, using Shade's poem as a means of telling his own story. However, even this possibility begins to slip away as a third and almost invisible narrator, a Russian emigré named Botkin, makes his way into the narrative, raising the possibility that the whole thing, Kinbote, Zembla, Charles II, Gradus, even Shade's poem itself, might be the elaborate creation of this other figure.
Critics have spilled no small amount of ink trying to figure who is the true author of this text, which of these layers of story-telling is the real and which the fictional. In so doing they have unwittingly swallowed Nabokov's bait; there can be no strict hierarchical ordering of these narratives because each is as "real" as the other. Or, to be more precise, each is as fictional as the other--Nabokov is openly toying with the desire to see reality as anything but a fictional construct.
Writers and readers of hypertext fiction will find much of interest in Nabokov's comic novel. Like Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars, Nabokov foregoes the traditional form of the novel in favour of one usually seen as antithetical to narrative. The "Authoritative Edition" format of academic publishing allows Nabokov to re-think the conventions of the realist novel. His tale blurs the traditional distinctions between editor and manuscript, and between narrator and tale, in order to comment ironically on the very processes of reading and interpretation. As with a hypertext, the reader at first moves back and forth between Shade's manuscript and Kinbote's commentary, hoping to find the "truth" of this text by a close comparison of the two texts. However, this desire for closure is rapidly exhausted, as the reader realizes that each point of comparison, each link that is pursued, only takes him or her deeper and deeper into the open-ended web of Nabokov's design.
Pale Fire instantiates many of the formal mechanisms of hypertext--its use of disparate materials connected together through an associative logic of links and anchors--only in order to signal the dangers of using these mechanisms to pursue the same old dreams of univocity and fixed meaning.