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Critical Essay on Rob Kendall's "A Life Set for Two"
A critical essay about Rob Kendall's "A Life Set for Two"
We’ve all been there––well, maybe most of us––in that relationship in which neither of you want to be but are too cowardly to end. Each of you dish out insults to the other and consume the other’s in return in the hope that one day your lover will be fed up enough to leave and you get off guilt-free. In this life you had set for two, what you think you're hoping for, ultimately, is a life alone––at least until you find yourself that way.
This experience is all too familiar and all too human, and it is one chronicled in Robert Kendall’s long narrative poem, A Life Set for Two. Situated in a café, the story unfolds through the metaphor of two different menus––one belonging to the male narrator recounting the failed affair to us and other belonging to his lover.
Before we get to the main course, though, we are given several cocktails by way of a prologue to loosen us up a bit and clue us into the storyline: The narrator is looking back, trying “to remember” (Screen 1) the relationship he lost and “wonder[ing how [he] ended up” out of it (Screen 2). The formal poetic structure of these two screens shifts in the third––entitled “Past, Past, Who’s got the Past?”––to a game of sorts that consists of five textboxes, each posing a question: “Under my hat?,” “Under the name of Eternity?,” “Underhanded when underfoot?,” “Understood that it can go its own way?,” and “Under an Obligation to pass away?.” “Under” found in all five suggests the act of getting to the bottom of things, digging deep for the truth, but the flippant language found in some, such as “Under my hat,” taunts the narrator and detracts from his serious exploration of his still raw feelings. For example, clicking on that box, we find the words: “Nothing under here but what’s a head . . ./ though it may seem like history’s/ all in my mind. (It’s really in my blood).” Four of the five boxes provide the same mocking banter and so lead nowhere. It is only when we choose “Understood that it can go its own way?,” which results in “Yes! Let’s follow it/ and see where it leads,” that are we able to move forward in the story. In essence, this portion of the Prologue represents the kind of mind games the narrator has been playing with himself. Until that moment of reverie, the bulk of his thoughts about the relationship seems to have provided him no wise illumination about the situation but rather excuses that helped to assuage his guilt. It is only by allowing himself to be brutally honest that he can move on. And when he does, so does the story. We are taken to the fourth screen where the poem resumes its formal structure. Here he describes the memory of the relationship as “a romantic little place/where the finished dreams/glisten forever/like overpriced wine in the candlelight.” The poem’s title appears in the next screen: “There once/was/a life set for two/here/somewhere.” The adverbs “here” and “somewhere” emphasize the confusion the “dreams” still hold for the narrator. Staying with the metaphors of “place” and “wine,” the next screen leads to a more vivid memory of a “cake . . . shared with her” at “one table.” This was an early time in their relationship when they were experiencing “happiness,” timidity (“our souls, slow and afraid/inner notes that trembled”), and great passion (“then fell over into hunger”). The final and seventh screen has the narrator remembering the “menu . . . /with its choices still/hurting.” He tells us that “[t]he taste of badly missed chances/still teeters somewhere/in [his] mouth.
At this point we arrive at Café Passé with his and her menus titled “What Fed Me?” and What Fed Her?,” respectively. His menu includes such delightful tidbits as “Fall’s Fruit,” “Seasoned Heart,” “Manna from the Stars,” “Seefood,” “Wild Game (In Season),” and “Handouts;” hers, “Fruit’s Fall,” “The Juicy Part,” “Dainties Under the Glass,” “Naughty Treats,” “Prison Rations,” and “The Recipe.” We realize that the perspective about the relationship we receive comes solely from him, and his obvious pain makes him a not-so-reliable reporter of the truth. But hunger for the truth has visited us, so we make a choice from the menu--“Fall’s Fruit."
The screen shifts to a blurry view of a table setting in black and blue, a reminder of his bruised heart. We hear about “chilled” “fruit” and “lengthening shadows” and, later, in the next screen “her fallen fruit.” This last image is an obvious allusion to Eve tempting Adam with the apple. Our narrator admits he too falls prey to feminine wiles and “pick[s] up [the apple to] share.” We could take this passage as a signal that our narrator takes some responsibility for the relationship’s failure, though Eve, like his lover, is ultimately responsible for the first step of man's (and his) ruin.
Once we complete this course, we are ready to move on to the next. In some readings of the work, we are forced to sample from one menu at a time; but this time, we are handed both––and we opt for hers. Five choices are offered, but we are tempted to try “Fruit’s Fall,” an obvious play on the item from his menu we just tasted. Reading the poem, we learn he is that “fruit” she “bit” into, and the experience made him aware he had “fall[en] for that old trick”––desire. With that realization, we are returned to both menus. His “Fall’s Fruit” is now grayed out, and we are left with the four other choices. “Seasoned Heart” is second in the list, and because we are presumably in a café, we decide to try the courses in the order the menu lists them, though we realize the author doesn’t mind if we sample the food however we wish. “Seasons Heart” gives us: “She was the only one/I could tell myself to/like the [riddle story] her [answer ending]/had been waiting for. “[R]iddle” and “story” change, blinking in and out. They are paired with “answer” and “ending,” reflecting perhaps the confusion the narrator may feel about his lover, a woman he remembers as a “walled city with breasts” and whose “scenery was staggering.” The shifting of “wayside” and “wayward” in the next screen along with suggestion of her “local delicacies” brings to mind the Keatsian “la belle sans merci” whose love, too, was “all wrong.” We end this course and move back to her menu. With “Fruit’s Fall” grayed out, we look down the list to “The Juicy Part.” Here the narrator describes his lover as a seductress, one who leaves him “pulsing” and “quivering.” She is aware of his hunger and works him over “slowly” with “[h]her tongue.” The course ends on this sexual note, and we shift back to his menu and the item, “Manna from the Stars.” The two of them are now seated in a movie theatre feasting on “popcorn” and a “jumbo-size cup/of [his] own/thirst.” Back to her menu we find “Dainties Under Glass” where we learn that “[s]he didn’t need it”––”it” being the sexual act hinted at with the words: “my plot thickening/between her caressing lips,/better times on the verge of coming.” It is clear from the last passage that he alone was “blind[ed] by the passion,” and that his passion for her seems not to be fully appreciated or reciprocated.
We return to his menu to explore the “Seefood” course. He tells us that the “darkness” surrounding them while lovemaking is not enough to keep him “[un]exposed” to her “gaze.” She sees right through him, leaving him “helpless,” literally at sea without his “oars.” The use of the homonyms “see” and “sea” suggests his continued confusion about the truth of their relationship. At the end of this poem, the full complement of her menu returns, but it is hard to resist the next item on the list, “Naughty Treats.” The blue screen gives way to red, and we go back in time to when they first met “in that back-alley doorway behind desire” where they “caught each other there/red-handed” and “uneasiness glistened in her eye.” Back to his menu, we find items also reappear. It is a veritable feast of love’s misery, signifying the way in which we torture ourselves about the loss, rolling the same ideas over and over in our mind with the hope of finding a different, better answer to relieve the pain. Knowing this, do we go back and explore “Fall’s Fruit” again? “Seasoned Heart?” “Manna from the Stars?” “Seefood?” Or shall we go, at this juncture, straight to “Handouts?” We could return to her menu and read “Meat of Our Bodies” or "Love’s Desserts.” With all of the choices beckoning for a taste, one gets the feeling the narrator has not made much headway in his emotional journey to sort out lost love. Because we want to give him another chance, though, we select “Love’s Desserts” found on her menu.
Here we are presented with an array of choices served up on a tray. The title box reads: “Love’s Desert Tray/Help Yourself,” the double entendre of “desert” (dessert?) offering up an image of a parched passion. Five other boxes are scattered around. Three of them are gray, and two are titled “Love” in two different sizes, small and large. Pressing the smaller one takes us to a red screen that reads: “The tougher question/was love./How I/hated/her for it.” With this selection, the game disappears, and we are taken back to the two main menus. We notice too that on the top left side of the screen a dialogue box, entitled “Added Seasonings,” now appears. “None” is selected for us as a default, but curiosity gets the better of us, and we hold down the arrow to find two other choices: “Touch of Another Man” and “Family to Taste.” The former sounds like a promising path to take for getting at the root of the narrator’s anger toward his lover, so we select it. We still also need to select a course from the menu, so we choose “Seefood” again. At first glance the poem we experienced previously relays similar information as the one we read before but is reconfigured with additional content. In the next screen however the narrator recounts to us that he saw another “man’s arms . . . encircle[ing] her.” Thus, we start to understand the source of the narrator’s anger is that he feels betrayed by his lover, but because we never get to hear her point of view regarding the relationship, we have no way of knowing if she felt as deeply about him as he did (or does) for her or if in his irrational state he is imagining this event.
This screen shifts us back to the menus. “Prison Rations,” looks particularly tasty under the circumstances. This course lays some fault at his own feet: He, a “hardened criminal,” “called need,/with its aching, unrepentant balls/for her chains.” "Ah," we say to ourselves, "he demanded too much. He was overly jealous. He was possessive." Even though there seems to be an end in sight with the appearance of “The Check, Please” that appears in the menu, it’s hard at this point not to continue exploring the menu, for he seems––finally––to realize that when love fails, both lovers have as much responsibility in the loss as they do a stake in its success. The drive at this point is to explore “Handouts” in his menu because we have hope that our hapless narrator is finally arriving at this truth. Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case because this menu item is filled with self-pity.
We could continue working our way through the menus, but in this one reading of the many potential permutations of the story of a love gone wrong, we have had our fill and do finally ask for “The Check, Please.” Clicking on that menu item, we get a dialogue box asking if we are “ready to settle [our] account and leave?” A simple “yes” or “no” is required. Choosing the former, we see the poem end with “her doors clos[ing]/for good” and him going “home/alone” still blaming her and still “afraid” until his “fear” . . . caught the sun/ . . . and a reckless lightness began/to dance/at/the edges/of my senses.” So, we come to the end of this particular reading with some hope that our forlorn narrator has indeed found some peace in a life no longer set for two. Keep in mind though that like real-life where we continue to gnaw upon our doubts and pain for a very long time (decades even, if we so choose to punish ourselves and others enough), we can revisit Café Passé anytime and encounter the poem again, finding ourselves back at the table with menu in hand ready to order another round of misery from lost love.
Other Information about the Work
Published on CD-ROM by Eastgate Systems, Inc. in 1996, A Life Set for Two appeared in The Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext, Volume 2, Number 4 with Richard Symth’s Genesis: A Rhizography. It was intended for an IBM compatible computer running Windows 3.1 or better. For the Traversal we used a Compaq with Windows 98.
The work is unusual in two regards: First, Kendall programmed it in Visual Basic, a language not used in the production of any other work published by Eastgate Systems, Inc.;  and second, it is not really a hypertext, but actually what Kendall refers to as an animated text.  The former means that after Microsoft released its final version of Visual Basic in 1998––just two years after the publication of the work––Kendall decided never to revise it even though the title screen refers to the work as a “First Edition.” The latter means like many early e-lit authors of the time, Kendall was experimenting with form. His particular interest was creating a new type of formal poetry that was born digital in response to the kind of work that Raymond Queneau  and others were doing (Kendall). The poem’s strong imagery, its use of movement  and color symbolism to get across ideas, and virtuoso programming resulting in its graphics and animation speaks to its status as a classic work of early electronic literature.
It is important to note that in 1996 vector based animation software was just coming to the market. FutureSplash, developed in 1995, had been reworked and sold in 1996 to Macromedia. It was released that same year as Macromedia Flash. So, the programming Kendall did in Visual Basic to achieve movement in this poem is extremely notable. It is also ironic that both the Visual Basic and Flash are now both outmoded tech.
Kendall has written extensively about this work in essays, such as "Hypertext Dynamics in A Life Set for Two," "Writing for the New Millennium: The Birth of Electronic Literature," "Mind as Poem: A Life Set for Two," and "Words and Mirrors: Introduction to A Life Set for Two." He also produced a document entitled "Two Readings of a Selection from A Life Set for Two" that provides the text of the same four poems ("Seasoned Heart," "Manna from the Stars," "Fruit's Fall," and "The Check, Please") and shows the generative nature of the work.
An excerpt of A Life Set for Two appeared as a CD-ROM in The Little Magazine, Vol. 21. It was produced by Christopher Funkhouser (Editor), Belle Gironda (Assistant Editor), Benjamin Henry (Technical Editor), Roberto Bocci (Video Editor), and Ando Arike (Associate Editor). The journal was produced by graduate students at the University of Albany's English Department. According to Funkhouser, this version of the work was created with Asymetrix's Multimedia Toolbook, which as he relates, "was used to make a lot of pieces and the interface/navigation." Looking at the excerpt of the poem on the copy of The Little Magazine we have in the lab, the reader is greeted with an interface similar to the Eastgate version. However, the animated Prologue from the Eastgate version is presented in text as a Preface. Thus, when the reader clicks on "Poem" in the menu, they are taken directly to the two menus, each containing three choices. On his menu we find "Fall Fruit," "A Heart Well Done," and "Manna from the Stars;" On hers, "Fall Fruit," "Dainties Under Glass," and "Stolen Treats." The two menus do not hold more than three selections and these selections titles never vary. Additionally, the functionality and poetry found in the menu items closely resemble the Eastgate version of the poem.
Kendall states in his essays, "Hypertext: Foe to Print?" that an excerpt of the work was also published in print in Lips No. 18/19, 1994.
Finally, after reading a draft of this essay, the author reminded me that I had neglected to mention the emotional states of the poem. As he explains: "There are three different emotional states that can be described roughly (if I remember correctly) as contentment (represented by blue), anger (represented by red), and bitterness (represented by black). Most of the pages have three different versions, one reflecting each of the three emotional states. The program randomly switches state as you progress (avoiding showing the same page more than once). There is an interface control that lets you manually shift the emotional state by clicking red, blue, or black. Is this feature somehow no longer working?" (Kendall, Personal Email, 20 Apr 2018). The answer is yes, it was working, and I did experience the various emotions and noted the way they influenced the text. My only excuse for avoiding a discussion about them in this essay is that the work is extremely complex with a lot to unpack about it. I was concerned about making the length of this essay any longer than it already is. Mea culpa.
 Microsoft quit supporting Visual Basic in 2008.
 As we learned from Kendall’s YouTube chat post, he had to call it a hypertext in order for the company to publish it.
 Queneau’s A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems (1961) is a book of 10 sonnets printed on card with lines written on strips that made many permutations of the poem possible.
 I have developed a term for this kind of kinetic movement in a poem: Kinepoeia. See https://directory.eliterature.org/e-lit-resource/4949.
Funkhouser, Christopher. Facebook Post. Electronic Literature Organization Group. 18 Apr. 2018.
Kendall, Robert. "Hypertext: Foe to Print?" ACM SIGWEB Newsletter. Volume 9, Issue 2-3, June-Ocotber 2000.
–––. "Hypertext Dynamics in A Life Set for Two." Word Circuits. Proceedings of the Seventh ACM Conference on Hypertext Washington, DC, 1996. 74-84. http://www.wordcircuits.com/kendall/content/essays/ht96.htm.
–––. A Life Set for Two. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems, Inc. CD-ROM. 1996.
–––. "The Mind as Poem: A Life Set for Two." Leonardo (1997) 30.3. 191-192. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/607452/pdf.
---. "My essay on A Life Set for Two." Personal Email. 20 Apr. 2018.
–––. “Personal Interview.” 30 Mar. 2018.
–––. "Writing for the New Millennium: The Birth of Electronic Literature." Word Circuits. Poets & Writers Magazine. Nov./Dec. 1995. http://www.wordcircuits.com/kendall/content/essays/pw1.htm#A%20Life.
–––. "Words and Mirrors: Introduction to A Life Set for Two." Serious Hypertext. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems, Inc., 2003. http://www.eastgate.com/hypertext/kendall/Mirrors.html.