Tina Quach

CMS.609

Nick Montfort

3/1/2017

Leaving Room for Biased Imagination: “Through the Park”

Storytelling is major part of human culture--transcending across different languages, done through all sorts of media. Before the written language, stories were passed orally, leaving room for the storyteller to, consciously or unconsciously, add a personal spin to it. The limits of human memory further contribute to the evolution of stories over time and through generations--effects manifesting in the form of omission of parts of the story. “Through the Park”, a web page by Nick Montfort, explores omission in storytelling; in doing so, it reflects how omission doesn’t only change the content, but also the mood of the work. More importantly, the omission leaves greater room for reader interpretation, amplifying the subjective nature of reading and listening to stories.

“Through the Park”  generates a story from a static set of sentences using solely random omission and ellipses. The pure red background of the page threatens to consume the black text of the story,  which takes up about just an eighth of the page. With each refresh, a “new” story appears in place of the old one. Every sentence has an equal chance of being omitted and replaced with ellipses.

From a reader’s perspective, “Through the Park” produces stories that evoke and convey a variety of emotions based on the sentences that are chosen. One story it produces is:

A wolf whistle sounds. ... The muscular man paces the girl. ... Chatter and compliments cajole. ... A giggle weaves through the air. ... The man's breathing quickens. ... Pigeons scatter. ... The girl runs. ... A patrol car's siren chirps. …

My reading of the story, filling in the blanks where omissions have occured, is as follows. The “wolf whistle” is associated with the “muscular man” who “paces the girl” much like a predator. “Chatter”, “compliments” and “giggle” contrast with the mysterious, dangerous mood to portray a happy situation, but the the encounter in the park quickly turns awry with the last four sentences. “The man’s breathing quickens” as he aims to take advantage of the girl” and “pidgeons scatter” due to the commotion and aggressiveness of the assault. “The girl runs” and “a patrol car’s siren chirps” in response to the crime.

This reading of the story draws from archetypes and societal stereotypes of sexual assaults being mainly done by men to girls. The bright red background alarms the reader further preempting this sort of response. Further evidence that Monfort was commenting on this societal understanding is revealed in another version of the story:

The girl puts on a slutty dress. ... The girl turns to smile and wink. ... The man makes a fist behind his back. ... A wildflower nods, tightly gripped. ... The man and girl exchange a knowing glance. ... The two circle. ... The girl's bag lies open. ... A patrol car's siren chirps. …

With a girl putting on a slutty dress at the start, the reader is primed to interpret future events to be caused by this action. Choosing the word “slutty” versus “low cut” or “short” further sets the context to be a date or sexual encounter. “Rape culture” tends to blame the victim for rape and sexual assault. Readers who are able to foreshadow some sort of sexual crime occuring as a result of just that first sentence may be reflecting “rape culture” that is still prevalent in society today. Further, omission of elements in the story affects the way readers interpret what caused what, and in this context, who to blame for the encounter.

In contrast with this highly contextual reading, another story generated by “Through the Park” tells the story of a girl excited for a date, a man who brought flowers for this girl, a joyous date, and frivolous love.

The girl grins and grabs a granola bar. ... The man makes a fist behind his back. ... A wildflower nods, tightly gripped. ... A giggle weaves through the air. ... The man dashes, leaving pretense behind. ... The girl's bag lies open. ... Pairs of people relax after journeys and work. ... The park's green is gray. …

The stark difference between these two stories is enabled by the way each sentence is not taken alone. The sentences are read in context, allowing for moods of surrounding sentences to bleed into each other. For example, a man making a fist behind his back can be seen as a precursor to physical aggression. But paired with “A wildflower nods, tightly gripped”, the story becomes a man who is nervous, holding onto a flower to give to the girl.

“Through the Park”’s exploration of the impact of omission on stories--the way it can transform one story into another--reflects how variability in memory and the lack of granularity of textual stories affects human ability to remember and tell stories accurately. The piece is successful because it leaves room for the user’s imagination to fill in the blanks and make its own sense of the story provided. The implications of this work are highly relevant today. In this era of “fake news,” the stories we read, see, and hear must be critically encountered. However instead of being wary of only incorrect sources of information, readers should also be aware that stories are shaped and affected by omissions and these omissions allow the reader’s biases to take hold.

Works Cited

“Through the Park” by Nick Monfort. http://nickm.com/poems/through_the_park.html

A sample of stories generated by “Through the Park” that demonstrate a progression of mood from dangerous and alarming to frivolous and romantic.

A wolf whistle sounds. ... The muscular man paces the girl. ... Chatter and compliments cajole. ... A giggle weaves through the air. ... The man's breathing quickens. ... Pigeons scatter. ... The girl runs. ... A patrol car's siren chirps. …

The muscular man paces the girl. ... Chatter and compliments cajole. ... The man makes a fist behind his back. ... A snatch of song reminds the girl of her grandmother. ... The two circle. ... Pigeons scatter. ... The girl runs. ... The man's there first. …

The girl puts on a slutty dress. ... The girl turns to smile and wink. ... The man makes a fist behind his back. ... A wildflower nods, tightly gripped. ... The man and girl exchange a knowing glance. ... The two circle. ... The girl's bag lies open. ... A patrol car's siren chirps. …

The girl grins and grabs a granola bar. ... The man makes a fist behind his back. ... A wildflower nods, tightly gripped. ... A giggle weaves through the air. ... The man dashes, leaving pretense behind. ... The girl's bag lies open. ... Pairs of people relax after journeys and work. ... The park's green is gray. …

Chatter and compliments cajole. ... The man makes a fist behind his back. ... The two circle. ... The man's breathing quickens. ... Pigeons scatter. ... Things are forgotten in carelessness. ... Pairs of people relax after journeys and work. ... A patrol car's siren chirps. ...