Tailspin, by Christine Wilks
First: the title. Before I even opened the link to read Tailspin, the title was already evoking images of being out of control, dizzy, and of plummeting or falling. It turns out that these images are appropriate to the theme of tailspin. Yet the title does double duty; it is also a reference to George’s time served in the Air Cadets.
The Electronic Literature Collection, where Tailspin can be accessed, refers to the piece as one that succeeds at “metaphorically associating imperfect hearing with imperfect communication”. Told from two perspectives: George, an older man who suffers from Tinnitus and partial deafness, and his daughter, Karen, the piece uses sound and short bursts of text to create the sense of overwhelming frustration and disconnect experienced by the two.
When the reader opens Tailspin, they are met with a white, patterned background overlaid with a number of ever-spinning spirals. When the reader hovers over the spirals, they activate the text and sounds associated with that piece of the story. Throughout the story, and in addition to any additional sounds, there is the sound of a constant, slightly rapid heartbeat.
This is an effective element within the story because it creates a sense of unease that the reader shares with both Karen and George. Karen (and her two children) fear George because of his angry outburst. They cannot relate to him or understand him. At one point during the dinner, “Karen turns, catches a fleeting glimpse of hateful anger on her father’s face. He was looking at Chloe. She sees fear in her youngest child”. Karen can relate to this fear; she grew up trying to find ways to avoid her father’s anger, trying to be as quiet as possible.
There is a parallel that can be drawn from the text when Lauren, Karen’s other daughter, is told to ask Grandad when she wants something. She says that she never will; she is too apprehensive of George. Karen, when she is a child, is also told to ask her father when she wants something: “Mummy’s busy. Ask Daddy, she says, like always”. Karen is also reluctant to approach George. Both Karen and her children are fearful prompting an outburst from George.
George also suffers from a constant state of unease. His Tinnitus is made worse by the sounds of the children. He says, “Anything can set it off: loud noises, high pitched, piercing noises…alarms”. He once tried a hearing aid, but that too made his Tinnitus worse. When the reader activates this piece of text, a sharp, shrill sound accompanies it. And that is not the first time that the reader is treated to George’s experience. There are frequent overwhelming assaults of the electronic sounds of videogames, jumbled voices, and the too-loud clatter of silverware and glasses. The only time George seems to experience relief is when he imagines what it would be like to glide through the silent sky like a bird.
At one point, the background changes to the wispy blue and white of a sky and the sounds of birds fill the air as George flashes back to the day that he joined the Air Cadets.
It is assumed by both Karen and the reader that George was a pilot. Yet it turns out that he was “nothing more than an aircraft fitter”. Karen admits to making assumptions as a child.
This is not the only example to a lack of communication and understanding between father and daughter. Karen continues to try to sell her father on the idea of a hearing aid. She seems unaware that the hearing aid made George uncomfortable and worsened his Tinnitus. Karen cannot comprehend why George becomes so angry when she again brings up the subject. So at dinner, while Karen is sitting on her father’s deaf side, she acts as if he isn’t even there, as if he is a blank wall. George feels as if he might as well be invisible.
One of the last bursts of text reveals that George witnessed a young man burn to death in a plane that had crashed. An image of a plane spiraling while a man’s voice repeatedly begs, “help me, help me” accompanies the text “cowardly relief/ he failed/ thank God/ for his deaf ear”. This seems to be the reveal of how George went from having ambitions of being a pilot to becoming an aircraft fitter. He mentions how heroes usually die young, and he seems to see himself as a coward.
The piece concludes with the image of what looks to be a ladder in the center of a pulsating sound wave spiral which takes up the entire screen.