The Structure of Uncle Roger


Judy Malloy reading Uncle Roger

Silicon Valley in the 1980s. Success in the semi-conductor chip industry measured by companies that could produce the fastest chip. Engineers who could deliver it, wooed away with the promise of more money. Industry espionage, a common practice. This is the setting of Judy Malloy’s Uncle Roger, a serial novel created in BASIC and delivered to the tech savvy audience of the Art Com Electronic Network community that resided in the WELL (“Whole Earth ‘Lectric Link”) [1] circa 1986.

From the beginning Uncle Roger was envisioned as a database narrative. Malloy began the project in 1986, ultimately taking six months to create 100 records (or lexias) and a database that made it possible for readers to navigate the story by selecting and typing keywords on the command line [2]. Each combination would result in a lexia or series of lexias relating to the keywords typed. Typing “David” followed by “Jenny”in the next query, for example, brings up episodes about the relationship between these two people: David’s messy apartment that Jenny recalls, the picture of David’s former lover that Jenny tears into tiny pieces and places back into his wallet.


Malloy’s print-out of an Art Com conversation about Uncle Roger

The work may very well be one of the first social media narratives, presaging twitterature and other familiar contempary forms today. Malloy posted one to two lexias every day, in serial style, to friends in her network, who then responded by chatting with her about the story and riffing off to other topics. “Great stuff, Judy,” one reader wrote on December 2, “the ideas and the content are both up to ridiculously high standards. Thanks for the fresh air.” Another: “What jacket are you wearing?”

Uncle Roger unfolds in three parts. “A Party at Woodside” takes place at, as the title suggests, a party––the ideal situation for keeping the narrative open and introducing the reader to the characters living this heady, highly competitive lifestyle. “Blue Notebook” consists of five parallel narratives told in retrospect by Jenny, a not completely credible narrator, with many of the episodes, a memory inside a memory. “Terminals” is both metaphorically and literally the end of the narrative, told from Jenny’s perspective.

Both Jenny and Uncle Roger serve as the common thread among the three parts, Jenny as narrator recalling this particular time in our country’s collective history and her uncle as the catalyst driving the action among the various players. Malloy suggests that Roger, a semi-conductor industry analyst (a kind of venture capitalist), is a Falstaffian character providing comic relief in a story about power and money in an industry that essentially built the U.S. economy from which we are still reeling, even now.


A notice about Malloy’s work in the Art Com catalog

Limited to 50 characters per line on the screen, Uncle Roger is a type of constrained poetry. Though not a poet when she began writing Uncle Roger, Malloy became one, she says, during the creation of this work. Those who read the work may be struck by the use of alliteration, internal rhyme, and other poetic devices. The repetitive use of the “M” sound in one episode draws out the action, while the liquid sound of multiple “Ls” in another takes us to both undulating waves and unstable times.

Malloy sold Uncle Roger through the Art Com catalog beginning 1987. Each copy was a hand-made artists’ book that Malloy refers to as a “material hack.” Hack or not, Uncle Roger constitutes one of the first commercially sold works of electronic literature in the U.S., a serialized database novel, artfully hand-produced and structured in a way that compelled readers to interact with its author. [3]


[1] The WELL, founded in 1985, is one of the first social networks.  It describes itself as “a cherished destination for conversation and discussion. It is widely known as the primordial ooze where the online community movement was born — where Howard Rheingold first coined the term ‘virtual community.'” See

[2] Malloy was originally known at the WELL (re: her “handle,” as names were called) as “badinfo.” Her name later shifted to jmalloy.  She was also known as Judy.

[3] The material garnered for this post is derived from the two-day traversal and set of interviews held with Judy Malloy at her office at Princeton University, on September 7 and 8, 2013.  We would like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding to conduct these activities that has led to this posting.


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