Tailspin is a fascinating interactive text that uses sound to tell the story with sparse text and striking images as supplements for the story. It is focused around a father/grandfather figure that is suffering from tinnitus and reflects the way he communicates (or fails to communicate) through a haze of chaotic and discordant sounds. The reader is encouraged to click on spirals to advance the story. On each page, all of the spirals have to be clicked in order for a blue one in the center to appear – that is the one that advances the story to the next “scene”.
It begins with eerie music and what sounds like plates and silverware clinking, giving the reader the sense of a domestic scene. One of the spirals brings sound of the father figure shouting – a menacing, incoherent voice (I later reflected that it sounded more like a beast than a man, so probably how it sounded to those hearing it but also possibly to the man who is shouting but is only partially hearing himself). Nothing happens when you click on the spirals. You only need to cursor over it. Each one has text and some have images as well. When a spiral reveals a poem about a child helping birds, you hear birds. Images of birds also show up. Here, for the first time, we start to understand what’s going on. A child is fearful of her grandfather because he is angry and shouts (that’s mentioned twice). Also, the idea of the birds here introduces a contrast that appears throughout the story – the sky and birds and flying. I feel that ultimately, it is used as a metaphor for being free – free from the family conflicts and physical limitations (like tinnitus) that shackle the protagonist. The children also wish for freedom from a home dominated by this angry man. A third spiral reveals an image of a cat dancing with a dog. The imagery is interesting. It is a sketch rather than a full picture, it looks cartoony, and the creatures move across the screen. They almost look like kids in costumes. The dog is particularly odd. It has clear eyes (no pupils) and the body looks like a six pointed star. They are not fixed on the screen, but are constantly moving and changing. In this way, they are like kids, and the images are accompanied by the sounds of kids laughing and playing and the sounds of an arcade or a cartoon. After cursoring over the screen a few times, a third creature appears – more like a kid in a costume (looks like it has a hood with whiskers drawn on). The images stay on the screen, even when you move to the next spiral. On this screen, the main character is named as George and the text reveals him to be kind of a typical grumpy old man (he says things like “the kids should play outside” and references “back in my day”.) Another spiral reveals a girl wanting to smash plates – the first indication of anger here from someone other than George. The source of the voice is not clear. Up to this point, the voices seem to be either George or his young grandchildren. The blue spiral appears when you click on a spiral that says “Kill the noise, deaden the fear” – kind of an inner monologue, like a devil on George’s shoulder. This is a constant theme – the issues he has with his family and noise. The cat cartoon character has disappeared leaving just the dog and squirrel. On the next screen, there is spiral mentioning that the girl doesn’t want to ask her grandfather something – reinforcing the fear the kids feel from him. The last spiral here has references to fire engines and is totally off topic from anything else so far. It introduces an element of uncertainty and chaos into the story. There is a sound like the wind on a microphone held by someone running.
The next screen shows more references to kids playing and indications that the parents are trying to downplay it. George is getting increasingly annoying. There are the faces of multiple cartoon characters on screen – more close up – maybe that means they are more in his face, so to speak? I’ve also begun to notice a series of escalating high piercing notes that play over and over while I’m reading – an obvious reference to tinnitus and the high-pitched whine in one’s ears.
New references now to George’s war history – and a time in his life that he clearly remembers with some measure of pride, but as we find out later, also some shame. At this point in the story, it contrasts with a child or grandchild’s love of war films. So both characters referenced “love” the war, but for difference reasons. One of the spirals here sends out red rings and a kind of a “death ray” type of sound. Looks like radar as well. Seems to be a reference to his hearing because of the sound, but could be a reference to the war as well. One spiral here shows one of George’s adult kids thinking about telling the kids to tone it down but opting against it – in other words, willfully eschewing an opportunity to help her father. Another makes clear that George has told them that almost anything sets off his hearing problems, yet when we read that other people have talked to him about his hearing problems, we get no sense that they are really reaching out – only that they are upset about his reaction. More rings appear. Also, we see images of ears and an image of blue sky and a plane when he talks about joining the military with hopes of being an air cadet. Also a reference to “explosions” – amping up the urgency from this element of chaos introduced alongside the story.
Next screen is more examples of kids playing and the grandfather getting annoyed. In one, he yells again – a monster-like sound – and it says he “spits fire” – a war/fire metaphor that gets used repeatedly. Now we start to get some shape to the storyline about the fire and explosions – there is a reference to a burning plane and images of fire. Again, one of his children willfully doesn’t help her father by sitting on the side of him where he can’t hear. Wondering if the images of the cartoon animals that show up are an indication of the way the grandfather sees the kids? As animals?
A heartbeat has joined the sound of the escalating tinny whiny noises and a schematic of the inside of an ear appears.
On the next screen, closeups of the cartoon faces coincide with a mesage about not being able to understand people. I feel like the way the faces flash and are closeup is a reflection of how he feels intimidated or confused. There is a lot of overlapping noises now. We get an indication that he never got to get into the air cadets with a message that says his dreams were dashed. Noises are annoying and chaotic.
Interesting that where one message talks about about George never listening to her, there’s a line that says he can be fun too, but its faded as if spoken under the person’s breath or as an aside – like a thought that seems ridiculous or shouldn’t be spoken aloud or even a distant memory cropping up out of the blue. I feel like the heartbeat has sped up now. Lots of references to war-like metaphors or burning – for instance, an argument for treatment is “shot down in flames”.References here that the grandfather still holds out hope of flying – a peaceful sound of wind,m images of blue sky and birds appear. Interesting that when a kid talks about the birds and sky they say it’s boring. An interesting contrast between two viewpoints. The sounds are more persistent now – the heartbeat faster, the bells ringing, a siren-like wail, a sound like a teletype machine beeping…. Lots of use of “hearing language” – mentions turning a deaf ear, says she cant get a fair hearing – birds and planes are prominent here – as if everyone wishes they were somewhere else
In the next screen, we get to the nut of it – he feels ashamed that he was never a pilot – the daughter feels shame as well, mistaking her father for a “hero”. But we see that it’s not that cut and dry. He remembers seeing a pilot die in a burning plane – and says 9 out of 10 of the pilots ended up being a “dead hero”. In the passage about a pilot trapped in a burning plane, we hear a teletype machine and fire engines and images of fire. He also writers that about the pilot “screaming for his mother” but the text is faded – like it is a thought he is trying to suppress. Lots of warlike language here – words like bullets, him spitting fire, etc
The next screen has an image of a spiraling plane (spirals again!) coming at the reader and a horrible voice yelling “Help Me” and the grandfather says he’s actually happy for his bad ear, presumably because he couldn’t hear the screams of the dying pilot – an interesting contrast after the entire story has been spent talking about how much trouble and heartache his ears have given him. Another passage showing George’s child willfully opting against reaching out to him. Even when he looks “vulnerable”, there’s a “red hot burning block” keeping her from reaching out – interesting language considering how much burning and fire plays into the reasons that George can’t reach out to her. Here, the blue sky starts to feel like a metaphor for death – the ultimate escape from the world in which he is physically trapped and perhaps an escape to the world he misses – of flight and planes and heroes in WWII. The final spiral is red and takes you to a screen where there are dozens of circles and the text “Hang onto deafness for dear life”. I take that to mean that in the end, the grandfather may have actually been more grateful for not being able to hear the screams of the dying, even if it cost him the ability to communicate with his family. Interesting that he is physically barred from communicating, but his children (and by extension his grandchildren) have chosen not to communicate with him – preferring to lecture him about treatment and then passing on opportunities to genuinely reach out. Another spiral takes you to the credits for animation, sound and special thanks.