Who's in Charge Here?

A Response to Shelley Jackson's

Patchwork Girl

Patchwork Girl instructs and delights us with a chorus of voices harmonious in its dissonance, each bespeaking itself in language that moves the way language should. One good thing about Shelley Jackson's web is that it does very well the things that we who are interested in hypertext fiction like to rave about. An even better thing is that in the end it may lead us to question some of those ravings.

It begins with the body, stitched and scarred: a woman, naked, composed, who opens herself to our perusal. The graphic that fills Patchwork Girl's first screen (or "lexia", or "section of the text", or perhaps most appropriately, "quilt-patch") signals the primacy of the spatial over the linear, of that which opens up and out over the teleological thrust of a straight-line story.

That spatial form, as any hyper-reader would expect, is what you will experience as you read It's worth mentioning, however, that one wired friend recently complained to me about Jackson's occasional linear sequences, riffs where one screen links only to one other and that one only to the next. Didn't bother me, however: such subversion of readerly expectations (even newish ones) is a key item in this writer's bag of tricks, and so a key to this text's total effect. Read on.

Oh, but wait: Before you let this patched-together creature take you into her, it's worth noticing that the body-map on your screen has a head, that it displays bilateral symmetry, that its arms and legs reach purposefully outward from the torso to their dendritic, digital termini. You'll see much the same form resonating in the text's top-level StorySpace map. It's not a deck of cards, not a labyrinthine loop-de-loop. This figure is a shaped, and shapely, thing.

Move to the title page, and you are informed that she is indeed a creature of parts: a "modern monster" [post-modern, really], multiply authored, multiply named. With the attribution of the text to "Mary/Shelley & Herself" rich and vital themes are laid out for you. With the hyper-linked list of contents below ("a graveyard", "a journal", "a story", etc.) you learn about the structural warp--what kind of thing is this I've popped into my A-drive?-- on which that thematic weft will weave.

Click your mouse on whichever link you choose, dear reader. There's no authoritarian Chap. 1, Chap. 2, Chap. 3 here. This is digital hypertext, remember, that most open, most readerly, of forms. You are in control.

Aren't you?

Well, first, about that riddling by-line, about those thought-provoking themes: how could the fortuitously named Ms. Jackson resist a tribute to the source of her most crucial appropriations, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, even as she slashes at the notion of stable identity? Who is--who are--the maker?

Who, that is to say, is "Shelley"? Has Jackson become one with her literary mother, or does she wall her off? Does she proclaim individuation even as she shows us that there is no space between the two, only a tilting, unstable quasi-boundary? Are you seeing mother and daughter, maker and made, snuggled together as incestuous lovers--monstrous!--do? And what, by the way, has happened to the "Wollstonecraft" (a name Mary Shelley's mother gave her) now slashed away--was that removed, as was (you are told in the patchwork that follows) another vital part of the author of Frankenstein (although yet another Shelley evidently never noticed much)?

And (moving on now through the title page's self-embracing anti-teleological ampersand) what does it mean to say "Herself"? Is this bricolage, this motley assemblage, this text-born monstrosity/monstriferous text, a self-made thing? If so, then what does that Moebius-notion say to, and about, well, "me", and "you"?

Some answers to these questions come to us in the voices that speak in screens to come. Others reside in the careful footnotes--so careful that they acknowledge both "fudged" restatements and the thing-ness of book-as-artifact. For example, Jackson appends to a bibliographical citation that "my copy" of another strong source, L. Frank Baum's The Patchwork Girl of Oz, is "the Ballantine edition", and to another note that the information at hand came from a nameless text "leafed through in a bookstore". By implication, then, these notes acknowledge each book's singleness, its unique and (within the limits set by physical deterioration) stable identity--a mode of being quite unlike that of the electronic text one reads, like Jackson's, right [virtually] here, right [not] at hand.

Delicious honesty, this, and delicious fresh air for anyone who reads footnotes for a living. The result's that Jackson celebrates the art of pastiche--an art she performs with intelligence and craft. But at the same time, she makes sure we know that that's what's going on, using on occasion not only notes but (more boldly) fonts to underline her point, visually differentiating one appropriated sentence from the next.

And then she names names: this is crucial, this citation of the sources of her intertextually spun web. It subverts one of the orthodoxies of some current thinking about hypertext, and about writing itself. Of course these recycled chunks of language are now the very body of Jackson's stitched-together creation; the worldwide web of language is no one's private property. But at the same time, these appropriated snippets do belong to someone/s else: selves called Lucretius, or Lyotard, or Cixous. This electronic web has a mode of being different from that of the tattered paperback, the volume slyly skimmed at the off-line Barnes & Noble. But someone/s made its stuff.

The patches of language we most like to play with, the ones that give us greatest pleasure (as Jackson's monster does), are not at all random. Nor would they exist, had they had no maker. Someone snipped these bits from the internet of intertext. Someone stitched these hyperlinks. Without the stitching of text (and text, and text), no inter-text. Without the stitcher, no-thing to stitch.

That is to say, Jackson's patchwork may be most interestingly thought of not as a free play of signifiers, but as a playing of a game that someone made. Made from bits of others' makings, yes--just as Jackson's monster tells you she was made of body parts from people named Tituba, Flora, Geneva. (Jackson likes her little jokes; I like them too.) But: made only because those earlier makers spoke their own-selves, made as an artfully patterned reweaving of the raveled texts that they once wove.

So this text, like the monster's body, like your reading, is constructed. Certainly, you decode, you interpret, you weave your own way. But what you make you make from the materials Jackson puts before you, and on the loom she built. That's what sometimes gets forgotten in the enthusiastic rush of words about the act of reading that digital hypertext gives rise to.

Am I arguing against a straw figure here? Is it only the hyper-newbie reader who chortles over the death of the author, and proclaims (only) the uniqueness of his/her own trip through a textual maze, with never a thought for the fine dovetailing, the planning and the planing, of the walls? And yet, I've seen that scarecrow-shibboleth come shambling out of classrooms, essays, MOOs and MUDs.

Oh, but of course there're writers, brainless Straw Man says. They're just not very important. Just some humbug behind a curtain, just the poor slob who lays the bricks on which I dance.

But without the road, no journey, or not this one. Can we not celebrate the rhizomatic, the fluid and the multivocal, the powerful beauty of readerly co-creativity and the beautiful power of the discourse--the stories--that have made us what we are, without killing the poor author off? Jackson's writing makes me think we can.

The reader can be read as co-author, yes: in parts of Patchwork Girl, Jackson herself co-writes with folks she's read, feminist theorist Donna Harraway, for instance. She talks back to Jacques Derrida. But she reminds us again and again of her own presence within the text she's borne. Within the body of the text, someone very like the author drinks coffee, writes in her notebook, reflects on the thing she's making. If the written word proclaims her absence, it whispers Kilroy's message, too.

And Jackson isn't shy about her role as creator. She plays you and me, the readers, the would-be major players, every time the rules for navigating in this particular hyper-text shift a bit: So, what happened to the tidy sub-sections the title page, the base-map, promised me? How come I've suddenly linked over somewhere else?--That's not on the map! Why are things structured so differently over here? And does this screen have a default link or not?

Now, this "person", the self-revealing author we meet inside the monster may be fictive (I'd bet that Ms. Jackson really does drink expresso in cafes, but I've no idea if she's ever been to Iowa, or Berlin.) In fact, I secretly hope the most "autobiographical" bits are full of lies. Yet even in that possibility we find a further (lively, witty, personalized) assertion of authorial power: not only are all narrators unreliable, all writers are, too--as slippery as language, as elusive as the ontological status of the digital text.

I'm not quoting much from Patchwork Girl, not offering a reviewer's summary of half the plot, because I hope you'll rush your order to Eastgate and read this thing for yourself. But when you do, remember what someone--maybe the monster-turned-author, maybe S.J. herself--says in a text-chunk called "Think Me": "If you think you're going to follow me, you'll have to learn to move the way I do, think the way I think; there's just no way around it. And thenyou'll have trouble telling me apart from yourself." This is not the voice of a passive generator of text-bodies with which the critic/reader may have his (?!) way. This speaker, this artist, is nothing if not empowered.

The self (Herself) may be a patchwork illusion, an Ozmagoria, a shifty-I'ed, fluid, construct. I, for one, don't doubt it. But it's also as real as that virtual, interactive phantom we call the aesthetic experience. Until we get Beyond It All to the textless space of the (cyber-) void, let us play with, revel in, this creature that imagines itself imagining, and so imagines itself into being. Let's pretend that those monsters, writers, are alive and real as anybody else.

The self is also a thing of lurching beauty, and the mother of amazing simulacra. Like Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's monster, and like Shelley Jackson's, it has a few things to say. In the voices Shelley's self has brought forth for us here, they're well worth hearing, so listen up.

Patchwork Girl was published by Eastgate Systems for Windows users and for Macs, in 1995. You can order it (and read a bit on Jackson) on the Eastgate website at www.eastgate.com/catalog/Patchwork.html.

There's a good review by one of her former teachers, George Landow, at www.stg.brown.edu/projects/hypertext/landow/cpace/ht/pg/pgmain.html.

You can find a group of short essays on Jackson's web, written by undergrads at Brown, at www.stg.brown.edu/projects/hypertext/landow/cpace/ht/pg/pglinks.html.


Jeanne Larsen

Hollins College