web counter

"The Right Way to Go to Pieces," by Stuart Moulthrop

If memory is transgressive, then archiving and preservation might count as a kind of insurgency: an organized resistance, or perhaps an organized crime. The past is by definition what escapes us, released without honest expectation of return. Folding the then onto the now is a perverse practice, like trying in some later night’s sleep to steal back onto the premises of an earlier dream. It can’t really be done, and when we come close, the experience is spooky. Dreams are meant to fade. Time isn’t intended for re-gathering. People need to let go of history, of previous versions of themselves. As Shelley Jackson says in the interview:

Literature is one of the ways we learn to let go of ourselves, learn to release ourselves into the stream of other people’s thoughts and visions, and to enjoy that alienation from our own monotonous stream of consciousness. And so when people asked me early on whether I was bothered that technology was advancing and obsoleting Patchwork Girl, my answer was that it was complete appropriate that it happen… to try to hold onto it would be inconsistent with my central argument.

In the act of reading, Jackson says, the self yields to otherness, overthrowing a dominant or imperious identity. We let go and go outward, escaping the ego’s binding centrality. Hypertext, as few know so vividly as Shelley Jackson, comes from the weird heart of this de-centered country, a practice that lets go even of its self-identity in stories that change each time you read them. If the text can’t contain itself, why make any attempt at apprehension or recovery? Why not let the work slide into oblivion and legend, especially when kicking against the stream goes against artistic principle?

Left to her own devices, Jackson would probably not have re-visited Patchwork Girl. We inveigled her into our scheme and talked her into playing on our devices. She did her part wonderfully and may even have come to share some of our archivistic pleasure in the end; but persuasion was needed. We tempted Jackson to hypocrisy – yet we don’t apologize, because we had good reason.

Among the incidents in the interesting life of Jackson’s eponymous Girl, one stands out for the light it sheds on letting go:

A pair of horses veered toward me out of the darkness; they were wild-eyed, snorting steam. Something happened to my balance, a horse’s head struck me a glancing blow and I fell under stamping hooves. Tumult. Yelling; a horse’s frightened whinny. Rumbling and shadow as the cab passed over me; I saw light glint off the steel rim of the wheel just inches from my face, or so it seemed. Then the commotion was on down the street, and diminishing. I saw my leg an impossible distance from me. I looked up from the street, and saw Chancy in silhouette against the light from the door, then she turned and I saw her face, showing alarm, and something stranger. It came to me that she thought I had thrown myself intentionally in the cabby’s path. Or had she seen something amiss in the way my leg and I parted company? Was there a right way to go to pieces? I called to her, placatingly; she closed the door and left me there. -- (“An Accident”)

Jackson’s primary source, Mary Shelley’s novel, dwells mainly on a different question of rightness: the right way to constitute a person, proceeding from parts and pieces to integrated being, thus threatening to unify created humanity with the creator God. Jackson’s other source, The Patchwork Girl of Oz, runs more to the comic than the cosmic, but it too is organized around a many-from-one theme, a quest (ultimately abandoned) to assemble ingredients for the Powder of Life. Both books betray a certain anxiety about fulfillment, completion, and wholeness.

Your hypertext writer typically runs the other way, from unity to dissipation. After all, her work comes in no neatly bound volume but fundamentally in pieces (nodes, passages, lexias), some of these broken out by use of the explode function of Storyspace. Jackson’s female monster, patchwork girl of memorious and melancholy anatomy, embodies (disembodies?) the textual problem. She goes to pieces in a very curious way, her left leg willfully absconding in order to avoid the cab wheel – which explains why, instead of bleeding out in the street, she is able to call to her astonished friend.

Crossing Shelley with Baum, Jackson imagines a creature whose aggregated parts remain aware of their original embodiments, as the pieces of a patchwork imply the cloths from which they were cut. The narrator’s body is a confederation. In times of stress her organs may assert their own agendas, legging it for the hills. Things fall apart. Parts run away! What will people make of this dissolution, or the crazy-quilted text that struggles to contain it? Is there indeed a right way to go to pieces, or to do the kind of piecework that is hypertext fiction?

When Jackson brought her Patchwork Girl to life, only a few people had approached this question – which is the reason no apology is due for digging up this nearly lost work and asking its author to return to an earlier dream. She was one of the first to discover what comes of going to pieces, and her insights are invaluable.

That Brillo pad may mean more than Jackson suspects. It has a certain history, and may even count as a hypertextual archetype. Here is a map of an experimental Storyspace exercise one of us produced a few years before Patchwork Girl:

The illegibility of this map stems partly from the fact that its maker, having not bothered to read draft documentation included with a beta copy of Storyspace, was not yet aware the program allowed nodes to be embedded within other nodes. Using this feature properly, as Jackson does in Patchwork Girl, an author can reduce the eyesore of overlapping link lines to a neater ensemble of local structures. The nightmarishly over-linked first draft of Patchwork Girl probably looked less hideous than this example, at least in map view, though the image may suggest something of its promiscuous derangement.

There is a certain monstrousness in hypertext, a fact Jackson registers by affiliating her project both with Shelley’s fabricated body and Baum’s body-as-fabric. Both figures deny orderly closure to a certain system of embodiment called natural history. Likewise, hypertext violates decorum of that naturalized history of discourse-bodies otherwise known as literature. There is precedent for this analogy in the book world: Mary Shelley invokes something similar in the preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, where she identifies her novel with its Creature, and (with perverse fondness) names it her “hideous progeny.”

Hideousness, however, rests with the beholder. One man’s monster might well be the next woman’s gloriously dangerous vision; or another man’s imagining of something else. The Patchwork Girl of Oz, the story of a comic and comical, thoroughly modern Prometheus, turns away from terror and finds joy in mis-shaping. When the newly animated Girl sees her crazy-quilted form in a mirror, she breaks out laughing. “I don’t blame you for laughing at yourself,” says one her companions. “Aren’t you horrid?”

"Horrid?" she replied. "Why, I'm thoroughly delightful. I'm an Original, if you please, and therefore incomparable. Of all the comic, absurd, rare and amusing creatures the world contains, I must be the supreme freak."

The passage from unspeakable horror to supreme freak (with “hideous progeny” as perhaps the middle term) represents a shift in attitude toward absolute order and its alternatives. The Patchwork Girl of Oz seems in many ways an inverse Frankenstein, beginning not as a ghost story for jaded grown-ups, but as wonder-tale for younger readers of all ages. Its goofy American pragmatism is oceans removed from the anxieties of European gothic. Frankenstein abounds in solitude and estrangement; Patchwork Girl of Oz is manically social. If its picaresque hero Ojo the Unlucky occasionally falls to brooding, he has nothing on Victor Frankenstein or his Miltonizing creature, and Ojo’s companions unfailingly cheer him out of any funk. Generally speaking, Oz is a warm and welcoming place. In the Emerald City oddity is beloved and queer becomes an honorific (perhaps even in the contemporary sense, since the girl-queen Ozma is after all a transformed boy). As the Shaggy Man sings:

Just search the whole world over — sail
the seas from coast to coast —

No other nation in creation queerer
folk can boast;

And now our rare museum will
include a Cat of Glass,

A Woozy, and — last but not least —
a crazy Patchwork Lass.

If we hold onto Mrs. Shelley’s conceit of hideous progeny, and Jackson’s own analogy of text as chimerical body, we might expect some reflection of this movement from monster to freak in the passage from text to hypertext. In this sense maybe the aborted first draft, with its abrasive explosion of links, represents a merely monstrous transgression (like Frankenstein’s male creature?) while the reworked final version stands as a more perfect anomaly, a self-actualized (and female) “supreme freak.” When Jackson decides to erase all the links – evincing a glee that still seems fresh twenty years later – she makes her peace with hypertextuality and embraces the joyful anti-sublime of patchwork. We can lose the links and regain them on better terms. The second making will get it right.

As Jackson explains it – and we doubt any hypertext writer has ever done better – her reconception of the work brought the freakishness of hypertext back into alignment with the general aims of literature. In re-thinking the uses of her links, Jackson reconfirms Ted Nelson’s dictum that hypertext is “the most general form of writing.” The reader of any traditional work (certainly of epics, novels, and other long forms) constructs a “mental hypertext.” To move from mere monstrosity to properly freaky patchwork, Jackson adopts this recognition as her principle of design, and goes on to produce a work of remarkable and lasting importance.

This page has paths:

This page references: