by Astrid Ensslin
Kathryn Cramer’s short poetic hypertext fiction, “In Small & Large Pieces” (“ISLP”), published in the Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext (1:3), revisits Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass from a postmodern, gothic angle. The titular broken looking glass becomes a metaphor of “obsessive fragmentation” (blurb) throughout the text, and of how readers move between different types of texts, such as poems, hand-written notes, and captioned images “illuminates this moment of shattered self” (ibid). In my ethnographic work on the lore of pre-web hypertext fiction (Ensslin 2020; 2021), I interviewed Kathryn about her work and how it links to autobiographical elements of her life as a young poet, artist and hypertext author-editor.
"ISLP" consists of two main, interlacing parts: a narrative section that breaks into six chapters and can be read consecutively, by pressing the return key, and a poetry collection titled “The Mona Lisa Has Been Raped: Collected Poems.” The chapters in the narrative part are titled “Chapter 1: The Effect of Living Backwards,” “Chapter 2: Injury & Breakage,” “Chapter 3: Anna, Phantomwise,” “Chapter 4: The Unified Parent,” Chapter 5: Scrambled Eggs,” and “Chapter 6: The Mirror Shattered.” As suggested by the title page (fig. 3.6), readers are encouraged to “hit return to continue,” which will take them to the prefatory material and then on to the six chapters sequentially. The humorously named “poetry basement,” then, alludes to the basement in the story, where mysterious, “awful” events happen. This architectural concept is reconfirmed by the location of the link to the section, in the lower half of the lexia, and somewhat set apart from the rest of the text in font size and style (fig. 1).
Fig. 1: Contents page of "ISLP," courtesy of Grigar et al. (2019)
The poetry collection comprises 13 short, lyrical poems, individual verses of which are interspersed into the narrative part. Cramer wrote the poems in her late teens and revisited them 15 years later, in the larger framework of her PhD project while studying German literature at Columbia University:
I wrote … a lot of poetry as a teenager. And I would write and write … and then I decided it was not very good. And I would burn it, and I would start over. [The poems in ISLP] are the ones that survived the experience… So I decided that since the character was … the age I had been, I could use as characterization the poems I actually wrote in that age range. (Cramer, interview)
Cramer emphasizes the importance of reading the work with a sense of humorous distance arising from this authorial age gap. Furthermore, she highlights the importance of associative, “synapse like” linkage in her hypertext.
"ISLP’s" title page (fig. 2) shows a girl in Victorian clothing kneeling in front of a mirror. The way the mirror is designed and repeated in a similar, tombstone-like shape to the left of the figure suggests a graveyard setting. This gothic feel is reinforced by the wafts of mist running across the sky in the background, the praying gesture of the girl, and some barely legible snippets of palimpsestic, handwritten text, reading “by the sight of more blood”. The gothic mood revealed by this imagery reflects Cramer’s background as an editor of horror fiction at the time she wrote "ISLP."
Fig. 2: Title page of "ISLP," courtesy of ELL
Immediately following the title page is an epigraph, taken from E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927). It programmatically introduces the work’s major structuring principle, which is the disruption of “sequence in chronology” and repeats in large fonts in the lexia, “That was the effect of living backwards.” This reversion might reflect the materiality of reading via the return key, which paradoxically leads onwards in the narrative whilst suggesting a reverse trajectory. As mentioned by Forster, reversing the order of events in a narrative cannot be done “without abolishing the sequence between the sentences,” which again “is not effective unless the order of the words in the sentences is also abolished.” Clicking on “the order of words” takes the reader to a lexia that displays a paragraph of text in exact reverse order. The Forster quote is illustrated by a linked poem displaying the alphabet in reverse order. The next click leads to a purely graphic lexia showing a human eye and nose on the left, a butterfly at the center, and an open door on the right (fig. 3). Each element in the image is linked to a different onward lexia, some of which are graphic, others are textual - either handwritten or printed. Opening each lexia in turn results in the cognitive construction of a fragmentary frame of reference for the reader, with individual lexias suggesting themes like a potentially pedophile sexual relationship, an escape from home, drug consumption, images of stitching and quilting, as well as injury and blood.
Fig. 3: "ISLP’s" Butterfly lexia, [Control pressed for links]
The default path proceeds from the butterfly imagery straight to the chapter overview of the narrative part. The unfolding story, told by a consistent heterodiegetic narrative, reads immersively and coherently. It introduces the protagonist Anna Miller, her twin sister Annabelle, her brother Martin, their parents, Norma and Martin, and Karl, “a man her father worked with” and presumably had a pedophilic love relationship with Anna. The first and sixth chapter jointly frame an embedded memory of parental neglect, drug abuse, suicidality, and a potentially drug-induced fantasy of Anna’s. The frame narrative centers on a broken mirror, smashed in what turns out to be one of many fights between Anna and her brother Martin.
The idea of breaking and sewing together is programmatic throughout ISLP, and in centering broken and mended body parts, Cramer foreshadows Shelley Jackson’s canonical hypertext novel, Patchwork Girl, Or A Modern Monster, which appeared in 1995. The Frankensteinian motif materializes in a series of grotesquely rendered family crises, which cause the parents’ bodies to break apart whenever they are facing a crisis, and which lead to Martin severing one of Annabelle’s toes with a pair of pruning shears. In all instances, Anna becomes the mending force, taking care of sewing body parts back together and developing semantic-surgical strategies that end up re-uniting her ruptured parents into a “parental unit” of complementary identity that ends up “skuttl[ing] spider-like into the kitchen and made itself cups of tea” [You will.] This grotesque surrealism is backed up with actual quotes from Through the Looking Glass, which Anna reads to her sister after the unified parent has closed the door behind themself.
"ISLP" was inspired by events that happened in Cramer’s own family when she was a teenager:
my brother and I used to really fight physically a lot. And so ... climbing out the bathroom window and then coming around to attack from behind when my brother's trying to get [in bed], that happened, …there was an actual net mirror broken. And ... I'm pretty sure I'm the person who threw the encyclopedia. … The title actually comes from a different broken mirror, … which was in a basement. And I think probably what happened in this case is like the hook it was on came loose, and it fell down on its own. … And I remember being very struck about the inversion of, "it should be large and small pieces". And so the title comes from that and … [a] clear memory of being both the person who had thrown the book and also jumping up to avoid. (Interview)
Cramer was already an established science fiction and horror writer when she began to work and write for Eastgate in 1993. In fact, she had another, novel-length hypertext work under contract with Eastgate, with the working title, Subpoena Vacation. The work was an attempt “to ramp up the production values. And that just kind of never happened, because the kind of fluidity in terms of composition that I had in In Small & Large Pieces was not really possible with higher production values at that point” (ibid). Thus, "ISLP" became the new standard for scoping works for the EQRH. It confirmed the relative success of Mary-Kim Arnold’s “Lust” and J. Yellowlees Douglas’ “I Have Said Nothing” and providing a reading experience that seemed feasible and value-for-money, for its brevity, its intertextualization of genre fiction, and its pastiche texturing technique.
Like other EQRH writers, Cramer used a more varied color palette (red, blue, and grey) than was common at the time: “the screens I was working with initially didn't even have gray pixels. They were black pixels, or they were white pixels…. And we just got to the point where … we could have colour” (Interview). Cramer also laments the neglect with which the fonts of her writing tend to be perceived, especially when reading from Windows machines and emulators: “the type design was very specific and definite. Like if a Macintosh has that in there, it's like my canonical type design,” and a lot of it gets lost when read on a PC.
Similarly, Cramer composed the cover art of the Eastgate Quarterly 1:3 showing a black-and-white grid pattern on a black background, with contrasting white-and-black hands and one red, presumably bloody hand, to reflect the content of Cramer’s work. The writing on the cover is kept in the same, tricolor scheme, thus replicating the novelty of expanding the standard black-and-white user interface. Cramer’s fascination with patterns and patching comes from a life-long interest in collage and cut-up, which also manifests in her recent work, “Am I Free to Go,” (tor.com), which features “a lot of artistic similarities to In Small & Large Pieces” (interview, sic). Viewed across time, Cramer’s work thus shows distinctive continuities that the collective lore approach followed by the Rebooting project (see also Ensslin et al. 2021) has brought to light.
Ensslin, Astrid (2020), “'Completing the circle'? The curious counter-canonical case of the Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext (1994-1995)”, in Attention à la marche! Mind the Gap! Thinking Electronic Literature in a Digital Culture, ed. Bertrand Gervais & Sophie Marcotte, Les Presses the l'Écureuil, pp. 511-524.
Ensslin, Astrid (2022) Pre-Web Digital Publishing and the Lore of Electronic Literature, Cambridge: C.U.P.
Ensslin, Astrid, Kathryn Cramer, Dene Grigar and Mariusz Pisarski, “‘On the Effect(s) of Living Backwards”: A Platform-critical, Collaborative Analysis of Kathryn Cramer’s "In Small & Large Pieces,'” peer-reviewed video essay, Proceedings of ELO 2021 “Platform (Post?)Pandemic,” Aarhus University, 26th May, https://vimeo.com/55542683.
Grigar, Dene, Nicholas Schiller, Holly Slocum, Mariah Gwin, Andrew Nevue, Kathleen Zoller, and Moneca Roath (2019) Rebooting Electronic Literature: Documenting Pre-Web Born Digital Media, Volume 2. https://scalar.usc.edu/works/rebooting-electronic-literature-volume-2/index.