In Chapter 6 of Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media, George P. Landow examines the fraught relationship between hypertext and narrative. Contrasting hypertext with Aristotle’s writings in the Poetics on the importance of a well-built, linear narrative, Landow notes that hypertext “calls into question (1) fixed sequence, (2) definite beginning and ending, (3) a story’s “certain definite magnitude,”and (4) the conception of unity or wholeness associated with all these other concepts” (312). Although these structural irregularities of hypertext contribute to readerly difficulties working through the text, Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl also differs from a traditional linear narrative in its use of images.
In Jackson’s text, the imagistic experience of reading occurs on two levels. Each of the novel’s five chapters is preceded by an illustration of body parts in disarray. Although these images operate as a gateway to the chapters, a reader can bypass these images entirely by clicking directly on the textual map that serves as a master key to the text’s organization. These maps of the text offer a second layer of aesthetic experience, as words and textual fragments appear among boxes and arrows. These two visual means of navigation can be followed as independent paths as easily as one can weave between them, and yet one visual representation of the text stands out as more readable.
As organizational tools, maps and flow charts are intended to provide simple visual representations of data, enabling a viewer to quickly process the information at hand and its relationship to other information. In the troubleshooting PDF that accompanies the novel, the textual map is described as “a map showing the current space and its neighbors,”a representation that “lets you see which are related spaces, which spaces a space contains or is contained in, and some of the links between spaces”(8). Presenting the text in a combination of flow charts and maps provides the reader with the expectation of organization. However, when one looks at a visual representation of a chapter such as ‘body of text,’ it becomes clear that these maps and charts are insufficient as organizational tools when applied to Jackson’s text. The boxes — standing in for textual pieces — sit on top of words, while other words are obscured by the many levels of arrows crossing over and through them (image below). Following this thread through the novel, the maps and charts which meant to provide an aesthetic structural representation of the text instead provide the reader with feelings of confusion and disassociation from the text.
In contrast to this, a reader is also able to navigate the text by clicking through the images and pop-ups that contain the novel’s textual pieces. Although the images of Patchwork Girl that appear before each chapter often represent her as ghostly and fragmented, and in one incarnation with her body parts scattered around the page, these representations of the text are simpler to navigate in the way they more accurately represent the text. Despite the fact that the fragmented body is an uncommon representation of something familiar, the reader still able to identity and recognize limbs, hands, breasts, head, hands, and groin. Because these images inform the reader outright that Jackson’s text is taking the familiarity of the novel and breaking into fragments — some of which are themselves recognizable as excerpts from other texts — the reader’s mind is not cluttered with expectations of organization.
The organization (or lack thereof) in the text of Patchwork Girl ensures that each reader has a unique experience of the text. Given that the novel does not come with a master list or key of all textual fragments, this also means it is possible for a reader to have an incomplete experience of the text. What is at stake in composing a text in which sections might remain undiscovered by a reader?
Patchwork Girl bears the imprint of multiple narrators, as well as excerpts from an even greater number of critical and fictional source texts. Does this multiplicity cloud or elucidate Jackson’s narrative aim?
In the graveyard chapter, the patchwork girl describes the previous owners of each of her body parts. Many body parts appear to have been selected because of their prominent contribution to a character trait of the previous owner. However, some body parts do not appear to have a direct symbolic connection to the person they are taken from (such as Roderick, the man whose liver is incorporated into the body of the patchwork girl). How does this collection of body parts relate to the novel’s quilt square entitled ‘beauty patches’ (excerpt below)? To what extent is the patchwork girl an amalgamation of ideal parts? How are we to interpret her parts that don’t seem to fit the pattern of idealization?
“One of the first proposals for using computer graphics was to assemble a composite of the best features of various actresses — Garbo’s eyes, Bardot’s mouth, Welch’s breasts”
Jackson, Shelley. Patchwork Girl. Environment: Storyspace. Cambridge: Eastgate Systems, 1995.
Landow, George P. Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006.
Last modified 3 May 2010