Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Rereading Patchwork Girl

I taught Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl (Eastgate, 1995) for the first time in ages recently. I had my first exposure to the text way back in the mid-1990s. I assume most people haven't heard of, much less read the text, so before I ramble on, I'd like to describe it.

Jackson's text responds primarily to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, secondarily to L. Frank Baum's The Patchwork Girl, Mary Shelley's biography, history of science/medicine, and so forth. The text talks about the imagined (and much desired by Victor Frankenstein's Creature) female Creature, except that in this text the female Creature has been created and has a story to tell; indeed, each of her body parts has a story of sorts about its source person. In addition, there's a journal "by" a character identified with Mary Shelley, that talks about creating the creature out of stuff, including textual passages.

Jackson's text is what's called a "hypertext," which means it's a text with "links" one can click; web pages are probably the form of hypertext you're most familiar with, including the blog you're reading right now. But Jackson writing in the early 90s, didn't have great html to work with (because html was being developed in the early 1990s). So the text is in a format/program called "Storyspace." While Storyspace works pretty well, it's different from what those of us who surf html documents a lot are used to.

In short, then, you enter Patchwork Girl by opening it in a program (which may happen automatically if you've loaded it into your computer and moved the shortcut icon to your desktop). The first screen you see is a picture of a naked "female" body, white against a black background. You click on the body with your cursor, and you get a title page telling you the title, Patchwork Girl; or a Modern Monster by Mary/Shelley, & Herself. Below the title you have some choices, each of which takes you to a different path of screens, with texts or pictures (often of the body picture rearranged by parts).

When I first encountered the text, I was blown away by its creativity, by the ways that the text forces the reader to put things together in sort of the same way that the creature's body is put together. But I was also frustrated, because it's difficult to put the text together, and requires me to either take extensive notes, basically recreating the screens and joining them together to try to make narratives that I can coherently hold in my head.

My experience with the text also made me really aware (hyper-aware! hee!) of how physically I respond to texts. I really like to write on books, to read leaning back in a chair, or hunched over a table with notes. But even though Storyspace provides a way for readers to take notes within (or not?) the text, I've never typed in notes. And I think that's probably part of the point of a hypertext, at least of this particular hypertext.

My students were also frustrated by the text, more than I'd thought. They found Storyspace more difficult to use than I remember, perhaps because we're so at ease with html, and the ways html texts "help" us find and make sense of links, with underlining, colors for untried or previously used links, the ways the text shows stuff when we move a cursor "over" things.

In one sense, my reading of a text comes through my balance of time/effort and reward. A really good text amply rewards my time and effort; one of the glories of getting to teach Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or any number of other fun writers is that rereading the texts enriches my experience more and more each time.

And working with it again, the clunkiness of Storyspace compared with html pages is beginning to balance the text in the wrong direction.

We were talking, my students and I, and we started talking about reading technology, and how, despite it's being a really old technology, the book (ours are printed, but manuscripts also work pretty well) is just amazing. Imagine moving from a scroll, where finding your spot took rolling and unrolling, to a book. Imagine the genius who first thought to number pages! And the genius who made the first table of contents linked to page numbers.

Alas, Patchwork Girl, despite its creativity and very cool mode of story-telling, seems technologically dated in a way that Frankenstein doesn't. That isn't to say that Frankenstein is a transparent or easy narrative in any way, but that we're so practiced at reading books that we know how to approach most books. We should learn anew how to read with each book, at least a little, but the basics apply: open the cover, start at one end, continue to the other end. (Okay, so some mystery readers break the "rules." Rules are made to be broken, right?)

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