Clayton, Comments on Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl

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Fictional Representations of Romantics and Romanticism

Comments on Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl by Jay Clayton

December 1999

Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl takes as its premise that Mary Shelley's second monster, the female companion that Victor Frankenstein began creating but then destroyed, was secretly finished by Mary Shelley herself. The monster becomes MS's lover, then travels to America, where it goes through interesting adventures until its final dispersal into its component parts in the early 1990s. This ambitious hypertext, one of the most successful efforts in the medium, consists of 323 lexias (or screens of text), varying in length from a single sentence to some 300 or so words. The lexias are joined to one another by 462 links, which create multiple pathways through the text. Like most hypertexts, Patchwork Girl has no proper beginning or end, but it does have numerous narrative characteristics, including characters, settings, flashbacks, and shifting points of view, as well as temporally consecutive sequences, which arouse various kinds of affective response in the reader, such as curiosity, suspense, amusement, erotic tension, and surprise. It also contains many of the distinctive characteristics of the emerging genre of hypertext fiction, including a pervasive self-reflexivity about its own medium and an emphasis on the intertextual nature of writing. Passages from Jacques Derrida's Disseminations, Donna Haraway's "A Cyborg Manifesto," Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, L. Frank Baum's The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913), and Barbara Maria Stafford's Body Criticism are woven into the fabric of Jackson's text, often without visible attribution, creating a pastiche or verbal patchwork, which is continuously juxtaposed to the stitched-together body parts of the monster's body.

The most compelling dimension of this hypertext is how it connects four sets of motifs: first, issues of reproduction and sexuality--childbirth, female creativity, and queer sexuality; second, issues of embodiment--monstrosity, the artificially constructed body, prosthesis, the cyborg; third, traditionally female arts such as sewing, weaving, quilting, and patchwork; and fourth, literary theories of intertextuality, nonlinearity, fragmentation, dispersal, and dissemination. Describing this complex text in terms of its many threads of intellectual interest may obscure the fact that many sections are also moving. It possesses some of the comic force of Katherine Dunn's Geek Love, the repellent fascination of movies like Freaks or Eraser Head, the pathos of the final reel of The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the performative flair of Paris Is Burning. In one class where I taught this text, students admitted to being near tears as they read of the female creature, 173 years old at the "end" of the story, beginning to come apart, to break back down into the separate components of her body.

The best way to find out more about Patchwork Girl is to go to Eastgate Systems (http://www.eastgate.com/index.html), which has one of the most comprehensive and informative sites devoted to hypertext on the web. I have a bibliography of the chief secondary sources to date on my class website (http://www.vanderbilt.edu/AnS/english/Clayton/115-S99.htm).

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Published @ RC

August 2002

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