Patchwork Girl

 

Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl is a monstrosity, truly and unabashedly so. It is a stitching together of texts, contexts, time periods, realities and, crucially, a “patchwork” body. It descends, or is resurrected, from the Frankenstein tradition, but Jackson makes even more explicit those monstrous themes that pervade Mary Shelley’s work. While the Frankenstein story can be said to come to us piece by piece, first in Walton’s letters, then in Victor’s story to Walton, and finally in the story (relayed to Walton through Victor) by the creature himself, it is nonetheless a monster constructed for us. Its hybridity is evocative, but contained; it will be stitched together the same way upon every reading. With Jackson’s story, however, nothing is so certain. Written electronically, as a piece of hypertext fiction, it is a rare beast even in our modern literary world. It is a jumble of parts that we must assemble; Jackson’s Patchwork Girl even introduces herself by stating that if we “want to see the whole,” we will have to “stitch [her] together [ourselves]” (Jackson, “graveyard”). Thus, every reading is different, both for every reader, and for the same reader at different times. The reading experience is not directed at the text, but back at the reader; in beginning to “stitch,” the reader must confront his or her own associations, expectations and quirks directly. In a sense, Jackson provides a “choose your own adventure,” but she requires more than the simple choosing between given paths: she demands an act of creation. In this “stitch your own adventure,” we can add, subtract and rearrange lexia to arrive at a personal reading. In this way we reveal as much about the differences, or “monstrosity,” within ourselves as we do the monstrosity of the Patchwork Girl.

The are a number of ways to begin reading Patchwork Girl, each with its own virtues and flaws, and, most importantly, each with its own thread of connectivity. We can choose to follow links, or groupings by color, or even one of several maps. Later, we can decide to search for keywords that have come up, and that interest us, or we can continue through haphazardly, constantly bewildered by the places we find ourselves. The paths we choose influence the connections we discover, or conceive, but at any point we are able to divert from that path and plot a new course. In this way we are bound to nothing. We are free from the usual restrictions of narrative: all we know is the moment (and each subsequent moment that we ourselves select). These parts, pieces, lexia—whatever we want to call them—have at once a self-contained purpose, and a larger significance. To think of it another way, they do indeed present an isolated moment, but so too do they represent the stitching left (or not left) to do. Again the focus is back on the reader’s individual process: Does the reader find completion with that lexia, or does he or she choose to move—forward, backward, or laterally—deeper into the story? The choice to continue, and in what direction, reveals the interests, even preoccupations, of the reader. The hypertext format is inherently confrontational; in using it, we are as much partaking in exposing our inner selves as we are in reading. Thus, it reveals the seams so often hidden from us in a traditional novel —and in a story about a stitched-together woman, seams are a good thing.

Jackson makes many comparisons between sewing and writing, and if we take up these threads, we may reach a profound understanding of how the two processes are connected. She describes, variously, moments when sewing becomes writing, and writing, sewing: At one point “tiny black stitches wavered into script” (Jackson, “sewn”). At another, “the tiny black letters blurred into stitches and I began to feel that I was sewing a great quilt” (Jackson, “written”). For Jackson, seams and letters are one and the same. Therefore, for the readers “stitching their own adventures,” there is not only an assembling of parts, but the inevitable formation of a narrative. These stitches tell the story not only of those merging parts, but of the reader selecting them.

Again, Jackson makes explicit the particulars of the reading experience, specifically as they pertain to the strange or monstrous. Of course, all reading is, in a sense, monstrous, as it appends to the words on the page our own associations, interpretations, and predictions of future plot developments. Yet these “appendages,” as it were, are traditionally silent, limited to our own minds, and given no voice on the page. Jackson inverts this idea by creating a story that is all about appendages in various forms, and in doing so makes monstrosity the ideal. The Patchwork Girl’s body is special precisely because it encompasses all stories; each previous owner of a body part lives on in this new construction, and his or her story endures. By including this multiplicity of voices within her body, and imploring the reader to partake in the sewing/writing process by stitching her together, the Patchwork Girl draws others into her monstrosity. Everyone who contributes to the patchwork becomes both monster and creator, for in adding to it, one becomes a part of it. Our unique readings betray our otherness, our personal monstrosity. Our history is written into the pieces we stitch together, and when we assemble our own Patchwork Girl, we are in some ways assembling ourselves.

The monstrosity of our own readings is no more apparent than when we attempt to discuss them either verbally or on paper. While with a traditional book there is a shared experience, a text that every reader can have in common on the most fundamental level, there is no such uniformity for the hypertext. To discuss it is to struggle to reconcile divergent, even opposing readings. And to argue for, or at least promote, one’s own reading is to expose the preoccupations that led to it. Even as I write this, I recognize that the impressions I have received from my reading of Patchwork Girl may not be reflective of the text as others have read it. My understanding may be incomplete, or misguided, or simply inexplicable. These challenges and concerns are not entirely unlike those we face when we discuss any text, and argue a point of view; but, again, here it is magnified, made explicit.

In the end, Patchwork Girl is not a text to be dissected; rather, it asks to be built back up again according to each reader’s unique vision. Thus, it cannot be boiled down to a single truth, a single version, a single reality. It works expansively, and this expansive text gathers us all into its monstrosity. In reading it, we stitch ourselves onto an arm or a leg, or maybe, like Mary Shelley, swap a piece of ourselves with a piece of the Patchwork Girl. We cannot read this text without revealing ourselves, for in a sense we are not reading at all: we are sewing. Perhaps we do this will all books, but with Patchwork Girl, we must confront it, question it. When we learn to look for the seams, we see there is hybridity in everything.

Works Cited
Jackson, Shelley. Patchwork Girl. Eastgate Systems, 1995.

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Temple Grandin

 

This week I finally got to watch Temple Grandin, the HBO biopic starring Claire Danes. It was, if I may resort to using an unimaginative pun, simply grand-in. I highly recommend it to anyone who classifies him- or herself as a human. The story is touching, amazing, and presented in a very sensitive way. Indeed, I wasn’t in awe of Temple Grandin because the music swelled, or everyone made impassioned speeches—I was in awe because the movie attempted to speak her language, and to translate her struggles to me in a way that was just real and understandable.

There are so many aspects of Temple’s life that would make an fine movie regardless of the execution, but what I really appreciated about this film is that it strove to be worthy of her story. It strove to put the information in a proper context; that is, not to put Temple on the viewers’ level, but rather to introduce us to her unique way of thinking. By the time the movie was over, I felt as though I had a better understanding, if not of autism in general, at least of the way Temple’s mind worked. The mantra of “different, not less” which is invoked throughout the film by Temple and her family members, perfectly summarizes one of the prevailing themes: that though people may think or act differently than others, it does not mean they are not adhering to their own logic. Temple Grandin became successful in part due to a wonderful family support system, but she also excelled because of her brilliant—albeit different—mind. The film offers a fine lesson in trying to understand before judging, and in looking at difference not as something that needs to be suppressed or cured, but as something that can yield great opportunities.

The film begins with Temple, a recent high school graduate, going to stay on her aunt’s farm for the summer. She is initially wary, unsure of how she will know her assigned room is “hers,” and unreceptive to questions of whether she’s excited to start college in the fall. We the viewers immediately know that Temple is “different”—she has troubling reading people, and only eats yogurt or jello—but, by all appearances, the chatty, alert young woman is fairly well-adjusted. It is a shock to see in a flashback that she didn’t speak until age four, and that her mother, upon taking her to a doctor, was told that Temple would never learn to talk, and would need to be institutionalized her entire life. There are many such contrasting scenes in the movie, in which we learn about all the people who believed in Temple, and supported her enough, to allow her to blossom into a success. Certainly Temple’s mother and aunt were beyond dedicated, and it is touching, and humbling, to see them fight tirelessly for both the big and small victories in her life. It is obvious, both to us the viewers and to Temple herself, that without these influential people, Temple never would have been able to overcome the many obstacles that existed both due to her autism and to public misconceptions.

After this formative summer, in which we witness her burgeoning interest in cattle, Temple begins attending college at Franklin Pierce University. There she constructs a makeshift “hug box” based on a machine on the farm that was used to make cattle feel secure and unthreatened. This immediately outs Temple as a “weirdo,” someone who cannot interact normally with her roommate, and who instead derives some sort of pleasure (which the school seems confident is sexual) from a bizarre box contraption. The box is confiscated, and Temple almost leaves school, but luckily her family helps to resolve the situation. This marks a turning point in Temple’s life, for she recognizes that in order to keep her hug box (which she must have, in order to be relaxed enough to attend the classes she hates, like French), she must devise and write up an experiment that proves its calming qualities. The resulting research is so impressive that she not only succeeds in her goal, but gains the attention of the school as well.

In truth, the movie could easily end here, for it shows a major triumph for Temple, and, indeed, a monumental triumph for anyone with autism at that time. Still, Temple’s story is extraordinary, and this is just the beginning of her incredible career. Temple goes on to earn her Master’s, and later her Ph.D, in Animal Science. Throughout this, she deal with near-constant discrimination and skepticism—not only due to her autism, but also due to the sexist opinions of the time, which were particularly strong in her chosen field. The movie at times makes her situation look impossibly bleak, such as when her curved corral (deemed “genius” by a reporter) is dismantled immediately after its triumphant construction. Still in spite of this, Temple handles her situation with humor, aplomb, and endless resourcefulness. A film that could get bogged down by the negativity of so many supporting characters is redeemed by this protagonist’s shining goodness: Temple truly believes in her mission statement, that “Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be.” Indeed, all the cruelty in the movie only serves to reinforce this idea. As humans, we have the power to be gentle, supportive, and empathetic, so why don’t we employ those skills? Isn’t it better to choose kindness over cruelty?

After watching Temple Grandin, it’s impossible to reach the conclusion that there is only one right way, and that “difference” is more trouble than it’s worth. The film teaches us to celebrate unique perspectives as the preservation of, rather than a threat to, our humanity. This movie inspires, and leaves the viewer with a greater sense of wonder and possibility.

The Big Sleep

Uh-huh. I’m a very smart guy. I haven’t a feeling or a scruple in the world. All I have the itch for is money. I am so money greedy that for twenty-five bucks a day and expenses, mostly gasoline and whiskey, I do my thinking myself, what there is of it; I risk my whole future, the hatred of the cops and of Eddie Mars and his pals, I dodge bullets and eat saps, and say thank you very much, if you have any more trouble, I hope you’ll think of me, I’ll just leave one of my cards in case anything comes up.

Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep has long been celebrated as a classic of hardboiled detective fiction. It has all the ingredients of a good detective story: a wealthy family full of secrets, a lone private investigator who must navigate his way through a world that is not his own, and an assortment of unsavory characters whose misdeeds reveal a dark underside to the city. Yet the novel, for all its hardboiled tropes, also engages in a surprisingly fanciful style, at once vivid in its descriptions and over-generous in its metaphors. Its protagonist, Philip Marlowe, is a narrator with a true flair for narration; he develops his story consciously, with well-honed wit and remarkable attention to detail. This striking narrator is one the key elements that makes this novel so worthwhile, a story to be revisited again and again. While the shock of every revelation may fade over time, the delight in spending some time with the witty, and even noble, Philip Marlowe remains. The Big Sleep is a mystery novel, yes, but it adheres to that formula only to a point. Everything beyond that is pure literature, the work of a skillful writer making the most of his medium, just as his character, Marlowe, makes the most of his sordid surroundings. Thus The Big Sleep is a triumph of style, and a worthy read for mystery devotees and skeptics alike.

The story begins auspiciously enough. Philip Marlowe is dressed to the nines—even sober, for once—and, as he puts it, “calling on four million dollars.” He has been summoned by the elderly, ailing General Sternwood to the Sternwood’s grand mansion, ostensibly to take care of a blackmailing case. Marlowe immediately feels sympathetic toward the man, and agrees to the case, even though he suspects that there is something more at stake than mere blackmail. As he is drawn further and further into a seedy world full of gambling, underground pornography, and even murder, he realizes how much has gone on without General Sternwood’s knowledge. His encounters with Sternwood’s wild young daughters, the alluring Vivian, whose husband, Rusty, has long-since disappeared, and the unpredictable Carmen, whose particular brand of coquetry involves acting like a slow-witted child, convince him of his duty to make things right for the dying old man. Even when the bodies start to pile up, and his own life is in danger, Marlowe, a sort of knight figure, remains committed to solving the case. Though he may act the hardened cynic, disdainful of all the world, his internal narration reveals a sensitive side, and an unshakeable moral center.

Philip Marlowe is not like the criminals with whom he interacts, and the first person narration is one way of making this clear. While other hardboiled detectives, like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, are inscrutable, and not clearly aligned with or separate from the criminals, Philip Marlowe is defined by his voice; it is through this voice that we get a sense not only of his cleverness, but also of his difference. When Marlowe observes that the Sternwood’s large entryway “would have let in a troop of Indian elephants,” he is flexing a muscle, asserting his otherness. As long as he can think creatively, and see the world through unique eyes, he can be sure that the job has not gotten to him; he is still living by his own code. Of course, Marlowe’s code is complex at times, and he is not above mistreating someone to achieve his goals. Still, in a world of criminals, in which anyone will sell out anyone else, and for hardly any reason at all, Marlowe is one of the few decent people, someone for whom honor still has some meaning. He is the perfect guide for our journey into such an unsavory world: he can navigate within it, but he will never truly be a part of it. Thus we can enjoy the adventure without forfeiting our morality.

In The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler introduces his readers to a protagonist who defies categorization: he is cynical but sentimental, sarcastic but whimsical, surrounded by death and degradation yet perpetually witty. We may say that this too defines the novel: the fact that it resists definition. The Big Sleep is a hard-boiled mystery, of course, but it is also a stunning stylistic achievement. It is not a mystery to be consumed rapidly and then tossed aside, but rather a discovery that is nuanced enough to welcome vastly different re-readings. And, although The Big Sleep may be held up as that shining example of a quality detective novel, rather than simply a quality novel, this does not mean that it is limited by its genre. Perhaps we are just limited by our definitions.

Finished!

 

So, I finished the scarf I’ve been working on since about January. I’m not really sure if it’s for an actual-size person—although, in fact, I intended it for an above-actual-size person—but various yarn (and weather) considerations compelled me to finish it now. (I just wasn’t sure my boyfriend would appreciate this gift in July!) All in all, I’m quite pleased with it. I think the color, dusty blue, complements the pattern nicely, and really the only mistakes I made were those connected to my yarn woes. At first, I was a little nervous that the scarf wasn’t “manly” enough, even though I was working off a pattern called “The Dudester.” But once I convinced myself that the dusty blue was, indeed, dusty enough, and not magically morphing into baby blue, I began to relax. Of course, I still have the nagging feeling that men don’t really wear scarves, no matter what TV has taught me, but oh well.

It’s always nice to have a finished product, even if it never comes out quite the way you had hoped. In this case, I was forced to switch over to a slightly slimmer yarn because I couldn’t find another one with the same thickness as the original. ANYWHERE. It’s not really that noticeable as is, but I was afraid that if I added much more length to the scarf, the slight tapering would be obvious. Thus, I have a scarf that may emphasize my boyfriend’s borderline giant-like characteristics. But, no, I think it should be fine. As long as he slouches….

I’m toying with the idea of starting on another, but this time with ample matching yarn, and perhaps a color of my boyfriend’s own choosing. Of course I know that there’s no way this scarf would be finished anytime before the snow melts. Decisions, decisions. What I like about the scarf is that it’s gotten a lot of positive feedback from everyone who has seen me working on it. So, really, no matter how many versions of this scarf I make, I know there will always be someone who will want to wear it. But probably not in August. Which is why I think I’ll have to give my boyfriend this version, and call it a day.

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