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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