A Shape in the Network, a Ghost in the Narration

Michael Pellauer

As I read through Shelly Jackson's wonderful Patchwork Girl again, I was struck by her use of links. To Jackson, like many hypertext authors, links between lexias are as important as the content itself. Links are a reader's vehicle into the mind of the author in a way that plain-text can never be: they allow us not just to see the associations the author makes in their mind, but to actually follow them, to experience firsthand what the author is communicating. As Dan Parke says in his commentary Hypertext Fetish, links are a way to "read between the lexias," to enhance or alter the meaning of text in very untraditional ways. As Dan says, "Even though the bond between lexias is not as physically strong as the ties that bind each paragraph to the next in a print volume there exists a ghost of narrative, story that lives between the lines."

It is importnant, then, that when we analyze Patchwork Girl we take into account this somewhat subtle area. While a complete textual analysis of every link of every lexia is beyond the scope of this essay, I will explore Jackson's use of linking in broad terms, and from that hope to gain some insight into her intentions.

First off, it struck me that the work as a whole was laid-out with very specific overview structures such as the body, the graveyard, the quilt, etc. I think this is important, becauase when we think of hypertext works we think of "networks," of nebulous diagrams of randomly scattered lexias. Jackson's text is obviously a network, but it is a structured network, one with an overall shape that is very much under the control of the author. To the reader, these over-arching structures provide an easy system of navigation, allowing them to track very easily what they have and haven't seen.

More importantly, they provide the reader with a context. I'm not just reading little text boxes, I'm exploring parts of the monter's body! I'm not just clicking on words, I'm exploring the contents of a graveyard! The context affects the reader's interpretation greatly -- a lexia that the reader arrives at from the graveyard can be taken very differently than if is found four layers deep within the journal. These overviews (that's what they are, basically) also help to separate out the different voices of the text, though of course there is always some multivocality by osmosis.

Another thing that struck me, was the fact that Jackson tended to limit the actual text that the links were attached to to very short phrases or single words. This is quite common on the web, where authors are affraid words that are blue and underlined will have their meaning or emphaisis changed, and thus limit the linked words to as few as possible. In Storyspace, however, where the links are invisible until a certain combination of keys is pressed, I believe  authors tend to make the links longer - to the size of a sentence, say - making it very clear that this idea is tied to that one.

Jackson's method isn't quite like either of these conventional ways of doing things (of course). Instead, I find that her links are often attached to short phrases, vivid images that really stick out in the mind of the reader. Jackson's narrative style lends itself to this quite readily, and I think the effect of the images is only increased through the links.

Jackson obviously associates links with stitches. The patchwork girl is a stitched together monster, as Patchwork Girl is a stitched together narrative, a work that drawn from many genres, a fusing of many traditions and cultural signifiers into one grand uber-narrative. In this narrative shes uses links effectively to break the story into smaller and smaller areas: the monster, the graveyard, the quilt. These are broken into smaller subsections: the arm, the eye, the left leg, and so on until the only thing left is the basic unit of hypertext: the lexia. These lexias are then interconntected to form an even more complex story. The method is elegant in its simplicity, and subtle in its outcome. As Dan said, it is a "ghost of narrative," a semi-translucent apparition hovering just outside of our conscious vision.

That, of course, is the beauty of it.

Discussion of
Patchwork Girl Overview Screen for Website Body and Self