1995: Patchwork Girl

Patchwork Girl; or, A Modern Monster
by Shelley Jackson (as MARY/SHELLEY, & HERSELF)
Released: October 1995 (Eastgate Systems)
Language: Storyspace
Platform: Mac System 7/Windows 3.1

Opening Text:

I am buried here. You can resurrect me, but only piecemeal. If you want to see the whole, you will have to sew me together yourself.

It was the last talk of a long day. On the MIT campus in October 1997, an interdisciplinary symposium called “Transformations of the Book” was taking place, bringing together “classicists, Shakespearean scholars, technological wizards and lovers of all media” to explore how printed books were being challenged and changed by the digital age. The talks had begun just after lunch, and now it was coming up on nine o’clock as the final speaker took the stage: a woman in her mid-twenties. In her author photo she wore a sleeveless vest, a dense cluster of ear piercings, and an ampersand, tattooed on her upper arm. Her speaker bio noted that “she specializes in lies and digressions.” The talk was entitled “Stitch Bitch,” and began like this:

It has come to my attention that a young woman claiming to be the author of my being has been making appearances under the name of Shelley Jackson. It seems you have even invited her to speak tonight, under the misapprehension that she exists, that she is something besides a parasite... May I say that I find this an extraordinary impertinence, and that if she would like to come forward, we shall soon see who is the author of whom.

Well? Well?

Very well.

I expect there are some of you who still think I am Shelley Jackson, author of a hypertext about an imaginary monster, the patchwork girl Mary Shelley made after her first-born ran amok. No, I am the monster herself, and it is Shelley Jackson who is imaginary...

The writer was there to reflect on a work that in the short time since its release had become one of the most celebrated examples of a new kind of literature: the hypertext novel. Patchwork Girl; or, A Modern Monster riffed on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, remixing text from the original and other sources alongside a new story about the female counterpart made by Dr. Frankenstein for his male monster. In the original the female monster is destroyed by her creator in a fit of despair before she can be given life. Jackson’s work posits that she was brought back in secret, reborn “under the needle, and under the pen”: sewn back together, but also given life through the electricity of words on screens and flickering digital currents.

Jackson grew up in Berkeley, California, and worked as a teen at her family’s bookstore. After finishing an art degree at nearby Stanford, she moved across the country for an MFA in creative writing at Brown, which had developed a reputation for an interest in experimental literature. Several students and faculty had begun exploring the possibilities of nonlinear hypertext writing, and while Jackson “didn’t have a particularly strong techie bent,” when a graduate course in 1993 or 1994 assigned a final project of creating a hypertext story, she began work on the piece that would evolve into Patchwork Girl. “I’ve always had a very spatial understanding of text,” she later recalled, and for the idea she’d begun to develop, it felt right to conceive of story as discrete pieces that could be dragged around, connected, and deliberately positioned. The potential of this new medium seemed limitless: “I saw from the very first that an infinite number of new possibilities for literature were opening up before us. I felt like I was standing on the coast of a new world.”

The software Jackson used to do her writing was called Storyspace. It had been created by a group of hypertext authors and theorists in 1987, years before the rise of the web with its HyperText Markup Language (HTML). By 1990 Storyspace had become a commercial product, released by a tiny company known as Eastgate Systems. Eastgate’s aspirations were to become a publishing house for interactive literature, with the same standards and respectability as any traditional book publisher: by the mid-1990s their catalog listed over a dozen hypertext titles. The company “advertised itself as the publisher of ‘serious’ hypertext fiction—perhaps in an attempt to differentiate itself from ’text adventure‘ publishing enterprises or the emerging market of games,” according to scholar Scott Rettberg. Despite the ambitions of companies like Infocom to be taken seriously by more mainstream media, text games (and indeed, games in general) had won little respect to date from cultural critics. One hypertext article from 1994 took pains to note:

One thing hyperfictions are not is games. There is no scoring, no winner or loser, no right or wrong path to take. The writers assiduously avoid you-are-there fantasy adventures. Their texts are literature, not literary fun-house rides where you chase Moby-Dick! You make love to Madame Bovary! You get buried alive in the House of Usher!

Eastgate was determined to avoid the comparison. “[T]here was a concerted if in retrospect somewhat desperate attempt to carve a niche for hypertext fiction within the boundaries” of conventional literature, writes Rettberg. The company priced their titles like hardcover books; they sent advance copies to the New York Times Book Review, not Game Informer; and they priced Storyspace like a software tool for professionals—$245, at the time of Patchwork Girl’s release. The work they published was also aimed not at casual readers but the more erudite audiences of literary journals and graduates of humanities departments: fiction dense with allusions impenetrable to those outside the ivory tower and steeped in postmodern and post-structuralist rejections of the norms of commercial storytelling. Perhaps in part for these reasons, and undoubtedly also because of its hefty price tag, Storyspace and most works produced with it would remain an isolated niche even within the already-tiny world of interactive text: even today, very few makers or readers of text games are familiar with the movement it enabled. But those who did gain access to Storyspace, like Jackson via her graduate class, found a powerful visual tool for creating nonlinear narratives. While a decade earlier creators had needed to build their tools for digital texts nearly from scratch, a new era of more visual and mature authoring systems was arriving.

Storyspace let authors create named nodes of text called lexia, of any length from a few words to multiple pages, and arrange them spatially within any number of “containers,” which themselves could be spatially arranged. A container showed a miniature map of the lexia inside, letting the author cluster and position lexia in groups. Lexia could be connected by creating a link from a word or phrase; clicking the link would pop open the new lexia in its own small window, letting the reader drag around and juxtapose different parts of the text. Two decades before the rise of Twine, Storyspace authors and other early hypertext pioneers were developing an aesthetics of interlinked prose. “When I first started writing hypertext,” Jackson recalls,

I discovered that the link was not neutral, but was itself a kind of argument, one that I should not duplicate in my prose. I had to learn to allow the link to make points that I would formerly have spelled out in words. In this sense, programming is not just a substrate but an active part of the writing.

In contrast to conventions that would later develop for the web, links weren’t necessarily visible to the reader. Early hypertext author Michael Joyce had championed this aesthetic, where a paragraph of unstyled text “encouraged readers to seek out ‘words that yield’—that is, to click on given words that seem to be particularly evocative, and to see if the system will respond.” But this philosophy made navigation more challenging, as some words might not link to anything at all, and a crucial passage or even a whole sequence might be hidden behind an unassuming word most readers might never think to click. Combined with the lack of interest in traditional narrative structure from their authors, many early hypertexts became deliberately disorienting spaces, hard to progress through and with the pleasures of reading for immersion hard to find.

As she began to develop her project, Jackson became inspired in part by “the Storyspace software itself and the look of it even, the feel of moving around in these nested boxes,” and also by her long-time fascination with Frankenstein and its unfinished female monster. She had been resistant to the deliberate distancing in many early hypertext pieces, and was coming to feel that

all those [unconventional] features of hypertextuality are actually felt more keenly when they’re pulling against the expectations and the desires aroused by a more conventional narrative. So I thought it was important to try to write something that was richly imagistic, full of character, full of wordplay, and even a sense of story... in order to fully feel the effects of rupture and disorientation and wandering.

The tale that eventually emerged from her experiments was told from the monster’s point of view, a perspective that blurs together at times with both that of the author herself and of Mary Shelley (with whom Shelley Jackson shares half a name). The book’s five named sections each explore a different aesthetic of nonlinear text, with a complex network of interconnected lexia. But the bulk of the writing tells a long and mostly linear story about the monster’s life after she leaves her creator, takes a ship to America, and tries to discover or invent herself, building an identity from fragments and disjointed pieces.

Jackson’s conception of the monster violates boundaries of gender, self, and species: she is made up of pieces mostly from women, but also from men and animals. With her large frame, “[w]omen and men alike mistake my gender and both are drawn to me,” and often she to them. On her sea voyage she meets a kind-hearted cabin boy whose identity is more complex than appearance suggests, and in America befriends a sideshow performer with an artificial tail he desperately wishes were real. Before her departure, the monster and Mary Shelley sleep together, drawn into each others’ arms by a powerful and unexpected compulsion. On the morning after they exchange coin-sized pieces of skin, each grafting the circle of flesh where its twin was removed. “If I am made of some of you,” the monster writes, “I could be made of more.”

Later, the monster pays a woman named Elsie to borrow her name and her past: the memories, preferences, prejudices and habits she hopes will bring her the unity of a real, whole person: “human, and seamless.” But this effort fails: the monster’s stitched-together pieces begin to loosen and come unjoined. As she literally falls apart in a bathtub, her body losing its cohesion, she is visited one last time by Elsie, who helps her come to a revelation: “I was all in pieces, yet not apart. I felt permitted. I began to invent something new: a way to hang together without pretending I was whole.” “You’ll have to find another name,” Elsie says as she leaves, “because I’m taking mine back.”

The monster survives, and eventually lives nearly two centuries through to the present-day world of laptops and coffee shops. “I was never comfortable in the drawing rooms or the pruned and cherished gardens of Mary’s time,” she writes, feeling safer in a world of more anonymity and fewer expectations. She tries to write her memoirs, but is perpetually frustrated:

Sometimes it bothers me to put my words on paper. Set in ranks, they argue I possess a “life” (as in Lives of the Artists), only one, actual and limited, and that it will become as hurtless, juiceless, entertaining and purely factual as anyone else’s, after I’m dead. I watch my own words graduating instantaneously into the past tense and becoming someone else’s someone else. They look fixed. ...It bothers me, the thought of my words becoming clues, something someone might peer at to try to find a lost object. I don’t want to be a reclusive beetle disappearing into a sheaf of papers. I was not one person and there is more than one way to write this. I wish there were a way to show that every latest word I write has space for anything after it. Everything could have been different and already is.

<reader clicks “a way”>

Assembling these patched words in an electronic space, I feel half-blind...

The link suggests that in hypertext the monster has at last found a medium in which to tell her fragmented, multiplicious story. “The links can stretch very far before they break,” she writes:

The moments of text get smaller

<reader clicks anywhere>

and smaller

<reader clicks anywhere>

and yet never seem small enough, because to pause on a given screen—even for a sip of coffee—is an interruption of the flow. The flow, which turns out to be the main point. Not the passages I am moving through, however beguiling, not this cafe in which I am still sitting... but the sheer pleasure of movement. ...here where the spindly bamboo bridges of the links criss-cross the void (from tufted hillock to leaning tower I am in a Seuss landscape, where gravity is an untested hypothesis), I run faster and faster over the quivering spans, dizzied by the echoes of my footsteps that rebound from far below me and from above until I doubt up and down and scuttle through a universe of sideways.

I will follow the paths and dispense with the scenery. I will be pure particulate flow, an electronic speedster gunning it through a cloud chamber, a quantum sky-diver. My hair flies out behind me, the skin on my face pulls taut and my clothes wrestle around me...

Unlike in many Storyspace works, Jackson makes the map of linked nodes visible to readers, who can use it to jump between different passages at will, ignoring the text links if they wish. Jackson and her monster both write about how the black link-lines connecting a maze of boxes call to mind sutures, or quilts; and how forging your own path through them is an act of stitching and assembly. Like many other hypertexts, Patchwork Girl does not have a game-like simulation of a world in which the reader is embedded. But Storyspace does track which lexia a reader has seen, and a feature called “guard fields” allows an author to change the presence or direction of a link based on this history. In one early lexia of the main narrative sequence, for instance, you might find this sentence:

I bought passage on a ship to America, and at a dressmaker’s shop outfitted myself in full mourning—what might be a monster’s disguise, or a resounding farewell to a monstrous life left behind, my own.

Two links lead forward, from clicks on a monster’s disguise or farewell to a monstrous life. Depending on which phrase the reader chooses, different versions of many future lexia will be shown during an otherwise linear sequence about the monster’s adventures in America. The passages differ in subtle details rather than significant changes, as if there is no single, definitive truth to the monster’s story. Instead of multiple small choices with predictable effects as in a text adventure, here a single choice leads to far-reaching ripples of disconnected consequence, much harder to trace or keep contained.

Patchwork Girl’s other sections are less linear, many remixing text from multiple sources, including Frankenstein and L. Frank Baum’s The Patchwork Girl of Oz—one book by a woman about a constructed man, the other by a man about a constructed woman. Baum’s Girl was made from a “crazy-quilt” doll brought to life, and though other denizens of Oz find her uneven stitching and flaunting of social norms unsettling, she herself revels in it: “’Horrid?‘ she replied. ’Why, I’m thoroughly delightful. I’m an Original, if you please, and therefore incomparable.” Jackson stitches together new texts out of phrases from both novels, as well as other sources like the Storyspace manual and essays on philosophy or critical theory:

At first I couldn’t think what to make her of. I collected bones from charnel houses, paragraphs from Heart of Darkness, and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame, but finally in searching through a chest in a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, I came across a fabric of relations, an old patchwork quilt, which my grandmother once made when she was young.

Clicking these passages shows a parallel lexia where each phrase is tied to its original source by citation, the seams between the words becoming visible; another click returns the text to its unblemished, untethered form. Another section, the “graveyard,” contains dozens of lexia named after body parts: right arm, liver, tongue. Each tells the story of the original owner of one part of the monster, and how those stories and that flesh helped define her. The result is another patchwork quilt of identities, portraits mostly of women at the dawn of the nineteenth century.

My left leg belonged to Jane, a nanny who harbored under her durable grey dresses and sensible undergarments a remembrance of a less sensible time: a tattoo of a ship and the legend, Come Back To Me. Nanny knew some stories that astonished her charges, and though the ship on her thigh blurred and grew faint and blue with distance, until it seemed that the currents must have long ago finished their work, undoing its planks one by one with unfailing patience, she always took the children to the wharf when word came that a ship was docking, and many a sailor greeted her by name.

My leg is always twitching, jumping, joggling. It wants to go places. It has had enough of waiting.

Other clusters of Patchwork Girl’s more than three hundred lexia weave in and out of the main narrative, wandering between musings on identity, gender, biology, and dreams. The experience of reading can be overwhelming, especially while the reader is still learning the shapes and rhythms of the piece. “A radical text can’t just depict monstrosity,” Jackson has said, “but must be itself monstrous. Oddly, I don’t think that’s too hard. All texts are monstrous, really, always more chaotic and less coherent than they pretend to be, but most writers smooth over the stitches that hold them together.” When she began the project, Jackson had linked together any passages that seemed conceptually related, but found the result “shapeless and uninteresting... though the reader was actively following links, they were passive in the sense that they weren’t being asked to make the connections themselves between the far-flung parts of the text.” So she removed most of the links and started over, instead focusing on identifying “threads” that could be productively joined to suggest continuities—while trusting readers to also find their own.

Jackson’s professor George Landow showed her class project to Eastgate, who offered her a publishing contract. After extensive revisions and extensions, Patchwork Girl was released in 1995 on a 3.5″ floppy disk, and would become among the most famous of Eastgate’s “serious hypertexts.” In an early review, Landow called it “brilliant” and “the finest hypertext fiction thus far to have appeared... [filled with] wonderful writing—sharp, bracing, surprising, endlessly inventive.” It’s remembered today for many reasons, not least its resonant connections between medium and message. It is “a special kind of text,” wrote another scholar, “which, just like Victor’s creature, is the end result of certain technological developments.” Landow noted:

Hypertext, Jackson permits us to see, enables us to recognize the degree to which the qualities of collage—particularly those of appropriation, assemblage, concatenation, and the blurring of limits, edges, and borders—characterize a good deal of the way we conceive of gender and identity. Sooner or later all information technologies, we recall, have always convinced those who use them both that these technologies are natural and that they provide ways to describe the human mind and self. At the early stage of a digital information regime, “Patchwork Girl” permits us to use hypertext as powerful speculative tool that reveals new things about ourselves while at the same time retaining the sense of strangeness, of novelty.

Patchwork Girl is challenging to play today: unlike most software from the nineties, it’s still being sold by its original publisher, and runs only in a proprietary engine that has not always kept up with newer generations of computing hardware. In today’s Storyspace, Jackson’s original navigation controls are gone; some links are broken; and lexia no longer appear in individual windows, able to be moved around and juxtaposed. The visible link-lines whose aesthetics helped inspire Jackson’s story are no longer shown in the map view—the boxes themselves are properly positioned, but the interface hides the ways they are sutured together. A user’s expectations are drastically different now, too: Storyspace was designed in an era when reading the manual was crucial to operating a piece of software, but the manual is no longer distributed with the piece, a loss with dire consequences for successful navigation. Jackson has framed this slow degradation of the piece as, in a way, “completely appropriate”: “to try to hang on to it would be inconsistent with my central argument” about the ephemerality of bodies and the fluidity of forms. She has little interest in a port to a modern platform: “I couldn’t pour it into a contemporary container without altering it significantly.”

While Jackson continued writing hypertext for a few more years, she would eventually find a career in teaching and in writing more traditional novels, though her work would continue to challenge conventions and boundaries. In 2003 she began a project called Skin, which called for two thousand volunteers to each tattoo a single word of a new short story on their body: only volunteers who sent proof of their participation were allowed to read the entire text. Even her books printed with more traditional ink have often been experiments in form, style, and structure. “My favorite texts loiter, dawdle, tease, pass notes,” she had said in that late-night spoken word manifesto at MIT: “they resist the linear, they pervert it.” At that venue which had brought together the worlds of traditional books and new technology—still not quite certain if they could be friends—she had added: “I have no desire to demolish linear thought, but to make it one option among many.”

I adore the book, but I don’t fit into it very well, as a writer or a reader. There’s always some of me hanging untidily outside, looking like a mess, an excrescence, something the editor should have lopped off and for which I feel a bit apologetic. To make something orderly and consecutive out of the divergent fragments that come naturally feels like forcing myself through a Klein bottle. ...Patchwork Girl grew in clumps and strands like everything I write, but unlike everything else it had permission to stay that way.

“I had considered myself an esoteric writer whose audience might always be small,” the author reflected more recently. “I discovered that the world is more malleable and people more ready to embrace the improbable than I had ever imagined. Now it seems to me that it was subtly arrogant to imagine otherwise, and also kind of lazy. Now I think I should not let lack of precedent stop me from imagining preposterous things into being.”

“The world,” she concluded, “can be rewritten.”

Next week: a midsummer breather, but the series will return on July 15th!

As of 2020, Patchwork Girl was still available on physical media from Eastgate. Thanks to the Pathfinders project for documenting and preserving the history of this and other foundational hypertexts: their interview with Shelley Jackson is the source of her quotations not attributed inline, and you can watch a recording of Jackson reading a part of the work. Other interviews by Rita Raley and Rosita Nunes were also helpful. Shelley Jackson is on the web at ineradicablestain.com. Her latest novel is Riddance.