False Pretenses, Parasites, and Monsters

False Pretenses, Parasites, and Monsters

Tom Leclair
Ahab's Wife
Sena Naslund
New York: William, Morrow, and Co., 1999
House of Leaves
Mark Danielewski
New York: Pantheon, 2000
Lo's Diary
Pia Pera
Translated by Ann Goldstein. New York: Foxrock, 1999
Patchwork Girl
Shelley Jackson
Eastgate Systems, 1995
The Fan-Maker's Inquisition
Rikki Ducornet
New York: Holt, 1999

Tom Leclair surveys six gargantuan texts - both hyper- and print - and finds that size is not all that matters.

This essay is adapted from a talk given in a series of lectures on Contemporary American Fiction at Illinois State University, a series organized by Charles Harris, Director of the Unit for Contemporary Literature. We present the essay here as a contribution to Writing Post Feminism, introduced in the fall of 1996.

“False pretenses.” The phrase makes me wonder. Why the redundancy? How did it come into conventional usage? My dictionary offers the example, “to obtain money under false pretenses.” Maybe when money is at stake, we want to be doubly clear. But the result of doubling is ambiguity: is a false pretense true? And why is the phrase always in the plural? Does one pretense lead to another?

All novelists practice pretense. The three fictions I begin with here come to readers as false pretenses. The books pretend to depict an historical world not our own, and at the same time they all rely on and admit within themselves to relying on earlier novels or writers: Moby Dick for Sena Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife, Lolita for Pia Pera’s Lo’s Diary, and the Marquis de Sade for Rikki Ducornet’s The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition.

Because of the female authors’ close relations with male masters, I call the contemporaries parasites. This is a literal misnomer because the women don’t crawl inside the men. I’ve kept the word because of Michel Serres’s play with the term in The Parasite. The French language uses the word “parasite” to translate English “noise” or “static” in a communications system. Serres’s book is appealing because he transforms the negative associations we have with parasite and noise into positive meanings, for it is only through noise that systems change. Serres says such useful noise has “abuse value.” Think of the valuable information first received as noise in Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Or genetic mutation in Richard Powers’s The Gold Bug Variations.

An American scholar named William R. Paulson extends Serres’s ideas and calls literature “the noise of culture,” which is the title of Paulson’s book. Since most communication systems are constructed to code and decode messages with as little interpretation as possible, and since literature both requires and resists interpretation, literature itself is valuable noise, negative feedback on machine consciousness.

If “parasite” in my title is figurative, I’m on more literal ground with “monster.” Rikki Ducornet recently published a collection of essays titled The Monstrous and the Marvelous, and the word “monster” occurs numerous times in The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition. Moby Dick and Ahab’s Wife are about sea-monsters. Both Lolita and Lo’s Diary use “monster” to refer to their major characters.

These new works by women rewriting men have some recent, perhaps more familiar precursors: there’s Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and many of Kathy Acker’s novels. Smiley and Acker also provide a distinction: A Thousand Acres is about a hulking man called a monster, the daughter-molesting Larry Cook, but the novel itself is a conventional narrative, a realistic retelling of King Lear that one can read without knowing Shakespeare. Acker’s works - such as Don Quixote and Great Expectations - are often about monstrous fathers or father figures, and the novels are themselves monstrosities, intentionally deformed in their collage structure and willfully ugly in their raging style. In Serres’s terms, Acker’s fictions are parasitical, noisy, and abusive. They disrupt the system of literary generation, reception, and evaluation.

Here I’d like to insert some dictionary definitions of “monster”: fabled animal combining human and animal or two animal forms; human or animal grotesquely deviating from normal shape, behavior, or character; animal or thing of huge size; something that is unnatural, shocking.

If literature is the noise of culture, the novel is the monster of culture: a fabled, combinatory, unnatural, hypertrophied use of language that grotesquely deviates from normal discourse. Don Quixote, one of the first novels, would be a good example. ^1 I have discussed the monstrous qualities of Infinite Jest (and Richard Powers’s The Gold Bug Variations and William T. Vollmann’s You Bright and Risen Angels) in an essay published in Critique 38 (Fall 1996): 12-37 and available online

In my view, the monstrosity that is the novel has been for many readers unfortunately normalized or naturalized in realistic fiction. How else explain why The Great Gatsby would be second on the Modern Library List of One Hundred 20th Century Novels and Gravity’s Rainbow not make the List?

My further view is that fiction that admits and cultivates its own monstrosity is the fiction that will continue to make noise and have abuse value.

Your very own David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest reviewed by Piotr Siemion in ebr would be a good example.

I admit that thinking about the novel as monstrous may be just a figurative way to praise mass, experiment, difficulty, or excess - and yet the concept of monstrosity seems particularly relevant to the three women rewriting men. In Monstrous Imagination, Marie-Helene Huet traces theories explaining monstrous births from Aristotle through the Renaissance and up into the Romantic and early Modernist periods. A persistent line of thought from Aristotle through the eighteenth century was that what we might call an anomalous offspring resulted from the disorder of maternal imagination or desires during conception or pregnancy. This meant the father initiated an organic process of presumed reduplication and the mother introduced noise. Women thus had the power to erase the physical similarity of the child to its father, long a basis for establishing paternity and, of course, the inheritance of property. In monstrous procreation, Huet points out, nature imitated art, the mother’s imagination.

In the Romantic period, according to Huet, male artists took upon themselves this female power to engender radically new imaginative creations. Huet reads Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a critique of male artistic pride, an attempt to usurp the role of mother in collaborative generation. For me, the monster in Frankenstein is also a formal model, an oversized being patched together from the spare body parts lying around Frankenstein’s laboratory.

The contemporary women novelists I’ve mentioned are taking back the power to deform or reform the paternal line. Simply by attaching their novels to the dead males’ novels, the living women create a monster, a fused work with two heads. The new women novelists’ interference with the old patriarchal line has its analogues within the works, where the independent female protagonist is young enough to be the daughter of the man she resists - Ahab, Humbert, and Sade.

pretenses to history

Ahab’s Wife, Lo’s Diary, and The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition defamiliarize their hosts, and I recommend all of them for that reason. But the fiction of “false pretenses” raises troubling questions for the reviewer or critic. Should the new novel be judged on its relationship to the historical world it recalls? Should the new novel be measured against the work it rewrites? It would be easier for the critic if the novels were merely intertextual play, but they all refer to verifiable history, often parts left out by the male writers. Then the question becomes: are the female writers’ powers to represent diminished or increased by their direct reliance on earlier fictions?

My own questions of these three novels about monsters are: do the books themselves attain to monstrosity? Is their form appropriate to their subject matter?

Ahab’s Wife, at 668 pages, appears to be the most monstrous and does have the largest number of monstrous males - and whales - within it. In addition, Naslund’s narrator and protagonist, Una Spencer, is named after a dragon-killer in The Faerie Queen. Abused and abandoned by her Christianity-crazed father in Kentucky, the plucky Una pretends to be a boy and goes to sea where she marries Kit Sparrow. After Una and Kit are forced into cannibalism in a lifeboat, Kit goes crazy, abuses her, and abandons her. Before the age of 20, Una catches the eye of the much older Ahab, who uses his captain’s powers to dissolve Una’s marriage and to marry her on the same night. Ahab fathers a child, then abuses Una by abandoning her for whaling and, eventually, for his crazed quest for Moby Dick, whom Una calls the “white monster” (634).

A lot else goes on, but the novel is fundamentally a romance about Una’s recovery from dominance by powerful males. In the last quarter of the book, when Ahab is either far from home or dead, Una makes friends with her pre-adolescent son, with other lonely Nantucket women, with a gay carver of figureheads, with both the sea and the stars, and finally with a dreamy man called Ishmael who is writing his account of Ahab’s last voyage. Una decides to write her life story as an alternative to the story of Ahab’s tragic death. “Was it not possible instead,” Una asks, “for a human life to end in a sense of wholeness, of harmony with the universe?” (417).

The answer in Ahab’s Wife is “yes.” Una gets away with her unorthodox adventures, her out-of-wedlock children, and her free-thinking opinions. She is not punished for her individuality and autonomy as nineteenth-century heroines often were. Una has even found a like-minded husband in Ishmael, so Ahab’s Wife has a comic narrative arc quite different from Melville’s tragedy. In many other ways, Naslund pays homage to Melville. She quotes him in her epigraphs on the “real” young wife of Ahab; lets Ahab, Ishmael, and other characters speak Melville’s words; does a wonderful riff on the comic shipowners Bildad and Peleg; and smuggles into her text many of the images in Moby Dick. Ahab’s Wife even has a Melvillian narrator who is occasionally displaced by discourses she could not have heard, and Naslund’s story, like Ishmael’s, is sometimes interrupted by poetic reverie, dramatic soliloquies, and expository prose.

But Naslund leaves out the cetology - the whales and whaling material - that deform the narrative of Moby Dick and make Melville’s book a monstrosity, an assemblage of non-organic parts the reader cannot ignore as parts. Instead of an encyclopedic fiction, Naslund’s formal model is the sentimental novel, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to which Naslund refers early on. Jane Smiley has elevated Stowe’s novel above The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but replicating the sentimental novel in 1999 is no way to create a monstrosity.

Naslund didn’t want to. Like her narrator in the lifeboat, Naslund cannibalizes the flesh of Moby Dick - its characters and surface qualities - and leaves behind a pile of bones, those obdurate elements Melville includes. Ahab’s Wife usefully challenges contemporary readers’ relation to Moby Dick, but Ahab’s Wife doesn’t challenge readers’ relationship to itself, one of the grand features of Melville’s original. As a novelist, Naslund is less like her adventurous protagonist than like the stereotype of the dependent nineteenth-century wife.

As you’ll see shortly with Lo’s Diary, the fiction of false pretenses raises issues of more than artistic inheritance. Bluntly put - these books are about money. Una lives comfortably from Ahab’s estate after his death. Naslund has used his name and Melville’s cultural capital to make her novel a Book of the Month Club selection. Michel Serres notes that parasites in fables exchange talk for food. Ahab’s Wife feels designed to be a bread-winner. Una says that “in the fairy tales of monsters and men, the man prevailed” (183). In Naslund’s tale, woman prevails and profits.

a skirmish with lolita

Pia Pera’s Lo’s Diary was first published in Italian in 1995 and was translated into other European languages without any complaint from the Nabokov estate. But when a translation for the huge English-language market was prepared, Vladimir’s son Dimitri sued to stop publication. There was money involved, of course, but as Dimitri makes clear in the preface that he forced upon Lo’s Diary one of his motives was to protect the male line from being deformed by Pera’s female imagination. The legal skirmishing between male and female perfectly reflects the content of Lolita and Lo’s Diary. In Lolita, Humbert names and possesses Dolores Haze, and then recreates her in words after she leaves him. Lo’s Diary plays on Humbert’s appropriation in its title, but in Pera’s novel the former Lolita reveals her real name - Dolores Maze, rather than Haze - and tells her own story.

Ahab’s Wife in its facts is careful to complement Moby Dick. Lo’s Diary quarrels with the facts of Lolita and, even worse for Nabokov, claims to be the original version, upon which Humbert’s prison confession is an invented parasite. Ahab’s Wife received widespread and positive reviews. Lo’s Diary was excoriated. This is sometimes a good sign that you are in the presence of the monstrous.

Pera has called her book an atomic novel. On the fifth page of the narrative, Dolores tells the Maze maid about the atomic bomb and how “huge monsters” might result. On the next page, a friend of Dolores tells her if she eats radioactive tuna she’ll have “monster children.” Dolores looks like one of them when she admits early on to torturing her hamster for biting her. In this cruelty to a smaller animal, she is like Humbert, who calls himself a “pentapod monster” in Lolita (286). He rationalizes his monstrous use of Lolita by recalling his childhood loss of Annabel. Dolores has lost both a father and younger brother, and she projects her considerable anger onto her “monstrous… Plasticmom” (119), then Humbert.

As Naslund does for Una, Pera gives Dolores a much more substantial childhood than Nabokov did. Pera also makes Dolores more active in her sexual experience; she is the one who seduces Humbert, not the other way around as he imagines. When he keeps her away from friends on their first road trip, she becomes passive and self-loathing. But on the second road trip, Pera’s Dolores much more cleverly plays Humbert for a fool than Nabokov let her.

The largest difference between Nabokov’s narrative and Pera’s is the ending. In Lolita, Dolores dies in childbirth. In a New York Observer interview, Pera objected to Nabokov’s killing off the victim before she had a chance to talk. So in Lo’s Diary, Dolores is alive, a happy mother and successful woman, ready to have her side published. When she hands her diary to John Ray, Humbert’s editor and her editor, she tells him the diary is “definitely less literary” (1) than Lolita.

And this has been the basis of most negative reviews. Critics remark the banality of Dolores’s prose and miss Humbert the murderer’s self-described “fancy prose style” (11). I believe that Pera has several reasons for intentionally limiting the verbal range of Lo’s Diary: to establish the realistic voice of an early teen and, somewhat in the spirit of Kathy Acker, to question the basis of Lolita’s canonization, its aestheticizing of child abuse. In his postscript to Lolita, Nabokov invokes the principle of “aesthetic bliss” (316) and mocks moralists. It’s not so easy to accept Nabokov’s position after reading what Pera’s Dolores has to say about being the prisoner of a “real sexual parasite” (129).

In that same postscript, Nabokov speaks of his artistic workshop, living “among discarded limbs and unfinished torsos” (318). Like Frankenstein, Nabokov created his text out of other literary texts, Sade and Poe among them. The lists in Lolita, with their multiple textual linkages, stand for the novel as a stylistic monstrosity, its cutting and pasting of different discourses and historical styles. My complaint with Lo’s Diary, is that, as in Ahab’s Wife, potential for monstrosity is sacrificed to narrative continuity and literary decorum.

The novel could have been more diary-like in structure, even more adolescent in style. Dolores refers to a secret album with drawings of “giant women whose boobs go out to the margin of the page and their bellies stick out, too, overflowing the edge, and you can’t tell where they end or if they go on to infinity, and their bottoms protrude in the opposite direction” (99). These drawings scandalize Humbert, but Pera doesn’t include them or the prose that would be equivalent to them - the kind of thing Kathy Acker did in Blood and Guts in High School. Instead, we have a diary that reads like a realistic novel written by Jane Smiley.

It’s possible, though, that Pera is more clever - more Nabokovian - than any reviewer or I have suggested. Lo’s Diary, like Lolita, has an introduction by John Ray, who admitted to changing passages in Humbert’s memoir, which Ray now calls a “novel.” It’s always been my suspicion, by the way, that John Ray wrote all of Humbert’s narrative. In Lo’s Diary, Dolores gives her diary to Ray, who admits to dropping it, spilling loose pages, and then reassembling them in logical order. He also admits to cutting parts and correcting solecisms. Since many of the novel’s pages sound much more like an adult than a teenager, I suggest that Pera has John Ray do to Dolores’s writing what Humbert has done to Dolores: made her desirable while censoring some of the male’s monstrous effects on the girl’s expression. Pera links the two males at the end of Ray’s preface, where he says he’s pleased that the now 85-year-old Humbert is happy. Reviewers scoffed at Pera’s statement that her novel was a tennis match with the old pro, but Pera and Nabokov may be more evenly matched than they seem.

a monster speaks

Rikki Ducornet’s The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition is the shortest of these three novels but the most like Frankenstein’s oversized monster in its form and the most explicitly concerned with the monstrous, a word that recurs many times in the novel. Ducornet’s relationship to the patriarch, though, is rather different from Naslund’s and Pera’s. Ducornet dedicates her novel to her father, who trusted her with Sade’s Justine when Ducornet was sixteen. Her book does for Sade what Nabokov does for Humbert: allows the self-described “monster” to speak for himself and solicit our sympathy. Described as “part whale, part poison mushroom” (137), Sade gives an account of his life - strange stories about the circumstances of his birth, his youth as a spoiled child, his innocent first love, the various interferences that turned Sade into an enraged man and then an imprisoned man.

As sensitive as Nabokov to the moral climate into which her fiction would be released, Ducornet works slowly and carefully to rehabilitate the monster, to make fans of us. Part One of the novel opens with the trial of a Parisian fan-maker named Gabrielle who enjoyed the young Sade’s company, was disgusted by his fiction, and in later years befriended him in prison. At her trial by a committee of the French Revolution, Gabrielle ably defends herself, Sade, and the book they’ve written together, an exposé of the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico. It’s in this book, long passages of which Ducornet includes, that the true moral monster - the historical Bishop Landa, a hater of monstrosities and a sexual puritan, a murderer and book burner - resides.

It’s only when Gabrielle is accused of lesbianism that the Revolutionary Committee becomes like Landa and executes her, leaving Sade in Part II of The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition to defend Gabrielle and his disorderly imagination, the kind of imagination that Ducornet employs to compose the book. Her essays in The Monstrous and the Marvelous are frequently appreciations of verbal and visual artists who construct “cabinets of wonders” (77), collections of unlike materials that challenge the reader’s or viewer’s methods of categorizing and, eventually, of judging normalcy. The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition is a cabinet of texts, an assemblage of court transcripts, letters, other documents, dreams, reveries, and lists.

In its arbitrariness and freedom from narrative syntax, the list, as I suggested earlier, seems to me the kernel of monstrosity and a basic generator of Ducornet’s fiction. The novel begins with Gabrielle listing the various kinds of fans and her imaginary landscapes. In prison, Sade makes numerous lists: kitchens, sausages, books, the risks of brothels, the old signs of Paris, his own qualities, people who have been executed. Although the list can be a method of rationalizing and control, as in Sumerian writing, the list for Ducornet is the mark of desire, chance, and imagination, all of which her fiction defends in its rhetoric and in its form.

In her essays, Ducornet praises art that, like monsters, threatens the viewer or reader, art that is like a prison sentence one must survive. She also has said, while writing about Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist,” that “the interest evoked by monstrosity is difficult to sustain” (79). To some extent, The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition seems to me to be a compromise, a miniaturization of Sade’s characteristic excess. Like the fans Gabrielle makes, the novel compacts its materials into short space and sometimes beautifies them. In The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition, Sade admits to bending to “the demands of propriety” (128) to publish some of his work. Although Ducornet does not flinch from an unhappy ending - Gabrielle executed, Sade still in prison - Ducornet’s imaginative collaboration with Sade may not, like Lo’s Diary, be ugly enough - or long enough - to fully exemplify the novel’s sympathy with what many readers would call the monstrous.

parasites in a House of Leaves

This issue of scale brings me to two recent books almost as long as Ahab’s Wife and as monstrous in form as The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition. ^2 Though not as long, Lee Siegel’s Love in a Dead Language (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999) is both parasitical and monstrous, a novel in the form of a translation of and commentaries on The Kamasutra. Siegel relies heavily on both Lolita and Pale Fire, and composes the book of various texts and iconographic materials, including fake websites. Like one of the novel’s narrators, the author is “a sort of philological Professor Frankenstein - his text no less dangerous, awkward, or pathetic than the novel monster….Dismembered parts of the body of the text remain scattered about, each depriving the others of unity, of the wholeness that would sustain them as portions of a living verbal system” (323). For more details, see my review in The New York Times Book Review, May 23, 1999. One is Gayl Jones’s Mosquito, published in 1999, an archival novel told in dialect by an extremely digressive narrator, and the other is Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a collage of narratives, commentaries, and visual materials published in 2000. Though neither is exactly the kind of “false pretenses” fiction I’ve been describing, both are pervasively self-conscious about their fictional inheritances and highly metafictional. Henry Louis Gates called Mosquito a “sprawling, formless, maddening tale.” If someone as sympathetic to the writing of African-American women has that to say, you know Mosquito is monstrous. But I’m going to discuss House of Leaves because it is explicitly concerned with the monstrous, best meets my definition of the monstrosity, and gives me a bridge to a couple of hypertexts.

In House of Leaves, a young Los Angeles tattoo artist named Johnny Truant finds a manuscript in a trunk. The manuscript, by a dead man named Zampano, is a fictional description of and commentary on a photodocumentary by one Will Navidson. The documentary is about an uncanny house which has beneath it a constantly shifting, possibly infinite labyrinth in which some monster, such as the often-referred-to minotaur, may live. Characters who explore the labyrinth find no beast there, but the dark unknown spaces consume the characters, physically or psychologically.

Johnny Truant edits the manuscript, and it comes to have an effect on him like the house has on its explorers. Johnny has horrible nightmares, leaves his West Coast home, and travels to Virginia where the imagined house stood and where Johnny’s mother was confined in a mental institution. His narrative ends with a story of an infant born with holes in its brain, a metaphor for Johnny’s disintegration and, perhaps, monstrousness. A few pages later, on page 528, the book proper ends, though it is followed by 150 pages of “Exhibits.”

Even without the last 150 pages, House of Leaves is a monstrosity: footnotes displacing text, footnotes nesting in footnotes, commentaries interrupting narrative, blank spaces, black spaces, mirror writing, upside down or skewed texts, crossed-out texts, and lists - many very long lists. Like Moby Dick, to which Danielewski refers on page three, and like the labyrinth that House of Leaves describes, the novel swallows and literally disorients the reader forced to change reading positions. Danielewski quotes Heidegger and Freud on the uncanny, the feeling of being “not-at-home” (25), and this is the abuse value of House of Leaves.

In The Monstrous and the Marvelous, Ducornet says “the monstrous is unsettling because it appears to belong nowhere but its own boundless category” (28). This too describes House of Leaves. All of Danielewski’s numerous references to the minotaur are lined through in the text. If there is no monster in the novel, the text itself is the monster and it appears boundless.

From Navidson and Zampano, to Truant and Danielewski, House of Leaves seems an all-male parasitical production with mostly male hosts - Nabokov, Borges, Escher, Melville, Poe. But if Johnny Truant has invented the whole text, as is possible, then a woman may be responsible for the monstrosity of his creation. When Johnny was four, his mother Pelafina spilled boiling oil on his arms, thus deforming Johnny. When he was seven, she may have tried to strangle him. Shortly thereafter, Pelafina is placed in a mental institution and Johnny’s father dies. Among the “Exhibits” of the last 150 pages are more than 50 pages of Pelafina’s asylum letters to Johnny. In one, she warns him of her “questionable genetic bequeathal” (594). Increasingly disordered in their style and in their format, Pelafina’s sheaf of letters may be the model for Johnny’s House of Leaves.

Danielewski surrounds the letters with seemingly random elements that extend the monstrosity of the book proper: sections entitled “bits” and “pieces,” poems, collages, epigraphs, polaroids, photographs of manuscript pages, delayed epigraphs. The final section is a thirteen-page index without any numbers identifying which leaves the indexed words are on. This non-indexing index is the supreme list, metaphor for the novel as a whole - an abyss - and a non-whole, a non-organic construct.

Danielewski has said that he believes his core audience will be “younger readers used to working with web pages with multiple texts,” and he said he persuaded his publisher to serialize House of Leaves on the Internet. This is an interesting experiment because the future medium for monstrous fictions may well be electronic, where space is cheap and distribution can be world-wide. Because of its mass and excess, House of Leaves will probably make its publisher some money, but most novelists complain about decreasing outlets for experimental work like Danielewski’s.


And that’s why I want to discuss two hypertexts, Shelley Jackson’s 1995 Patchwork Girl, which you can buy from Eastgate Systems, and The Unknown, a free web-based hypertext by four men - Dirk Stratton, William Gillespie, Scott Rettberg, and Frank Marquardt, the last three former students at Illinois State.

Jackson’s fiction August 2000: Jackson and contemporaries reviewed by George Landow. refigures both a male text - L. Frank Baum’s Patchwork Girl of Oz - and a female text, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I use “refigures” instead of “rewrites” because Jackson, like Danielewski, combines pictures and words. The first page to come up on screen is the image of a woman pieced together and crossed by a dotted line. The next link is a title page with collaborative authors: Mary Shelley, Shelley Jackson, and, presumably, the monster herself. Links from its table of contents take you to rearrangements of the first image. From these originating bodily images, various sequences of narrative and metafictional texts follow.

There are two basic stories in Pat Patchwork Girl: one is about the female, companion monster created by Frankenstein but denied life by him at the last minute. In Jackson’s rewrite, she and Mary Shelley interfere with Frankenstein’s abortive act and give life to his creation, which comes to exist outside Shelley’s novel. The oversized, scarred monster becomes Mary Shelley’s lover, journeys to America, gets the name Patchwork Girl has numerous adventures, and is last seen as a lap-top toting, Acker-like nomad, a yet frightening campers in the West. Jackson humanizes the Shelley monster and monsterizes Baum’s charming but essentially powerless individualist.

The other “story” in Patchwork Girl is about composition - of Patchwork Girl’s body and personality and of this crazy quilt hypertext. An image of phrenology provides many of the links to the dual composition (see “phrenology” in navigation guide). There are links to women whose parts the girl inherits, to ideas about personality from earlier historical periods, to recent theories about biological collaboration, and to Jackson’s sources. Because this text is written in Storyspace software, one can see the complete list of pages that compose the work.

“At the mirror” gives both an example of Jackson’s cutting and suturing, and a commentary on her mixed media work as a monstrosity:

The Patchwork Girl looked at herself and laughed. Noticing the mirror, she stood before it and examined her extraordinary features with amazement - her button eyes, pearl bead teeth and puffy nose. She bowed, and the reflection bowed. Then she laughed again, long and merrily, and the Glass Cat crept out from under the table and said: “I don’t blame you for laughing at yourself. Dufresnoy cautioned artists to avoid ‘obscene and impudent particolored objects full of hollows, broken into little pieces’ that were ‘barbarous and shocking to the eyes.’ The impious intermarriage of graphic symbol and letter bred teeming monsters of language. Old stories must not be blended promiscuously and without distinction, as east, west, south, and north in a chaos-manner. Aren’t you horrid?”

L. Frank Baum, Patchwork Girl of Oz, first published in 1913. Mine is the Ballantine edition, p. 43. Barbara Maria Stafford, Body Criticism: Imaging the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine (MIT 1991), p. 226. Patchwork Girl is a “teeming monster of language,” overflowing with metaphor and meta-metaphor, linking both like and unlike elements word to word and patch to patch, making us aware that we are all, like our texts, patched together from multiple identities, histories, and discourses. At first cognitively threatening, Jackson’s hypertext becomes a Whitmanian hopeful monster in “universal,” a summary of and by the fiction, as well as an address to the reader:

Likewise I shall fill the universe to bursting with flesh flesh flesh if I want to. You will all be part of me. You already are; your bodies are already claimed by future generations, auctioned off piecemeal to the authors of further monsters. These monsters move among you already, buried in your flesh: sluggishly working their buried limbs, testing their strength, drawing you together in premonitions of birth. Your fingers twitch in your sleep. Your heart jumps: an unfamiliar beat. Many monsters, or one: if I am made of some of you, I could be made of more. If I am large, I could be larger. If it is hard to tell when I was born, I will be born again and again; if it is hard to tell where I end, I shall continue. I shall build a palace, a city, a planet of meat.

It is this kind of monstrous scale that electronic media promise to some writers. In The Unknown four people collaborate to create one of the longest and most variously linked hypertexts in existence, one that shared first prize in a 1998 hypertext competition judged by Robert Coover.

This page - http://www.unknownhypertext.com/unknown2.htm - is the shortest in the work and not the homepage, but it’s a convenient place from which to move around. The metaphoric model is the Chicago transit system. At the bottom of every page you get the same list of words and icons that can take you elsewhere - anywhere - in the text. There are no “guard fields” in The Unknown, no constraints on links.

Like the parasitical women, the authors of The Unknown use other writers, but the hypertexteers are not content with deforming the work or lives of dead men. In the free-ranging plot of the novel, the young authors go on a road trip to publicize their unknown work and talk to live writers, fictionalizing, I assume, their encounters. They meet John Barth in a “House of Usher” setting. They have lunch with Richard Powers and drink with Michael Bérubé.

Three authors - William, Dirk, and Scott - even come here to Normal in “midwest.htm”:

First stop Midwest tour, Normal, Illinois. Dinner at Curt White’s. Tabouli, falafel with tahini, vegetarian lasagna, fresh french bread and sections of blood oranges for dessert. Krass-Mueller even showed. The Dalkey people were there pushing contemporary Irish stuff and a reprint of the Oulipo anthology. Which William and Dirk are both nuts about. John O’Brien explained the effect of James Joyce on the American collective unconscious. On a five-dollar bet from William, Krass-Mueller recited the first three pages of Gravity’s Rainbow from memory. Everyone acknowledged the amazingness of the feat. Krass-Mueller used the fiver to light his cigar, which Curt promptly chastised him for. Not because it was illegal, but because it was such a flagrant example of conspicuous consumption. Tensions dissolved after a thumb-wrestling war. A good time was indeed had by all.

Here we have the real: if you click on Curtis White, you’ll get a photograph of a man who was introduced to me as Curtis White. And we have the possibly real in Krass-Mueller, an oversized man, one of the monstrous patriarchs in The Unknown, the author of an encyclopedic fiction called In Cold Jest which resembles Infinite Jest. Not to be outdone, the hypertexteers use their real names and photographs but impute monstrous behavior - various kinds of addictions and grandiose ideas - to themselves.

Their model is the encyclopedic novel: it’s their “arrogant thesis”

that what great art, art like Moby Dick, art like Gravity’s Rainbow, art like The Gold Bug Variations, what great art does is to evoke nothing less than an entire world, a world with details and nuances and layers and cross-references in and out of itself. As to how we could achieve something similar in the realm of a hypertext novel in which there were already characters with our names - well, why not include simulacra of our “real selves” as well? (“aesthetic.htm”)

These selves merge in a series of “Halloween” sections in which one author says “Mary Shelley was ahead of her time” as he prepares an experiment that fuses two conventional writers into a single hypertext author, who later proves dangerous. In actuality, all four authors are fused because they write in each others’ voices.

The intent of The Unknown is to be a “monsterpiece” - like a “gigantic, monstrous supercomputing application.” Even more than Patchwork Girl, The Unknown is a monstrosity - from its title to its size, its numerous scrolling pages, its variousness, and lists of links. The Unknown includes a series of watercolors, streaming video, and audio clips. In a recent Feed essay, Robert Coover complained about bells and whistles that detract from the original spirit of “hyper” “textuality.” Most of The Unknown, however, is text: hyperbolic parodies of other texts and itself. The Unknown even parodies linking, the sacred center of hypertextuality, so abuse value is high. And, like Frankenstein’s original monster, The Unknown is male-made, testosterone-driven, as a woman guest writer in The Unknown says.

Patchwork Girl has a site map that desperate navigators can use. The Unknown, true to its title, offers plenty of lists but no such guide. Etched in CD Rom or a diskette, Patchwork Girl is a closed system. The Unknown is open in several ways: the authors keep adding to it, they give readers a way to contact them, and one wrong move and you could be out in the world wide web, The Ultimate Monstrosity of electronic text and image.

Quickly scaling out now in conclusion, one might well say that Postmodernism in its various heterogeneous manifestations is a monstrosity.

But why stop there? Written language is a monstrosity. Both The Unknown and Patchwork Girl refer to Derrida, his sense of language as a gigantic, constantly deferred web. Jackson puts this well in “it thinks”:

There is a kind of thinking without thinkers. Matter thinks. Language thinks. When we have business with language, we are possessed by its dreams and demons, we grow intimate with monsters. We become hybrids, chimeras, centaurs ourselves: steaming flanks and solid redoubtable hoofs galloping under a vaporous machinery.

In the future, challenging monsterpieces may be afforded existence only in the “vaporous machinery” of electronic literature. The cultural capital of print - on which Naslund, Pera, and Ducornet rely - will not underwrite forever the production and dissemination costs of tree-based texts, particularly massive ones such as Infinite Jest and House of Leaves. Publication on demand is one possible solution for bookworms, those who refuse to use e-readers. For writers of hypertext monsters there may come to be ways of earning money from web-based works such as The Unknown. At the moment, though, its authors have to be content with the pleasure parents take in making up or reading others’ bedtime stories to their children, an act that may be at the root of all parasitical and monstrous fiction-making, an act of pretense before “false” was attached.


works cited

Arts and Entertainment.” The New York Observer 7 May 2000: online.

Ducornet, Rikki. Monstrous and the Marvelous. San Francisco: City Lights, 1999.

Gates, Henry Louis. “Our Homeland, the Text.”New York Times Book Review19 Nov. 1999: online.

Huet, Marie-Helene. Monstrous Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Jones, Malcom. “A Spooky But Literary ‘Blair Witch Project.‘ “Newsweek20 March 2000: 71.

Nabokov, Vladimir. The Annotated Lolita. Ed. Alfred Appel, Jr. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970.

Paulson, William R. The Noise of Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Serres, Michel. The Parasite. Trans. Lawrence R. Schehr. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Smiley, Jane. “Say It Ain’t So, Huck.”Harper’sJanuary 1996: 61-67.