Texture, Topology, Collage, and Biology in Patchwork Girl

Jason Williams '99 (English 112, 1996)

Patchwork Girl's structure highlights hypertext's most powerful feature: a complete flexibility in the sequencing of text. This flexibility may be implemented as the formlessness of everything linking to everything or may trivially reduce to the linearity of traditional print media, but it truly exploits its aesthetic and expressive potential when it creates interesting information spaces through building the topology of its parts -- their patterns of linking -- to hold their contents. This essay explores the topologies of Patchwork Girl's parts and then explores how they behave more as subsections of one text as opposed to a collection of independent works.

Patchwork Girl contains five subsections: the journal, story, graveyard, crazy quilt, and body of the text. Most readings start in the graveyard, which collages mini-narratives and fragmented character sketches into a matrix for the meta-character and her story. Its removed stance (in relation to the lengthier narrative) avoids the problem of interrupting the story's flow, and its compartmentalization encourages the application of its contents to the smaller narrative subsections. The graveyard itself focuses on the headstone and the list of the urns' contents, giving it a double-focus radial structure. This unifies the parts without imposing a hierarchical order of importanceup on them. The introductory and concluding lexias temporally frame this structure and facilitate passage to the more linear sections of the text.

The story of the patchwork girl places the partially assembled character from the graveyard in one specific setting and provides an instance of her behavior over time. Because this section emphasizes temporal dynamics, its link structure correspondingly parallels our normal linear perception of time, regularly progressing from past lexias forward. Mary Shelly's encounter outdoors with the monster and the more ambiguous bedroom scene behave similarly but take the peculiar cast of ancillary narratives, like apocryphal stories or appended myths -- complete units that draw upon and support material from other units.

The nonfiction body of the text uses the fairly traditional hypertext form of linearly building paths that intersect atlexias containing similar subject matter. This arrangement permits a digressive textual interrogation in which the reader pursues attractive ideas down branching paths. This mode feels appropriate to nonfiction because it mirrors the normal scholarly process of following references between texts. Though the crazy quilt section has a stricter sequence, its clear grid layout, the arrow keys, and the chunked arrangement of its content allow a grazing approach to reading. The mosaic produced by its many textual appropriations, spatialization, and internal reference amplifies the theoretical implications of hypertext and so rounds out Patchwork Girl's collection of narrative, narrative background, and relevant critical theory.

Each pattern of linking controls the sequence of a reader's reconstruction of the text. Each corresponds to a temporal texture -- whether the reader perceives the transitions between lexia as smooth and determined, chaotic, or ornately interlocking. Creation of a work like Patchwork Girl then entails the design of linking textures and their composition into a meta-collage with a meta-texture.

As often occurs in hypertexts, amorphous associative linking in Patchwork Girl creates a background glue that joins these disparate textures. Thematic, word-based links act as singular jumps between sections, but, ironically, a woven mass of them forms a canvas on which the author mounts scraps of structure. Links destabilize -- or, more positively -- stretch the text to flexibility, by pointing away from themselves, by suggesting the reader might read better elsewhere. But again ironically, this pulling apart lends the text its unity, because it permits meanings from separate subsections to bleed into one another through the cracks between them, permitting the text's colorings to mix throughout it.

Perhaps one may see this tension between order and disorder most clearly in life. Patchwork Girl's functioning mirrors a cell's life. The cytoplasm of links serves as a permeable medium through which disparate parts pass signs. Its global disorder accommodates the local structure of organelles, which may have been conceived autonomously, but together rely on one anothers' differentiated function to achieve their fullest existence. Cells that incorporated subunits with diverse textures -- wrinkled mitochondria, knotted DNA, smooth and rough endoplasmic reticulum -- had sufficient complexity as biological collages to form entities such as readers of texts. Life produced by the tension of collaged components echoes its generation by devising an aesthetic of parallel and juxtaposed textures. Ultimately, then, it is less a surprise that these qualities appear so fundamental to hypertext and to Patchwork Girl than that earlier literary forms subdued them.