False Pretenses, Parasites, and Monsters
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
href="/writingpostfeminism/postfeminism">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:
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 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
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
The Monstrous and the Marvelous, and the word "monster" occurs numerous times in
The Fan-Maker's Inquisition.
are about sea-monsters. Both
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
that one can read without knowing Shakespeare. Acker's works -
- 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,
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
(Fall 1996): 12-37 and
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
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
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
as a critique of male artistic pride, an attempt to usurp the
role of mother in collaborative generation. For me, the monster in
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
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
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
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
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
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
- its characters and surface qualities - and leaves behind a
pile of bones, those obdurate elements Melville includes.
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.
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
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
Lo's Diary. In
Lolita, Humbert names and possesses Dolores Haze, and then recreates
her in words after she leaves him.
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.
in its facts is careful to complement
Moby Dick. Lo's Diary quarrels with the facts of
and, even worse for Nabokov, claims to be the original version,
upon which Humbert's prison confession is an invented parasite.
received widespread and positive reviews.
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
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
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).
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
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
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
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
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 -
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
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
The Kamasutra. Siegel relies heavily on both
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
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
a "sprawling, formless, maddening tale." If someone as
sympathetic to the writing of African-American women has that to say,
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
House of Leaves
will probably make its publisher some money, but most novelists
complain about decreasing outlets for experimental work like
And that's why I want to discuss two hypertexts, Shelley
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.
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
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
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.
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
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 -
- 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
Like the parasitical women, the authors of
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
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
href="http://www.unknownhypertext.com/curtwhite.htm">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
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
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
is to be a "monsterpiece" - like a "gigantic, monstrous
supercomputing application." Even more than
is a monstrosity - from its title to its size, its numerous
scrolling pages, its variousness, and lists of links.
includes a series of watercolors, streaming video, and audio
clips. In a recent
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
even parodies linking, the sacred center of hypertextuality, so
abuse value is high. And, like Frankenstein's original monster,
is male-made, testosterone-driven, as a woman guest writer in
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,
is a closed system.
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
Quickly scaling out now in conclusion, one might well say that
Postmodernism in its various heterogeneous manifestations is a
But why stop there? Written language is a monstrosity. Both
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
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
Arts and Entertainment." The New York Observer 7 May 2000:
Monstrous and the Marvelous.
San Francisco: City Lights, 1999.
Gates, Henry Louis. "Our Homeland, the Text."
19 Nov. 1999: online.
Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.
Jones, Malcom. "A Spooky But Literary 'Blair Witch Project.'"
20 March 2000: 71.
The Annotated Lolita.
Ed. Alfred Appel, Jr. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970.
Paulson, William R.
The Noise of Culture.
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.
Trans. Lawrence R. Schehr. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Smiley, Jane. "Say It Ain't So, Huck."
January 1996: 61-67.