Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Patchwork Girl: No pain, no gain?

In ways that were at first disquieting but ultimately rewarding, Patchwork Girl made me feel a bit like an old person. Trying to figure out how to navigate through Patchwork Girl was rather frustrating, unlike the intuitive, straightforward programs and operating systems to which I am accustomed. Even though the piece has been around for 12 years, it felt offensively modern. I didn’t understand how to use it, and Patchwork Girl didn’t seem to care. Surely many people have felt this way upon taking up email and web browsing for the first time.

After a modest amount of effortful investigation, Patchwork Girl began to make sense. Once I finally understood how the information was organized, I was free to explore as I pleased and discover what hypertext literature (if one can call it that) has to offer. I realized that without those feelings of effort and frustration, Patchwork Girl could not present its content nearly as effectively. This is in contrast to the linear text we read most often. Even with a difficult work of literature or nonfiction, the pages are numbered and you know how to proceed. With hypertext, it seems that one must earn understanding through actively engaging the material; passive reading is not an option. Although only time will tell, I have a feeling that I will remember Patchwork Girl more vividly than a conventional short story.

Nelson writes that systems like his ELF connect “better than anything previously used with the actual processes by which thought is progressively organized, whether into stories or hypertext or literature” (97). This all sounds nice in theory, but Patchwork Girl shows how it can begin to work. Our minds are certainly not organized linearly. Patchwork Girl tries to put the reader inside the mind of this strange woman-monster, and hypertext does the job more convincingly than a stream of paragraphs on a page. I am reminded of elementary school, where I was occasionally instructed to map out my thoughts on a topic in a branching web before starting to write something. I have since graduated to more mundane methods of prewriting (outlines, informal paragraphs), but perhaps it is time to come full circle.

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