Monday, July 6, 2015

Shelley Jackson Discovers the Niche Medium of the Memoir

The landscape of hypertextuality has presented new ways that we as readers interact with and respond to texts. The non-linear and open-ended narrative style is enough to push many readers and bibliophiles away. Many readers have trouble navigating through a hypertext narrative, because of their conceptions on what constitutes a narrative. However, I believe that the style of the memoir has benefitted from the emergence of the hypertext; the memoir may have found its niche medium. Shelley Jackson’s My Body: a Wunderkammer is a prime example of what happens to a memoir when it is crossed with hypertext. Jackson’s work became so much more than just a journey through the life of the author. Given the medium of hypertextuality, My Body: a Wunderkammer was transformed into a tour of one woman’s life, body, and mind. I felt that I was better able to know and interact with my new friend Shelley Jackson, because the texture of a hypertext allowed Jackson’s memoir to be idiosyncratic and uniquely formatted, while maintaining the ambiguity necessary for reader interactivity.

The idiosyncratic and associative relationships between Jackson’s vignettes creates a strong bond between the text and the mind of the reader. Jackson’s memoir connects separate vignettes via hyperlinked text. If a word, phrase, or idea causes her to recall another memory or bodily account, then she makes those words a clickable link. In her own words, Jackson describes her brain as, “something like a burrow, a labyrinthine system of contorted tunnels with hairpin turns” (My Body).  By conceding to Jackson’s order, the reader is able to journey through these “contorted tunnels,” giving the reader access to the interiority of her life and mental processes in a way that would have never been possible in static print. The access that we are granted and the way we move through the text feels natural. According to theorist Scott Carpenter, memories are recalled in an associative manner:
“If I attempt to dredge up some memory of my year in the third grade, knowing how to spell ‘third grade’ is of very little use: my memories have not been filed in alphabetical order. Instead, my route will be more circuitous and idiosyncratic, moving perhaps, from a visual memory of my classroom, to an aural memory of the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, to an olfactory memory of that kid who sat next to me.”  (Carpenter 137)
Carpenter proves to us that we do not think in easily structured terms. We think and recall thanks to series of associative connections that we have produced in our minds. Jackson has found a way to solidify and publish these connections. By having clickably linked memories, the reader is able to traverse many stories in the ways that Jackson associates them. In Carpenter’s words, “network[s] of hyperlinks [are] associative, and thus more akin to the structure of imagination, it is not my imagination that is reproduced: the links I follow will always reflect the logic of the author’s associations, and the possibilities he has created.” Thus, Jackson’s memoir is intensely organic and reminiscent of personal thought. The reader is able to jump into the mind and the body of the who he/she is reading. 

This style of relating ideas is not at all linear. It does not follow the chronology of Jackson’s life story. However, it is organic. Life – and especially the ways in which we recall life – is anything but linear; it is textured – thick and meaty in some places, thin and stretched in other places. It is idiosyncratic and follows no established order. Jackson’s hypertext allows the reader to experience all the dimensions of her recollections, which is something that would always be completely lost in a printed and tangible medium.

The way Jackson decided to format her hypertext plays a huge part in the way the reader is able to connect with the text. When first entering into the digital world of Jackson’s My Body: A Wunderkammer, the reader is introduced to the sketch of a woman’s body. From there, the reader is able to click on any part of this body to get a vignette from Jackson’s life. As mentioned, the reader can choose to click on hyperlinks throughout that vignette to be transported to other vignettes, but at any point they can return to the safe and familiar sketch and begin anew. The participatory artwork on the homepage that she provided for the navigation of her text truly reinstates her “focus [on] the relationship between human identity and the body's constituent organs, fluids, connective tissues, and other parts” (My Body), because it literally connected her memories and stories – her human identity – with these images of her body parts. While the same artwork, in a static form, could have been added to a print rendering of her memoir, its potential would have been completely lost, because although the interactive art is recognized as a signifier of the body – not the body itself – it brings with it a sense of literalness that would be absent in print. The reader of this hypertext is almost literally able to jump inside the body of the character he/she is reading.

From my description thus far, it may seem as though Jackson’s text is too explicit - that we as readers are claustrophobically obliged to follow Jackson’s supposed intentions. This is not so. Because Jackson’s memoir is nothing but vignettes, it is full of gaps that span the distance between these memories. Reader-response theorist, Wolfgang Iser claims that the meat and meaning of literary works comes from the animation that the reader produces in the gaps between storylines: “for this bringing to fruition, the literary text needs the reader’s imagination, which gives shape to the interaction of correlatives foreshadowed in structure by the sequence of sentences” (Iser 282).  Jackson’s wunderkammer, on the surface, appears to be a collection of stories, but, as it is the telling of a life and a body, it must also be recognized as a story of gaps. One can’t help but notice that the stories of the body that we are privy to are only a fraction of the stories that make up a life. Her life is more than how she reacts to her forming breasts, or why she got her tattoos. It is about the life that is built around that body. The readers see this life primarily through gaps in the text.

I concede that hypertext does not lend itself to all types of literary works, and there are many readers who would be lost while navigating the links; however, the ways in which Shelley Jackson’s My Body: a Wunderkammer is read proves that hypertext may be the perfect medium for some memoirs. One cannot step back from Jackson’s wunderkammer to see the actual story web that maps out exactly which lexias are connected given which links. However, given the organic and idiosyncratic way in which Jackson tied her life/body story together, I have no doubt that the story map, when observed at a distance would look like the image of her body. Mission accomplished.

Works Cited:
Carpenter, Scott. “Click Here: Hypertext and Reader Response.” Reading Lessons: An
Introduction to Theory. NY: Longman 1999. 135-49. Web. 6 July 2015.
Iser, Wolfgang. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” New Literary History
3.2 (Winter 1972): 279-99. Web. 6 July 2015.
Jackson, Shelley. My Body: a Wunderkammer. Electronic Literature Collection Volume One.
Web. 6 July 2015. 

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