"False Pretenses, Parasites, and Monsters: S
ome Recent American Fictions"

by Tom LeClair

This paper was presented at Illinois State University on Wednesday, May 3rd

False pretenses. I thought of the phrase when Charlie Harris invited me to join five scholars in this series of seminars and lectures. I thought of it because Iím no longer a scholar. For the last decade, Iíve been writing fiction and for the last few years doing a good bit of fiction reviewing for unscholarly periodicals like The Nation, The New York Times, Book Magazine, and your somewhat more scholarly American Book Review.

If any of you paid to hear a scholarly lecture, you should get your money back now. Though I didnít mention money in my title, itís a theme that will recur.

Anyway, this talk will be more like a review essay, news of some recent novels, discussion of connections among them, comment on issues of evaluation they raise, and speculation about what some common features may mean for the future of serious fiction. Scholars among you may find material here to treat with theoretical rigor. Others may find a summer reading list.

Iíve written this talk primarily for the twelve students in the seminar because I knew you have to be here. I started out with three novels by women published last year because most of the books on your syllabus were written by men and published a decade or more ago. But then the talk grew and looped back toward Lee Siegelís Love in a Dead Language.

For those not in the seminar: Love in a Dead Language is a novel that pretends to be a translation of and commentary on the Kama Sutra, while in its narrative it recombines Lolita and Pale Fire, the latter a novel in the form of a poem and scholarly commentary. Love in a Dead Language is like a print hypertext, one that includes visual materials such as doctored documents and fake websites.

Talk about "false pretenses."


The phrase itself 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 fictions I want to begin with tonight 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 Naslundís Ahabís Wife

Lolita for Pia Peraís Loís Diary

The Marquis de Sade for Rikki Ducornetís The Fan-Makerís Inquisition

Because of the authorsí close relations with male masters, I call the contemporaries parasites. I have some experience in this area. A forthcoming novel of mine called The Liquidators is a sequel to and retelling of Absalom, Absalom!. A novel that will be published in July--Well-Founded Fear--is a contemporary version of Portrait of a Lady.

Parasites, though, is a literal misnomer because the women donít crawl inside the men. Iíve kept the word because I wanted to work in Michel Serresí play with the term in his theoretical book The Parasite. The French language uses the word "parasite" to translate English "noise" or "static" in a communications system. Serresí 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 DeLilloís White Noise. Or genetic mutation in Richard Powersís The Gold Bug Variations.




An American scholar named William Paulson extends Serresí ideas and calls literature "the noise of culture," which is the title of Paulsonís 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, Iím 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-Makerís Inquisition. Moby Dick and Ahabís Wife are about sea-monsters. Both Lolita and Loís Diary use "monster" to refer to their major characters.

These new works by women have some recent, perhaps more familiar precursors: thereís Jane Smileyís A Thousand Acres and many of Kathy Ackerís 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. Ackerís 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 Serresí terms, Ackerís fictions are parasitical, noisy, and abusive. They disrupt the system of literary generation, reception, and evaluation.

Here Iíd 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

And Iíd like to give away the conclusion of this talk so you know the basis on which I evaluate the fictions Iíll be discussing.

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.

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 Gravityís 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 Wallaceís Infinite Jest 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.

I also admit that a man may not be the right guy for the job Iím doing here.

Though no longer a scholar, I do know where the library is and got there a book called Monstrous Imagination by Marie-Helene Huet, published in 1993 by Harvard University Press. 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 motherís 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 Shelleyís 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 Frankensteinís laboratory.

If youíre willing to tolerate this biological analogy a bit longer, the contemporary women novelists Iíve mentioned are taking back the power to deform or reform the paternal line. Simply by attaching their novels to the dead malesí novels, the living women create a monster, a fused work with two heads. The new women novelistsí 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.

Ahabís Wife, Loís Diary, and The Fan-Makerís 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 writersí powers to represent diminished or increased by their direct reliance on earlier fictions?

These are interesting questions I leave to you if and when you read the novels. 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?





Ahabís 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, Naslundís 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 captainís powers to dissolve Unaís 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."

A lot else goes on, but the novel is fundamentally a romance about Unaís 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 Ahabís last voyage. Una decides to write her life story as an alternative to the story of Ahabís 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?"

The answer in Ahabís 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 Ahabís Wife has a comic narrative arc quite different from Melvilleís 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 Melvilleís words; does a wonderful riff on the comic shipowners Bildad and Peleg; and smuggles into her text many of the images in Moby Dick. Ahabís Wife even has a Melvillian narrator who is occassionally displaced by discourses she could not have heard, and Naslundís story, like Ishamaelís, 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 Melvilleís book a monstrosity, an assemblage of non-organic parts the reader cannot ignore as parts. Instead of an encyclopedic fiction, Naslundís formal model is the sentimental novel, Harriet Beecher Stoweís Uncle Tomís Cabin, to which Naslund refers early on. Jane Smiley has recently elevated Stoweís novel above The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but replicating the sentimental novel in 1999 is no way to create a monstrosity.

Naslund didnít 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. Ahabís Wife usefully challenges contemporary readersí relation to Moby Dick, but Ahabís Wife doesnít challenge readersí relationship to itself, one of the grand features of Melvilleís original. As a novelist, Naslund is less like her adventurous protagonist than like the stereotype of the dependent nineteenth-century wife.

As youíll see shortly with Loís Diary, the fiction of false pretenses raises issues of more than artistic inheritance. Bluntly put--money. Una lives comfortably from Ahabís estate after his death. Naslund has used his name and Melvilleís cultural capital to make her novel a Book of the Month Club selection. Michel Serres notes that parasites in fables exchange talk for food. Ahabís Wife feels designed to be a bread-winner. Una says that "in the fairy tales of monsters and men, the man prevailed." In Naslundís tale, woman prevails and profits.

Pia Peraís Loís 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, Vladimirís son Dimitri sued to stop publication. There was money involved, of course, but as Dimitri makes clear in the preface that he forced upon Loís Diary one of his motives was to protect the male line from being deformed by Peraís female imagination. The legal skirmishing between male and female perfectly reflects the content of Lolita and Loís Diary. In Lolita, Humbert names and possesses Dolores Haze, and then recreates her in words after she leaves him. Loís Diary plays on Humbertís appropriation in its title, but in Peraís novel the former Lolita reveals her real name--Dolores Maze, rather than Haze--and tells her own story.

Ahabís Wife in its facts is careful to complement Moby Dick. Loís Diary quarrels with the facts of Lolita and, even worse for Nabokov, claims to be the original version, upon which Humbertís prison confession is an invented parasite. Ahabís Wife received widespread and positive reviews. Loís 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 sheíll 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. He rationalizes his monstrous use of Lolita by recalling his childhood loss of Annabel Leigh. Dolores has lost both a father and younger brother, and she projects her considerable anger onto her "monstrous Platicmom," 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, Peraís Dolores much more cleverly plays Humbert for a fool than Nabokov let her.

The largest difference between Nabokovís narrative and Peraís is the ending. In Lolita, Dolores dies in childbirth. In an interview, Pera objected to Nabokovís killing off the victim before she had a chance to talk. So in Loís Diary, Dolores is alive, a happy mother and successful woman, ready to have her side published. When she hands her diary to John Ray, Humbertís editor and her editor, she tells him the diary is "definitely less literary" than Lolita.

And this has been the basis of most negative reviews. Critics remark the banality of Doloresís prose and miss Humbert the murdererís self-described "fancy prose style." I believe that Pera has several reasons for intentionally limiting the verbal range of Loís Diary: to establish the realistic voice of an early teen and, somewhat in the spirit of Kathy Acker, to question the basis of Lolitaís canonization, its aestheticizing of child abuse. In his postscript to Lolita, Nabokov invokes the principle of "aesthetic bliss" and mocks moralists. Itís not so easy to accept Nabokovís position after reading what Peraís Dolores has to say about being the prisoner "of a sexual parasite."

In that same postscript, Nabokov speaks of his artistic workshop, living "among discarded limbs and unfinished torsos." 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 Loís Diary is that, as in Ahabís 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 canít tell where they end or if they go on to infinity." These drawings scandalize Humbert, but Pera doesnít 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.

Itís possible, though, that Pera is more clever--more Nabokovian--than any reviewer or I have suggested. Loís Diary, like Lolita, has an introduction by John Ray, who admitted to changing passages in Humbertís memoir, which Ray now calls a "novel." Itís always been my suspicion, by the way, that John Ray wrote all of Humbertís narrative. In Loís 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 novelís pages sound much more like an adult than a teenager, I suggest that Pera has John Ray do to Doloresís writing what Humbert has done to Dolores: made her desirable while censoring some of the maleís monstrous effects on the girlís expression. Pera links the two males at the end of Rayís preface, where he says heís pleased that the now 85-year-old Humbert is happy. Reviewers scoffed at Peraís statement that her novel was a tennis match with the old pro, but Pera and Nabokov may be more evenly matched than they seem.

Rikki Ducornetís The Fan-Makerís Inquisition is the shortest of these three novels but the most like Frankensteinís oversized monster in its form and the most explicitly concerned with the monstrous. Ducornetís relationship to the patriarch, though, is rather different from Naslundís and Peraís. Ducornet dedicates her novel to her father, who trusted her with Sadeís 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," 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 Sadeís 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 theyíve written together, an expose of the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico. Itís 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.

Itís 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-Makerís 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," collections of unlike materials that challenge the readerís or viewerís methods of categorizing and, eventually, of judging normalcy. The Fan-Makerís 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 Ducornetís 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 Kafkaís "The Hunger Artist," that "the interest evoked by monstrosity is difficult to sustain." To some extent, The Fan-Makerís Inquisition seems to me to be a compromise, a miniaturization of Sadeís characteristic excess. Like the fans Gabrielle makes, the novel compacts its materials into short space and sometimes beautifies them. In The Fan-Makerís Inquisition, Sade admits to bending to "the demands of propriety" to publish some of his work. Although Ducornet does not flinch from an unhappy ending--Gabrielle executed, Sade still in prison--Ducornetís imaginative collaboration with Sade may not, like Loís Diary, be ugly enough--or long enough--to fully exemplify the novelís sympathy with what many readers would call the monstrous.

This issue of scale brings me to two books almost as long as Ahabís Wife and as monstrous in form as The Fan-Makerís Inquisition. One is Gayl Jonesís Mosquito, published last year, an archival novel told in dialect by an extremely digressive narrator, and the other is Mark Danielewskiís new House of Leaves, a collage of narratives, commentaries, and visual materials. Though neither is exactly the kind of "false pretenses" fiction Iíve 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 Iím going to talk about 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 I want to discuss in conclusion.

When I was writing this talk, I had an advance copy of House of Leaves and thought Iíd bring you a discovery. In the meantime, the novel has been so widely reviewed you probably know the story, though you may not have read all of its 677 pages quite yet. A young Los Angeles tatoo 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 a 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 Johnnyís 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 Johnnyís disintegration and, perhaps, monstrousness. A few pages later, on p. 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. Page 131 offers a good example. Like Moby Dick, to which Danielewski refers on page 3, 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." This too describes House of Leaves. All of Danielewskiís 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 Johnnyís father dies. Among the "Exhibits" of the last 150 pages are more than 50 pages of Pelafinaís asylum letters to Johnny. In one, she warns him of her "questionable genetic bequethal." Increasingly disordered in their style and in their format, Pelafinaís sheaf of letters may be the model for Johnnyís 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 13-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 hole--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 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. 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 Danielewskiís.

And thatís why I want to close by discussing two hypertexts, Shelley Jacksonís 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 here.

Jacksonís fiction refigures both a male text--L. Frank Baumís Patchwork Girl of Oz--and a female text, Mary Shelleyís 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 Patchwork Girl: one is about the female, companion monster created by Frankenstein but denied life by him at the last minute. In Jacksonís rewrite, she and Mary Shelley interfere with Frankensteinís abortive act and give life to his creation, which comes to exist outside Shelleyís novel. The oversized, scarred monster becomes Mary Shelleyís 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 yeti frightening campers in the West. Jackson humanizes the Shelley monster and monsterizes Baumís charming but essentially powerless individualist. One figure for the new Patchwork Girl might be the chimera (cf "chimera" in navigation guide).

The other "story" in Patchwork Girl is about composition--of Patchwork Girlís body and personality and of this crazy quilt hypertext. An image of phrenology provides many of the links to the dual composition (cf "phrenology"). 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 Jacksonís sources. Because this text is written is Storyspace software, one can see the complete list of pages that compose the work. (click on outline icon)

If I show you many pages, youíll think I read Patchwork Girl first and parasited Jacksonís ideas for this lecture, when in fact I came to the text late and found confirmation there, including a page entitled "misconception," about the role of women in monstrous generation.

"At the mirror" gives both an example of Jacksonís 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?"



ē L. Frank Baum,The Patchwork Girl of Oz, first published in 1913. Mine is the Ballantine edition, p. 43.


ē 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, Jacksonís 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. They could afford to do so because their work is nestled parasitically in the University of Cincinnatiís computer system. If you search the U.C. intranet for, say, Tom LeClair, the first reference is to The Unknown, fiction penetrating and displacing other forms of information. And because two of the authors are students, they pay next to nothing to store and disseminate their work, which shared first prize in a 1998 hypertext competition judged by Robert Coover.

This page--http://www.soa.uc.edu/user/unknown/unknown2.htm--is the shortest in the work and not the homepage, but itís a convenient place from which to move around. As you can see, the metaphoric model is the Chicago transit system. At the bottom of every page you get this 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 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 Berube, recent visitors here.

Three authors--William, Dirk, and Scott--even come 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 presumed real (click on 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. 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 encylopedic novel: itís 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 Ďreal selvesí as well?" ("aesthetic")

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 othersí 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 Frankensteinís original monster, The Unknown is male-made, testoserone-driven as a woman guest writer in The Unknown says in "femcritique."

Patchwork Girl has a site map that desperate navigators can use. The Unknown, true to its title, offers lists--click on "purple line"--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 hypertext. For that reason if no other, I think itís a form all of us--readers and writers--need to investigate. In the future, we may have two options for reading fiction: enter tree-based works that encourage us to be parasites, bookworms consuming what we want, or enter works that are electronic monsters, that threaten to consume us, change our cerebral connections.

Teachers and future teachers among you may have to risk being called monsters in order to keep alive noisy monstrosity, whether in book or electronic form. Some recent works Iíve inflicted on my undergraduate students, including many non-English majors, are Pynchonís Mason and Dixon, Gaddisís Frolic of His Own, Atwoodís Alias Grace, and DeLilloís Underworld. Since Iím close to retirement, I may even try Infinite Jest and House of Leaves.

If novels collaborate with earlier novels, as the texts Iíve talked about do, and if authors are going to collaborate, as they do in The Unknown, readers, students, critics, and scholars may have to collaborate as well. When students and I read The Unknown, we felt no one could get to the end of it, so we had to put our heads together and share what each of us had discovered. This seminar and lecture series is a similar but larger many-headed monstrosity, bringing together students and the reading public, novelists, scholars, critics.

Long an admirer of imitative form, Iíve tried to make this talk monstrous in its joining of disparate elements, a mixed media presentation. I may even have exceeded my allotted space, gone on too long. Before Iím pursued like Mary Shelleyís monster across the icy wastes of Normal, I want to thank you for listening and invite you to register your appreciation of the Frankenstein who put this series together, Charlie Harris.

Unknown Press Kit / Unknown