Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Specter of Orality in Frankenstein and Patchwork Girl

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Specter of Orality in Frankenstein and Patchwork Girl

Article excerpt

Published on CD-ROM, Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl; or, a Modern Monster (1995) is a hypertext rewriting of Mary Shelley's gothic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Previous studies of Patchwork Girl, including N. Katherine Hayles's seminal work, have highlighted the accretive hypertext as an inherently postmodern medium for expressing the fragmented, distributed, and networked subject. (1) Carolina Carazo and Manuel Jimenez have noted that if Frankenstein is "the epitome of the exacerbated Romantic expression of the [solipsistic, Promethean] self," Patchwork Girl originates from a postmodern consciousness where identity is viewed as "the fragmentary, the composite, and the hybrid" (122). Laura Shackelford has regarded Patchwork Girl as ecriture queer that challenges "binary, oppositional, heterosexist, instrumental" sexual relations, reflecting changing views of subjectivity and sexuality concurrent with media evolution (91). Christopher Keep, on the other hand, has examined the work within the tradition of the gothic, "a literature of somatic affect" that brought to light "the technological [as] the formative ground of subjectivity" (pars. 5, 12).

Taking a cue from Keep, in this essay I will also examine a gothic element, a remnant of the past, shared by Frankenstein and Patchwork Girl. My primary aim, however, is not to extend the discussion of their generic gothic conventions but to observe, following Keep's definition of the gothic, a recurrent moment of the past in the history of modernity (par. 12). Monsters created in a science lab unsettle both the rational foundations of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the aspirations of new millennial cyberpunk toward transcendence. More importantly, the two texts conjure up the specter of the old: the residual orality that haunts literature and disrupts writing technology, both print and electronic. Exploring Shelley's and Jackson's gothic evocations of oral rhetoric, this essay attempts to answer the following questions. First, in what sense is their summoning of oral elements essential to their composition, not as a means to repeat the old storytelling form but to recalibrate it into a new genre of writing? Second, how do Shelley and Jackson--writing a multiframed, epistolary novel and a hypertext fiction, respectively--defy a writing culture that emphasizes originality and objectivity, and foreground oral characteristics such as intertextuality and an empathie audience relationship?

Certainly, the mediated orality of Frankenstein is distinct from the pure, immediate orality--what Walter Ong calls "primary orality"--exemplified by folklore and the Homeric epics (11). (2) Moreover, the computer-aided hypertextual orality of Patchwork Girl is "secondary," as opposed to primary, because of its reliance on typographical composition. Yet, the oral residues lurking in these two works are key to understanding each author's designs in writing, respectively, an epistolary novel and a hypertext fiction. Frankenstein is the paradoxical product of Shelley's anachronistic desire to be a storyteller at the height of print technology. In addition to the novel's oral-style composition that weaves preexisting materials, its narrative frames mediate the characters' storytelling in written form. In particular, the outermost epistolary frame, wherein the reader is posited as the ultimate addressee of Walton's letters, gives the reader a quasi-oral sense of immediacy and vivid realism. Such formal strategies contribute to Shelley's Romantic aim to resuscitate organic speech and poetic utterance to overcome post-Enlightenment solipsism. Meanwhile, the hypertext Patchwork Girl is an electronic text(ile), woven not with needle or pen but with the cut, copy, and paste functions of a computer. Comparable to the oral bard's memory, the computer becomes a prosthetic storytelling device enabling man--machine collaboration, and while the informal narrative voice heightens audience interaction, it occurs not through spontaneous communication but as a result of computer programming. …

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