Patchwork Girl (Shelley Jackson) and Spatial Hypertext

Reading Shelley Jackson’s classic 1995 hypertext, from the perspective of the present. Part of a series on literary hypertext.

This is part of an ongoing series of posts looking back at literary hypertext of the 90s and early 2000s, considering both example texts and contemporary scholarship and theory. Here we look at the concept of spatial hypertext.


The move from document-centered hypertext systems to map-based hypertext systems had some unforeseen but far-reaching implications: relationships between nodes could be expressed in more than one way. Maps showed interconnectedness explicitly, usually in the form of a directed graph. But also node proximity came into play; relationships among different nodes or documents could be indicated simply on the basis of their relative location. The use of these map-based hypertext systems to author new information spaces uncovered an interesting phenomenon. Users avoided the explicit linking mechanisms in favor of the more implicit expression of relationships through spatial proximity and visual attributes…

Spatial Hypertext: An Alternative to Navigational and Semantic Links, Frank M. Shipman, III and Catherine C. Marshall, ACM Computing Surveys 31(4), 1999.

“Spatial hypertext,” in this context, does not refer to pieces that map sections of text to a physical geography. There’s a fair amount of that in modern interactive fiction, perhaps because of the cross-pollination of ideas with parser IF. Reed Underwood even wrote an article for Killscreen about spatial hypertext that does use that phrase to mean “hypertext that represents a concrete physical space.”

Here, however, we’re using the older sense: hypertext where the connections between sections are visually represented to the reader in a kind of mindmap construction. Sometimes that mindmap might happen to resemble an object or physical location, but it might just as easily have some entirely different shape, conveying an entirely different kind of relationship between elements. Clicking on different nodes of the map navigates the reader to new contents.

On the screen, spatial hypertext can look a little like a shape poem, except that the blocks themselves contain significant amounts of text, or additional block arrangements of their own. Here is Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, published in 1995:

The cover of Patchwork Girl, its arrangement of text clusters laid out like an anchor.

Patchwork Girl consists of several major groupings of text, themselves also shaped, like this body:

On the right, passages of text; on the left, a visual layout of the body to which these texts are mapped.

Where the reader can dive in to view additional text about the organs packed within the stomach, or each breast individually on the torso. In this segment, the text passages describe where the body’s parts have come from — the protagonist is the bride of Frankenstein’s monster, assembled from the remains of numerous women and a few men — and the layout gives the reader enough of an orientation that we can find our way around.

This section contains some of my favorite passages, like this on where part of her right arm came from:

The lower part was Eleanor’s, a lady very dextrous with the accountrements of femininity. She wielded a fan like a weapon, unfurling and snapping it shut with militant flirtatiousness. She swung a calf’s weight in whalebone, metal hoop, linen and lace around her frame with no appearance of strain, and could hold a smile like a trapeze artist who swings by the teeth.

These passages are often fine vignettes of their own, and funny. Cumulatively, they suggest the way we borrow the skills and social methods of our family and friends, in trying to construct a personality that will equip us for the world.

Other parts of Patchwork Girl offer other shapes and different rhythms, as this one, a winding road in which the lengths of text change to indicate the varying speed at which we should be reading through this content:

…and to enter a new map often reveals something thematic about the narrative space we’re about to enter: how much of it there is, whether it represents a continuous story arc with digressions or rather a series of meditations on a particular topic. The Quilt section of the story looks like this:

…and as one might expect, it is the most miscellaneous of the sections, vignettes that might be read in any order, some of which are borrowed or adapted from other works, especially The Patchwork Girl of Oz. The way some characters popped up in multiple vignettes (but unpredictably) made me feel a bit as though I were playing Concentration with this layout.

Brined as I am in video games, I am tempted to refer to these sections as levels: the Quilt Level, the Body Level, etc. Each level of Patchwork Girl is designed to elicit a different kind of engagement, probably even a different speed of reading. The more linear segments move faster, are more narrative and more visceral. The complex structures require more effort to traverse thoroughly, while the disciplined ranks of the Quilt encourage an intellectual process of sorting and corresponding.


The effect of diving into particular subject areas and then ascending out of them again reminded me of the way people organize material in Prezi. The nesting of thing-in-thing, meanwhile, was a little reminiscent of the multiuser IF platform Paradise, though Paradise does not offer any equivalent way of visualizing what’s present.

Then there is 500 Apocalypses (Phantom Williams, 2016), which presents a “memorial” consisting of links to 500 vignettes about the endings of worlds. The entry point is a huge page bearing a pattern of dots, of which this is only a small portion:

White dots are inactive. Red dots link to apocalypse vignettes you have already read, and blue dots to ones you have not. It is perhaps implied that the white dots represent worlds that simply have yet to come to an end.

Some vignettes in 500 Apocalypses do link onward to others, but it is easy to find yourself at a dead end where you must revisit the dot-pattern to select a new story.

Nor is there an obvious connection between where a dot appears on the map and what sort of text it indexes. The larger the dot on the page, the more likely that the dot will lead to a passage that itself links onward to other vignettes, while very small dots are more likely to lead to dead-end passages. But even this is not an absolute guarantee.

Some readers have complained that this structure, forcing the reader repeatedly out to (effectively) an unlabeled table of contents, makes it difficult to read all of the vignettes consecutively. But I would imagine that this was precisely the intent. The work reads best when one encounters only a few of the vignettes in a row. Each is individually quite striking; often a single sentence implies a world that works significantly unlike our own:

The children are conjoined, but seemingly not triplets; one of the children is impervious to the heat in a way that the others are not. The rest of the vignette makes clear that this is not metaphorical.

To read too many together, though, becomes overwhelming. Returning to the spatial layer encourages us to take breaks, and to remind ourselves that each bizarre or intense piece of content is only one of a large number; and that, when seen from a sufficient distance, the arrangement of dying planets and ending worlds is rather aesthetically appealing.

500 Apocalypses also explicitly invites the reader to create their own vignettes, visual art, or music to express or accompany an apocalypse, and email these to the creator of the piece. I have no idea whether many people have done so.

The invitation to participate fits with the other themes of the work, however: that we are all mortal, and that our consolation is that we are not alone.


Some further aspirations for spatial hypertext come through in Mark Bernstein’s Can we talk about spatial hypertext? — we’re to imagine a kind of hypertext that, either automatically or by hand annotation, reveals the relationships of ideas, a little as Halasz imagined when he wrote about structural queries. Glancing over a spatial hypertext map, we might think: Here is an annotation; here is a thesis-antithesis pair; here is an assertion, undergirded by supporting arguments, which themselves sit on numerous individual pieces of evidence.

But the further we get from Patchwork Girl‘s user-experience-focused spatial design, and into a spatial hypertext construction that encodes an argument, the more I feel daunted about how to read such a thing: again, how will one know when one is done? Supposing a hierarchy of content, how much of the supporting evidence must be read in order to qualify as a full reading?

I find myself imagining a kind of reading in which the reader’s role is to use the hypertext not only to examine and study this argument, but to record how their response maps against that of the author: to assent to certain assertions and all their supporting texts; to reject others; perhaps even have some mechanism for asserting the existence of additional evidence or counter-evidence, in the reader’s knowledge. Rejected nodes might shrink and wither, no longer able to support any argument above them.

The end of reading such a hypertext would be that one had constructed one’s own supporting argument or rebuttal, or perhaps that one found the crux of the work just as perplexing as the author did.

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