Shelley Jackson: how the hypertext novel has transformed digital reading

  • An exploration & analysis of Shelley Jackson’s hypertext novel “My Body-A Wunderkammer”

I would classify “My Body-A Wunderkammer” by Shelley Jackson as a sort of hypertext experiment that interweaves illustrations, a life story, and hypertext links. This unique fiction hypertext novel gives the reader complete control in navigating their own path.

Entering the web page, the reader is brought to a sort of entry panel with an intriguing picture of a face and a twisted tongue. The face is not beautiful, nor ugly, and it doesn’t appear to care whether the reader thinks of it one way or the other. The face is situated within a black-and-white entry box entitled “My Body”—a bold, heavy statement that invites the reader to enter a personal world. Music integrated by John Wesley Harding plays sounds resembling the rustling of wind or the chug of a train. It is not music that would be expected, and it is rather unsettling. Next, the reader must decide whether or not to take the plunge by clicking and entering the hypertext novel. By now, the reader has a strong sense that the portal will bring them to a page likely filled with intimate information. How could it not, with a title like that? It feels slightly irritating not knowing what is coming next, perhaps out of uncertainty or anticipation.

With the click of a button, the reader enters a private, black domain with a white sketch of a naked female figure. The female figure stands alone without the aid of any distracting pop-ups or accompanying page components. Boom—she is right there, a drawing of a naked body plan in sight without anything to hide. She must feel so…lonely and exposed? But she’s just a drawing, she has no feelings! Emphasis is drawn away from the faint face of the figure and to the individualized body parts.

Certain body parts are magnified and broken into segments within the outlined body frame. By clicking on either the body part or the juxtaposed, labeled hypertext, the reader is brought to a page specifically intended to describe the figure’s intimate experiences with each body part. Additionally, many of these linked pages are accompanied by up-close pictures illustrating these body parts in more detail.

My first thoughts navigating through the body adopted a sense of surprise: the woman in the drawing is so exposed! Even though I had an idea of what was coming, this seems pretty extreme!

Interestingly, Shelley Jackson's personal appearance also appears to 'push the boundaries' of what is commonly known and accepted

Immediately, it is clear that this hyperlink experience is personal and different than anything I have explored online before. Jackson’s intention for “My Body” seems to be to push the boundaries, and to make the reader a little bit uncomfortable. The point of it is not to know what is coming next, and to be uncertain. The reader is given uninhibited freedom to roam the hyper-linked parts of the body that they choose, and in any order they choose, giving them complete control. In this way, the reader decides how they want to understand this human body. It challenges the reader to ponder: What is the ‘correct’ way to navigate this body? Is there a ‘correct’ way?

The reader is given so much control and insight into the thoughts and experiences of another human being that it almost feels like a violation. The writing style of the hypertext novel is completely open and unfiltered. This makes the experience of reading it challenging yet pleasurable. Additionally, it prompts the reader to respect the speaker of the text. In this way, the format and content of the hypertext novel work in unison to evoke a deep sense of trust in the reader, making the hypertext experience personalized and exhilarating.

I find myself randomly clicking on body parts from the female outline, and then getting lost in a wonderful maze of surprising hyperlinks. The hyperlinks don’t always seem related, but once you begin to read them, they always relate back to the ‘core body’ in some way. These hyperlinks range from the format of a poem, to a picture, to a song. I begin by randomly clicking the body parts, and then I soon switch to a counter-clockwise pattern to ensure that I get through all of them. Even by moving in this pattern, there are so many hyperlinks to explore that readers will still gain a different perspective than those who follow a similar procedure.

Is there a certain way I am supposed to understand this?

The hypertext-linked pages containing information on specific body parts also have hyperlinks embedded within them. In this way, the outlined female body is just a starting point for a web of communications. This method is very powerful to the reader, although somewhat overwhelming. Is there a certain way that I am supposed to understand this?

To clarify my exploration process, I will walk you through a few of my steps. For example, under the hyperlink “hands,” Jackson hyperlinks the word “bones,” describing the figure’s raw awareness of her skeleton. Within this hyperlink, there is yet another option to click the hyperlink “teeth,” illustrating the connectedness between all of the body parts. Another example is observed in the vagina link. Jackson hyperlinks the word Kleenex, which then brings the reader to a description of her thoughts on the nose. These are just a few examples from the multitude of options available for exploration.

This hypertext story would be very different without its critical use of hyperlinks. The beauty of “My Body” is that it allows for its reader to explore connections that they are interested in. The reader creates their own story, so everyone can understand it in a different way. However, regardless of the chosen links, the reader will get a common sense of the connectedness of the human body.

Important to remember is that if this hypertext novel didn’t contain hyperlinks, the reader would not be able to be the protagonist of their own learning within this hypertext experience. By allowing the reader to compose the story themselves, they are given the sole responsibility to map their own paths. Without the use of hyperlinks, the reader would simply be presented with the same material as everyone else. It is the personalized exploration of the hypertext body which makes this experience so unique.

*Note-When I spoke of the ‘reader’ throughout this reaction, I didn’t intend to generalize my thoughts. It was simply easier for my thoughts to flow by referring to myself as ‘the reader.’

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