The Monstrous Book and the Manufactured Body
in the Late Age of Print:

Material Strategies for Innovative Fiction in Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl and Steve Tomasula’s VAS: An Opera in Flatland

by John M. Vincler

In recent decades a growing number of innovative writers have begun exploring the possibility of creating new literary forms through the use of digital technology. Yet literary production and reception does not occur in a vacuum. Print culture is five hundred years in the making, and thus new literary forms must contend with readers’ expectations and habits shaped by print. Shelley Jackson’s hyptertextual novel Patchwork Girl and Steve Tomasula’s innovative print novel Vas: An Opera in Flatland both problematize the conventions of how book and reader interact. In both works an enfolding occurs wherein the notion of the body and the book are taken in counterpoint and become productively confused. Jackson’s book, alluding to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is about a monster composed of various bodies while the book itself is also a monstrous text: a nonlinear patchwork of links across networks of words and images. Tomasula’s Vas—alluding to Edwin Abbott Abbott’s 1884 satire, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions—is set in “Flatland” foregrounding the two-dimensional materiality of the page, all while the linear novel within the pages of Vas is under siege by supplementary information about the body in the form of collaged digital images, scientific facts, and historical citations that address such issues as body modification, in vitro fertilization, genetic code, and DNA. Both Vas and Patchwork Girl can be read as exemplary works in the late age of print, in part, because they effectively foreground the materiality of the book, while radically transforming the conventions of the book. In so doing, both works utilize paratextual and extratextual elements.

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