Technofile: A wander through the web - Body talk

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The Independent Culture
In reckonings between body and mind, tradition demands that a finger be kept firmly pressed down on the mind's side of the scales. Shelley Jackson's instinctive allegiance is the other way round. She used to picture her brain as a labyrinth: "Ordinarily, the passages were roomy, pale and dry, like tunnels worm-bored through chalk or bone. When my head ached, those walls became an angry red, and swelled until the passages shrank to fistulas. I tried not to think. Thoughts were dirt, and collected in greasy seams in the walls, and inflamed them." Whereas she thinks of her mind as something not far removed from the stuff that collects in the pipe under the sink, she is robustly affectionate towards her body, like a cowboy rubbing down his horse.

It's a body that transcends gender, unequivocally female but with a muscularity that makes her fellow girls question which dressing room she belongs in; a body to grow into, whose power can be appreciated once the teenage drive to conformity has been left behind. She professes neither to envy nor despise the girls with slender arms. "Does the moose despise the antelope?" she asks.

Confident of her body's strength, she knows it is a reliable platform for a dry wit and a mischievous imagination. She envisions it as a "Wunderkammer", a cabinet of curiosities or wonders. On view at the avant-garde website Alt-X, "My Body: A Wunderkammer" is close kin to "Patchwork Girl", Jackson's hypertext tale of Frankenstein, published on disk last year by Eastgate Systems. As hypertext authors are inclined to keep their units of text close to the size of a screen, it's a genre that favours aphorism and cameo. That suits Jackson, who has a gift for both. On the creasing of thickened flesh in old people, her prose lopes through a triple jump and proffers juicy bathos like a chocolate with a fish filling: "what happened to my parents is happening to me, my attention has lapsed, the upholsterers are sneaking up on me."

Though Jackson enjoys the detachment of maturity, she retains the child's fascination with self, surface and detail. The effect is a sensible distance, a self-exploration that turns into travel writing about the body. Unconcerned with gallery beauty, her aesthetics are those of the hiker, simultaneously appreciating the briars and the skyline. These are travellers' tales with a nice line in fantastical touches. We don't need to wait for a debunking biography to appreciate that they are not entirely gospel. Jackson lets us know that she is not to be taken precisely at her word by including vignettes about her tail and her phantom limb, both of which boldly go where she would fear to tread.

The truth about other traits is greyer. One of her neatest ideas is that of the cryptic tattoo. Only two of her 28 tattoos are normally visible, she says. The rest are filled with ink the colour of her skin. She discloses these private inscriptions only to lovers, who require her tuition to see them. Of the two figures picked out in black, one is an ampersand, which originated in the image she saw in the mirror of her initial S, rendered in negative by keeping a piece of tape stuck to her shoulder for a whole childhood summer. Now she signs herself "&".

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