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Sifting through the Dirt:
A Close Reading of "Dirty Sex"

Jamie Massey

Essentially, electronic literature and print literature both have the same general goals of informing and entertaining a reader (and not necessarily at the same time). Where e-lit and p-lit differ are in their interfaces. E-lit has taken textual interaction beyond the simple flipping of pages and made reading a full-body experience, often bringing stories to life through sound and visuals not seen in p-lit. The story I have chosen for this paper is a short piece that acts as a bridge of sorts between electronic and print literature. Greco's Dirty Sex is a rather straightforward piece of short fiction that doesn't seek to take advantage of very many of the bells and whistles of electronic literature. One will find no hyperlinks attached to words and no random sound bytes, and except at the opening there are no moving pictures. What it does use is the reader's natural sense of order when telling a story. In the following pages I will explore not only the reader's/Greco's sense of order, but the interface, characters, and themes that all work to complete this story.


THE STORY

Characters

Narrator
"Dirty Sex" tells the story of two sisters, one appropriately named Wilder and the unnamed narrator, on an outing in search of a wedding dress for Wilder's wedding. The narrator is quite possibly a freelance writer or more than likely a computer technician as evidenced by the way her "laptop dragged at" her. Her work allows her to travel frequently and her meeting with Wilder takes place after a morning flight from Frankfurt, Germany. The narrator clearly has a sense of being out of touch with reality—or at least she is still ensconced in the warm fog of traveling to a foreign country. Arriving into the sweltering heat of Manhattan after a night of working in her "screen's blue glare" and seeing "the morning stare suspended, lantern-like, in the touchdown sky," she is sickened by "reality"—a reality that includes "weasel-faced Lufthansa policemen" arresting black men and waiting for her sister. The combination of Wilder's larger than life personality and the narrator's sense of obligation to her sister gives us a character who sees her place in life as being one of service. She may lie and break the rules, but when it comes down to it, it is still her "pleasure to serve," be it Wilder or time.

Wilder
It probably wouldn't be too far of a stretch to say that Wilder is the younger of the two sisters, but whatever the case she certainly gets anything she wants. She's a fast talker who gives more thought to appearances than family loyalty. There is, after all, the "photogenic woman" who will be Wilder's maid of honor instead of the narrator, her sister, only because Wilder needs "a certain look." "The right tool for the job you know," she tells her sister. Wilder is self-absorbed and extremely self-conscious. It is obvious that she is a slave not just to fashion but to body image. Wilder waits a month before her wedding to buy her dress so she won't run the risk of getting fat. The narrator describes her sister as a "bad wind breaking up housekeeping. Fun." She's a social butterfly that probably has a facial expression for every emotion. Unlike her sister, Wilder is mercurial, quite like the "mood ring from grade school she still wears on her pinky."

Themes

Time
The narrator (and consequently the reader) is subjected to the whims of time. For the narrator most of that time revolves around Wilder. "I'm always waiting for Wilder. Wait for Wilder: that's the rule." The narrator waits for Wilder out of a sense of duty and not excitement. It's not as if the waiting is a compulsion, it just has to be done, "because she's Wilder: that's the rule." The narrator is constantly caught up in the movement of time and the fact that it is passing her by and she has yet to say anything. She is constantly aware of the minute hand on her watch as it goes "round and round." It prompts her to ask, "what is it chasing?" It's a rhetorical question that she can't seem to answer for herself. The only answer she can come up with in regards to time is the idea that "time has only ever wanted to fuck with" her. She is at time's mercy much in the way that she is at the mercy of Wilder.

Loyalty
For Wilder, "loyalty is overrated." Furthermore, for her, only "dogs are loyal." The question of loyalty plays heavily on the conscience of the narrator, because it is only loyalty that seems to keep her rooted to her place. The repeated phrase "it is our pleasure to serve" almost becomes the narrator's mantra, only she's never in service to herself, only Wilder. Her familial loyalty to Wilder keeps her from expressing her real thoughts and feelings to her sister. She admits that there is much she wants to say to her sister, but her thoughts remain lodged inside—"unswept, uncollected, soon to choke storm drains." Oddly enough, this loyalty allows her to remain disconnected from her sister. She can fake duty as long as she has her imagination, but to be real with Wilder is a task she is not willing to explore. The narrator is a confessed rule breaker prone to episodes of "serial exaggeration, smashed promises, and outright lies perpetrated in several languages on multiple continents." Regardless of these facts, she still waits for Wilder, because "that's the rule." Wilder's a flake and a "compliant girl" and it takes the narrator a large amount of effort to put up with her. It's a battle that she admits she may be losing. By the end of the story the narrator simply wants to "power down, shut the book, turn out the lights."


HYPERTEXT

"Dirty Sex" opens with a 3-second Macromedia Flash animation that scrolls the title and subtitle: "When domestic policy hits home." As the picture fades away, two black smudged lines appear as a border while the story loads. Once loaded, the piece presents the reader with what appears to be an open book with a faint picture in the right-hand corner. The writing in the background is almost too light to see, but what's important are the eleven sun-shaped buttons scattered across the page in a pattern of sorts. The most innovative detail about this story is that there are no instructions given. Unlike other hypertext stories, wherein you may find a map or a way to link the buttons, here there is no outward direction, only the whim of the reader. Later, I'll discuss how much control the reader has over this story.

Interface

Icons and Pages
The sun-shaped buttons on the page remind me of pieces of costume jewelry; perhaps clip-on earrings or a brooch. The buttons are purposefully not numbered, but they are spread out in a pattern that seems to be haphazard. Clicking on the buttons opens a small white page on which a piece of the story is written. Like a palimpsest several windows can be opened at once. The pages overlap and in turn make the writing unintelligible.

Narrative Order
One of the most readily noticed characteristics of hypertext is its deliberate avoidance of a linear narrative. Most hypertext authors use this to their advantage by creating linear stories and then providing asides and tangents for the reader to go off on at the click of a word. In "Dirty Sex" linearity is put to the test by the pattern set forth on the screen. The sun-shaped buttons are laid out in an X-shape of sorts with a few buttons off to the side or just slightly out of line. The pattern gives the reader the illusion that they can start from anywhere on the page. However, I think that if polled most readers would start at the corners and work their way in. These starting points seem to be the most logical, and more than likely have been formed out of the way we have been taught to read.

After reading this story several times, I discovered that there seem to be only three possible starting points. The first starting point is the upper left-hand corner. This choice turns out to be the most obvious in the way it sets up the action for the rest of the story. Another starting place would be the right-hand corner. This point begins the story with a question, and if you work your way in, using the next few buttons, it supports that train of thought. The last plausible starting point is the bottom right corner. This starting point brings us into the story from a more psychological point. If the reader moves to the buttons directly above, the story continues to make sense. Starting from the bottom left corner creates a problem (in the linear sense) by tossing the reader into the middle of the story. What the writer has created is a linear story with only a few points of departure and only a few places to start from. In turn, this of course creates problems for the story.

The writer has very clearly written a linear story but has chosen to present it in a form that is a bit misleading. However, I believe the very nature of the pattern the buttons are in was chosen precisely because it has the tendency to help lead the reader. In that sense the writer has created a false sense of authority in the reader. It seems as though the reader is creating her own pattern throughout the story, but if she veers off the path she may find herself ahead of the plot. Of course, to play devil's advocate, one might ask why it's necessary to form a linear story or build hierarchies. While I agree that those things are not needed in creating a story, this story in particular is written in such a way that without the formation of connections, the story fails. Each button does not contain a standalone thought or moment—they are all pieces of one grander puzzle that does have an answer.


CONCLUSION

For all intents and purposes this story could easily be found in the pages of a short story anthology. The writer uses the hypertext medium simply to create a visually pleasing canvas to write on. Its simplicity and heavy reliance on a linear narrative allows me to consider this a bridge text. By a bridge text, I mean that for the novice hypertext reader or hypertext writer this would definitely be a good place to start. The story doesn't veer too far off course and there aren't too many choices. Besides mention of the laptop, this is not a story that is steeped in technology. Hypertext just serves to make the text accessible in a different way, but it's not so different from picking up a book and merely selecting a random page to start from. The fact that this story isn't weighted down with bright lights and animation fits the story and the narrator. The clever use of patterns and the linear story makes this an excellent starting point into the world of hypertext.


Works Cited

Greco, Diane. "Dirty Sex". August 2002. April 2003. <http://www.thebluemoon.com/coverley/greco/index.html>



copyright 2003 Jamie Massey

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