Sifting through the Dirt:
A Close Reading of "Dirty Sex"
Essentially, electronic literature and print literature both have
the same general goals of informing and entertaining a reader (and
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
literature. One will find no hyperlinks attached to words and no random
sound bytes, and except at the opening there are no moving pictures.
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.
"Dirty Sex" tells the story of two sisters, one appropriately named
Wilder and the unnamed narrator, on an outing in search of a wedding
for Wilder's wedding. The narrator is quite possibly a freelance writer
or more than likely a computer technician as evidenced by the way
"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
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
it comes down to it, it is still her "pleasure to serve," be it 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
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,
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
"bad wind breaking up housekeeping. Fun." She's a social butterfly
that probably has a facial expression for every emotion. Unlike her
Wilder is mercurial, quite like the "mood ring from grade school she
still wears on her pinky."
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
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
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
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.
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
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."
"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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
The last plausible starting point is the bottom right corner. This
starting point brings us into the story from a more psychological point.
reader moves to the buttons directly above, the story continues to
make sense. Starting from the bottom left corner creates a problem
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
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
writer has created a false sense of authority in the reader. It seems
as though the reader is creating her own pattern throughout the
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
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
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.
Greco, Diane. "Dirty Sex". August 2002. April 2003. <http://www.thebluemoon.com/coverley/greco/index.html>