Half Life

Shelley Jackson‘s Half Life is a dazzling and amazing book — the first print novel by the author of the hypertext fictions Patchwork Girl and My Body, the short story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy, and the short story “Skin,” which is being tattooed one word at a time on the skin of volunteers (also see here).

Shelley Jackson‘s Half Life is a dazzling and amazing book — the first print novel by the author of the hypertext fictions Patchwork Girl and My Body, the short story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy, and the short story “Skin,” which is being tattooed one word at a time on the skin of volunteers (also see here).

Half Life is ostensibly, or overtly, about a pair of conjoined twins, Nora and Blanche Olney, who have separate heads but share a single torso and set of limbs. “Twofers,” as they are known, are common in the world of the novel (which in other respects is naturalistically depicted, and indistinguishable from our own). The twofers born in great numbers ever since the mid-20th century, they seem to be the result of mutations caused by nuclear radiation. (The novel describes the desert of Nevada, where in fact nuclear tests were frequently carried out in the 1950s and afterwards, as the “National Penitence Ground” — in this account, the US Government staged explosions, destroying simulacra of American houses and towns, as expressions of guilt and remorse for Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Twofers or conjoined twins are sufficiently present and visible that they form a distinct minority group, demanding civil rights and proclaiming pride in their identities — San Francisco, in particular, is a haven for twofers, just as it is in actuality for gays and lesbians.

Half Life is narrated (or, more accurately, written, since the process of writing the text we read is itself narrated within that text) by Nora, who feels alienated both from the twofer community, and from “singleton” (i.e. “normal,” unicephalous) society. Her twin, Blanche, has been asleep since childhood (since puberty? this is hinted but not made entirely clear), leaving Nora in sole control of their joint body. But now Blanche shows signs of awakening, and this puts Nora into a panic. She seeks out the shadowy “Unity Foundation,” an illicit organization that apparently offers to cut off one of a twofer’s heads, thereby restoring the body to singleton normativeness. The narrative follows a double track in alternating chapters: on the one hand, Nora’s account of her quest to rid herself once and forever of Blanche; on the other, the story of Nora’s and Blanche’s childhood, from an account of their conception to the traumatic moment when Blanche lapsed into silence.

Nothing quite goes the way we expect; but plot is not really the point of the novel. It is long (437 dense pages) and expansive; and I found it so absorbing that, when I was done, I only wished it were even longer. Despite the outrageous premise, the surfaces of life (both physical and social-cultural) are naturalistically depicted; the streets of San Francisco and London, and (as far as I could tell) the deserts of Nevada are all recognizably rendered, in loving detail. This is not to say, however, that Half Life in any way resembles either mainstream naturalistic fiction, or the sort of “world-building” fantasy that seeks to create an alternative world as rich and consistent as possible. Rather, Jackson creates a text in which ontological distinctions are abolished. There is no opposition here between the real and the fantastic, between actuality and mere possibility, between fact and fiction, or — most important of all — between language as a description of some extralinguistic real, and language as a dense, reflexive medium that performs and produces itself, rather than referring to anything outside itself.

That is to say, the novel is “postmodern” in the quite literal sense (rather than in the more prevalent extended senses of the word “postmodern”) that it doesn’t reject these modernist distinctions, nor take one side of them against the other, but rather subsumes them all into itself, and speaks unresolvable multiplicities with one voice — what Deleuze calls the “univocity” of being. We move, in a single paragraph, from, say, a description of London streets, or of the rocks and sparse vegetation of the desert, to a description of twofer anatomy or psychology, to pure linguistic play, to outright, florid hallucination: and none of these is marked out from the others, they all share the same degree of actuality and presence within the world or body of the text.

Half Life is filled — as indeed Jackson’s earlier writings were also — with such peculiar objects as dolls and dollhouses, automatons, prosthetic limbs (including prosthetic heads!), and “medical curiosities” and “freaks of nature” (like the two-headed animals and deformed fetuses on display in the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London, described at great length in the novel). But there is really nothing “perverse” or willfully weird and shocking (a la the “freak show” films and documentaries which seem almost timelessly popular) about all these — I hesitate even to call them obsessions on the author’s part. Because Jackson so powerfully suggests that these strange objects are not exceptions to some pre-assumed “normality,” so much as they are themselves constitutive of what we blindly take for granted as “normal.” The uncanny strangeness of dolls and automata and freaks — and, in Half Life, of twofers themselves — comes not from their being exceptional, or alien to “us” (however we use the category of we/us), but precisely from being so intimately close and recognizable to “us” — they cause the recognition that the “normal” singleton state — or the state of being heterosexual, or male, or white, or whatever else is socially dominant and thought of, by those who fit into these categories, as “normal” — is itself as much a contingency, as arbitrary and “accidental,” as inessential, as the “freaks” themselves are, or as anything else. Hierarchy unravels, not only in language (which we post-deconstructionists know to be slippery and unreliable), but in the depths of the body, in “nature,” as well.

Part of the novel’s univocity is that it theorizes its own allegories and metaphors, without these theoretical suggestions being anything like a master key to the rest of the book — the theories are on the same level as the narrated events and bodies and languages that they theorize. There is much about “transitional objects” (a psychoanalytic term originally from Winnicott — 136) that mediate the exchanges between Self and Other, or Self and World, and whose very presence ought to remind us that Self/Other or Self/World are not resolutely opposed categories, but ones that have overlaps and very leaky boundaries. Half Life also plays at great length with a quasi-poststructuralist theory based on Venn diagrams (those pictures of two overlapping circles, in which the logical relations between two realms — exclusion, inclusion, union, separation — or, the logical operators NOT, OR, AND, and XOR (exclusive or) — are mapped out. The diagrams represent the relation between the two individuals (or the two heads) of a twofer; but we are told repeatedly that such multiplicities — disunities of the self, or overlapping selves and others — are basic to all selves, those of singletons (with or without twins, with or without sibilings) as much as they are to those of conjoined twins.

In this way, Half Life‘s conjoined twins, and specifically the narrator(s) Nora and Blanche, are metaphors for selfhood or subjectivity in general — which is never unified but always sundered, and which is always somewhat fictive, but never able to be definitively discarded. “A cleft passes through the center of things, things that do not exist except in their twinship. That cleft is what we sometimes call I. It has no more substance than the slash between either and or” (433). The slash, the cleft, is barely there; but it is a material presence nonetheless, albeit a rather minimal one. This slash or cleft is something that happens in language, Jackson (or Nora) says, in the doubleness, or the gap, between actual events and their telling. But it is also something that happens in the body, in the foldings of our flesh and viscera, and in the detours and delays of chemical-electrical signals coursing through our neurons. (The subject-as-gap, located in language, sounds rather Lacanian. But this gap is also something physical and visceral, a material barrier and membrane, a physical experience and limit, rather than a “lack”).

Another way to put this is to say that, for Jackson, language and body are two sides of the same thing (two sides of a Moebius strip?). The pleasure of reading Half Life comes largely from its playful and extravagant language — a writing that couldn’t be further removed from naturalism. In a blurb on the rear jacket of the book, Jonathan Lethem (rightly) praises Jackson’s “Nabakovian verbal fireworks”; but in fact, her prose reminded me as much of Lewis Carroll as it did of Nabokov. There’s a Carrollian air of gleefully demented logic running throughout, alongside a very modernist/postmodernist metaphorical extravagance. The book is actually quite hilarious, page by page — even as its subject matter mostly involves morbidity, alienation, and a certain inexpugnable sadness.

It is important to note, therefore, that Jackson’s prose style is not just self-referential; her metaphors are not just metaphors; even as Nora and Blanche, or conjoined twins more generally, are not just metaphors for (singleton) subjectivity and self-consciousness. For Half Life determinedly literalizes its own lingustic and conceptual extravagances (“literalizes” is not quite the right word, but I cannot think of a better one). Its metaphors and its characters and its situations have to be taken as absolutely given, in the same way as the cleft of subjectivity has to be taken as something inscribed in the body, and not just in language. (“Not just” is again a wording that isn’t quite right; because language also has/is a body). And the novel’s conceptions and conceits are as powerful as they are because they also and simultaneously work on an affective level — this is the odd mixture (though “mixture” is once again not quite the right word, because it implies the combination of previously independent elements, whereas here the elements do not and cannot exist independently of their combination) — the mixture of gleefulness and melancholy that I have already mentioned. And also a mixture (with the same reservation about the word) of full-fledged delirium with a kind of reserve or detachment, a simultaneous participation and extreme distance. Half Life is all at once a mind-blowing derangement of the senses, and a cool display of carefully calibrated literary pyrotechnics. I can only describe the affective impact of the novel (which is also its style) in the terms of these inextricable pairs of gleefulness/melancholy and delirium/cool-detachment.

For all these reasons, I don’t find it in the least disappointing that Jackson has moved from “new media” like hypertext (and bodily inscription, for that matter) to the older (or supposedly “more conventional) medium of the novel. I don’t see this as in any way a “retreat,” but rather as another way to explore the same ramifying conjunction of flesh and language, or of desire and disappointment, or of connectedness and singularity, that has always been Jackson’s subject.

6 thoughts on “Half Life”

  1. It seems to me that the late Walter Miller Jr. used a mutant in A Canticle For Liebowitz, one of the very first post-nuclear apocalypse science fiction novels, a woman named Rachel with two heads, one of them dormant, who figured less as a character than as an image and a metaphor.

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  3. i am excited to read it. i’m enamored with freak novels of almost any sort (esp. geek love / katharine dunn & susan swann’s biggest modern woman in the world) & oh of course films (freaks, twin falls idaho, middlesex). she is doing a reading here soon, so perhaps i will try to read it before then. you write very charmingly of her new book & well, anything, really.

  4. I read this in a day & a night. I like a lot of the twinning language play (“a droll piece of majolica” stays in my memory, but there were lots of other slant rhymes).

    The “theoretical” parts really snap & fizz. Not that there are separate theoretical parts. But even the minor theory twirls–Mr Nickel’s explanation of how warmly we say hello and goodbye, to make up for the anxiety of separation–even those are really delightful.

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