Monday, August 21, 2006

Review #34: E Unum Pluribus

I've got a lot on my mind and on my plate these days (wedding planning, volunteer projects, business planning, conferences, side projects... you get the idea), so I haven't been reading blogs and trolling the internet like I (perhaps) should. So no Link-Mad Monday again today -- just a review of one of the most intriguing works of fiction I've read in a long time. I'm gonna remind you of this again at the end, but the author is reading from this book tomorrow night (Tuesday the 21st) at McNally Robinson at 7pm -- I'll be there, and I highly recommend it.

Review #34
HALF LIFE
by Shelley Jackson
(HarperCollins, July 2006)

I noticed the beautiful Rorschach of a cover, and wondered where I'd heard that author's name before. Eventually I realized that in addition to writing "acclaimed short story collection" THE MELANCHOLY OF ANATOMY, she also did the illustrations for Kelly Link's short story collection MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS, one of my favorite feats of New Fabulism ever. So her cred and her sensibility are well established as being in the realm of things I dig, and I begged and finagled until I got ahold of a galley.

The story is set in a sort of alternate America, where radiation testing in the Nevada desert has created a boom in births of conjoined twins, many of whom share everything but a head and portion of spine to call their own (picture the two-headed giants of fairy tales). Nora is half of such a "twofer," as they call themselves, and when the story opens her other half, Blanche, has been comatose for years, but Nora still wishes she could be more alone. The bulk of the story involves her secret (illegal) quest to have Blanche "removed", interspersed with flashbacks to their childhood in the desert, when Blanche was awake.

The ALP did a research project about freak shows in his younger days, and has read the stories (or attempts) of almost everyone who's ever tried to write fiction about conjoined twins (a list that includes Twain and Nabokov). He says that almost every such story ends up having one of the twins somehow "asleep" or out of the picture, because a writer just can't conceptualize how to write two consciousnesses in one body. It's one of those concepts like infinity, that makes sense until you try to think about it, and then fragments or veers or disappears into incomprehensibility.

Jackson does use the tactic of having one twin out of the picture (at least, that's how it seems; as the novel goes on Blanche's "absence" comes into question). She's more interested in using the conceit of the "twofer" to explore ideas of connection and individuality in American culture and psychology, while always moving the story along and keeping a sharp eye out for sentimentality or twaddle. The immense and sly humor of the book comes from the very familiar, yet exotic forms that "Twofer Pride" takes, as of course, such twins have enough of a population to form their own subculture: modifying language to "de-normalize" singleness ("everytwo", "tyou"), scholars positing that famous historical figures were in fact secretly twofers, screening movies that have kitsch twofer subtexts, going to therapy to learn to embrace two-ness, "singletons" who "identify" as twofers despite only having one head, etc. It helps that a lot of this action takes place in San Franciso, where subcultural activity taken to decadent or intellectual extremes seems to make perfect sense.

The therapy part is the venue for a lot of speculation about the Venn diagram, which Nora despises but eventually finds useful: the overlap of two circles, with some separate space and some shared space. The novel itself can actually be seen as a kind of Venn diagram -- one of many sophisticated structural and thematic linkages. And don't forget the subtextual commentary on nuclear fallout, the melancholy of the American desert, the surreal imaginations of childhood, the vertigo of missing or extra limbs and what it implies about our minds and our bodies, the saving and tormenting necessity of writing. And then there are those wonderful little Winnie-the-Pooh-on-acid rhymes that keep getting sung by taxidermy'd animals or other hallucinatory creatures.

But don't get me wrong -- this isn't an inaccesible, "experimental" novel that you read because you think you should. Like SACCO AND VANZETTI MUST DIE!, like CLOUD ATLAS, like most of the books I truly love, it's something you read with your heart in your throat, soaking up characters and turning pages frantically, while the heavy thematic and structural stuff slyly seeps into your consciousness and leaves you thinking and talking about it long afterward. It probably won't be for everyone -- it's a strange and sometimes disturbing little book, and will certainly appeal to certain sensibilities more than others. But if you have any interest in the strange, the wonderful, the paradoxical, the speculative, the eye-rollingly hilarious and the shut-you-up serious, in a new author doing new work on new themes and classic ones -- by all means, check it out. Read the book. Come to Shelley Jackson's reading at McNally Robinson on Tuesday August 21 at 7 pm. Talk to me about this stuff. It's better than being alone.