Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Reviewed by Jeff Turrentine
Sunday, July 30, 2006


A Novel

By Shelley Jackson

HarperCollins. 440 pp. $24.95

Shelley Jackson's first novel, Patchwork Girl , reconfigured the elements of the Frankenstein myth into a postmodern mosaic. To suggest themes of fragmentation, she composed the novel in hypertext, the link-peppered interface of the Internet. Her second offering, "Skin," a story in progress, is slowly being written on the bodies of thousands of volunteers, each of whom has agreed to have a single word tattooed onto his or her person. Jackson, it seems fair to say, has so far been perfectly happy to labor outside the boundaries of mainstream publishing culture. One can't help but suspect that her biggest fans include plenty of MFA candidates, critical-theory cultists and experimental-fiction devotees who see her as an outré heroine and who privately hope that she never gets gobbled up by the middlebrow establishment.

To those who would prefer Jackson to remain on the lofty banks of the pomo literary fringe, I've got good news and bad news. First the bad: While waiting for the ink to dry on her "Skin" project, she has produced a new novel, Half Life , that for most of its 400-plus pages is a shimmering, dazzling delight, filled with the kind of humor and poignancy that should endear her to thousands of new readers who wouldn't know Kathy Acker from Kathie Lee Gifford. The strange and often touching story of Nora Olney's quest to rid herself of her conjoined twin sister, Blanche, is surprisingly conventional by Jackson's standards. Conventional, perhaps, but never predictable: Jackson combines the imagination of a born fabulist with the wit of a born satirist, and Half Life -- for a good long stretch, at least -- is a thrilling novel, by turns horrific, heartfelt and hysterically funny. If, toward the end, it can't sustain the rollicking narrative momentum it has built up, Jackson has created such a vividly weird world and populated it with such memorable characters that it's pretty easy to forgive her.

Jackson's alternative universe is much like the one we inhabit now, with a few key exceptions. In it, American remorse over the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has led to the creation of a postwar National Penitence Ground in eastern Nevada, a "Proving Ground of American Sadness" where a "despondent American government [has] commenced organized hostilities against itself" in the form of repeated bombings. Among the unforeseen victims of this nuclear self-flagellation are the unborn, who summarily begin appearing in greatly increased numbers as conjoined twins: two heads on a single body. Blanche and Nora Olney constitute such a "twofer," as these twins are known, and grow up in the desert playing, bickering, going to school and trying -- like all kids -- not to feel like total freaks.

One day Blanche falls asleep and doesn't wake up. And so the adult Nora must continue to carry around the vestiges of her sister, who is not quite dead but not quite alive, either. On the upside, Nora's second head does buy her automatic entry into the ultra-cool, politically active twofer subculture, which is headquartered -- where else? -- in San Francisco, the historic haven for America's marginalized communities and the city Nora calls home.

When she's not attending twofer film festivals or shopping at Twice Blessed Books, the local twofer bookstore (sample titles from the self-help section: "First Person Plural" and "Thank You for Being Me"), she's fantasizing, morbidly and very privately, about cutting off Blanche's head and starting fresh as a singleton. Such a course of action, however, in addition to being highly illegal, would break the heart of her mother, who in middle age has fallen under the spell of the "Siamystics," a twofer-inspired New Age movement. And she'd never hear the end it from her roommate and best friend, Audrey, an avant-garde filmmaker who thinks she may be a twofer trapped in a singleton's body and who is constantly chiding Nora for her lack of community involvement.

Jackson is so good at so many things that it's hard to say when she's at her best. Is it when she's poking gentle fun at the earnest pieties of identity politics? (Twofers are big on promoting solidarity through sloganeering, manifesto-writing and the like. When she's conjuring up a near-perfect simile, as she does to describe a pack of desert vultures awaiting a woman's death? (They "occupied the rocks around her, looking formal and interested, like a committee.") When she has taken off on any one of many comic flights of fancy? (A list of twofer luxury items excerpted from a Skymall catalogue -- microfiber hoods, lightweight vertical pillows and the like -- is so funny that it demands to be read a second and third time; it gets funnier with each reading.) Maybe it's when, with Hitchcockian flair, she's skillfully constructing the narrative platform for her suspenseful climax: Nora's trip to London, where she plans to win her own autonomy by having Blanche surgically removed at an underground clinic.

With her obvious gift for storytelling, Jackson deserves to be widely read and critically celebrated. But the good news for fans of her more esoteric work -- bad news for the rest of us, I'm afraid -- is that she ultimately sabotages her own novel with an ending designed, apparently, to "lift" this novel from a mere great story to a graduate seminar on identity and its erasure. After winning us over with her sharp humor and careful plotting, she flirts dangerously with pedantry and obtuseness when trying to tie things up, as if she's afraid we might not recognize the Blanche/Nora pairing as a metaphor for our own divided natures. But the self-consciously discursive ending isn't enough to ruin the whole novel. By the time things start to unravel, Half Life has already done what great fiction is supposed to do: entertain us a lot, and change us just a little. ·

Jeff Turrentine is a writer in Austin, Tex.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company