Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Everyone is Some Kind of a Freak: Half Life by Shelley Jackson

halflife Imagine you're a conjoined twin, two souls in one body. What if she was bold while you were shy? What if he inherited the family fortune while you were left a pauper?

What if she had gone to sleep and never woke up?

Nora lives in San Francisco, a happy bastion of Twofers and Togetherists who throw Twin Pride parades and run Twin bookstores, petition for Twin-souled representation in government and even yet shy from the attacks of less open-minded souls. Nora's twin, Blanche, has not made a movement nor word in years, and her sister plots to make herself a singleton--a highly dangerous and illegal move. When word comes of an experimental surgery in England, Nora runs off to London, encountering strange collections, an old lover with a collection of postmodern adult toys, a mysterious doctor and an all-too-welcoming post-Twofer cult. Not to mention that all this time, comatose Blanche may just be waking from her years of slumber....

Shelley Jackson's Half Life is darkly funny and poignant, a modern fable set against the dusty, radioactive badlands of Nevada, urban bohemia of San Francisco, and murky corners and phantasmagorical museums of London. For our edification, Nora has included the contents of her Siamese Twin Reference Manual. From the twins' conception (their showgirl mother fell in love with a man who carried an heirloom dollhouse to her show) to Nora's friends (counting Audrey, who claims to be a conjoined twin in a singleton's body and Trey, duplicitous and hysterical), everything in this novel has an off-kilter bent. Jackson's inventiveness is never twee; she balances singing taxidermy with smart humor and scholarly ruminations on the concept of self--not to mention truly funny sendups of modern identity politics. I can't count the times I found myself chuckling at an all too familiar dig at manifestos, consciousness-raising, or the picking-apart of language.

Later, when we were bigger, it was Hurricane Norbla that stooped over the dollhouse, arms undulant twin tornados, and swept it up. We whirled it until our legs felt all cloudy, and then bumped it tipsily down a south-western version of Oz, where baby horny toads were tucked tightly into bed so they couldn't escape and wept bloody tears, and beetles taped on top of piano stools consoled them. Sometimes we left stray bits of furniture behind--a delicate chair on an ant den, a tiny candelabra. On a walk we once saw something glinting in a pack rat's nest and waded carefully into the brush to see what it was. It was a tiny silver tea set. We decided to let the pack rat keep it, imagining a pack rat family sitting down to elevenses around it.

Jackson's prose marries the decayed fabulism of Angela Carter with Tom Robbin's irreverent reverence of the odd, especially when Nora reminisces about her childhood in the desert with the wildlife, the dollhouse, and their Amazon Granny for company. While the last part of the novel veers into some very esoteric territory, I still recommend  Half Life for those who love their magical realism arch, bold, and satirical.

*Shelley Jackson's home on the web includes Skin, a novel told in tattoos and The Doll Games, an exhaustive excavation of imaginary play


*Sycamore and June, the World's Prettiest Twins, come with a pug, Chinese fans, and thought bubbles. Find them at Amanda Atkins in a Canary Forest.

*Colette Cascione paints the most sensual, delicately surreal portraits. Her women have worlds in their hearts, wings in their bustles, and dreams of butterflies. Not one to browse at work; nudes abound.

*Dame Darcy creates the wonderful comic Meatcake, a baroquely gothic fantasy where conjoined twins plot, mermaids curse, and heroine Richard Dirt gets herself into any number of scrapes. I can't wait to read Gasoline, her apocalyptic rock'n'roll eco-pagan fairy tale.

*Walter Potter was famous for creating enormous taxidermy tableaux. They're endearing and unnerving all at once. Nora visits the former Potter Museum in Half Life.

*Daisy and Violet Hilton were jazz-age performers, now best known for their appearance in Todd Browning's Freaks.

*the dollings are sweetly melancholy dollies with a story, handmade with love. Among the twins are Alli and Illa, Vera and Vella, and Dusa and Duska


Amanda Atkins said...

oh, thank you for mentioning my paper dolls! I'd never heard of Colette - I'm in love!

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