A conjoined twin yearns to flee as Jackson pulls another surprise

Review Novel

July 30, 2006|By VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH | VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Half-Life

Shelley Jackson

HarperCollins / 464 pp / $24.95

Shelley Jackson never does the same thing twice. Half-Life is her first literary novel (she previously published Skin, a novel in tattoos, and Patchwork Girl, a hypertext novel). Thus it could be said that if Jackson has an oeuvre, that oeuvre is surprise. Jackson strives for the singular, so although Half-Life might be accurately described as a novel of identity - hardly surprising literary territory - through Jackson's legerdemain, identity becomes something wholly other, both literally and literarily. The result is surprising, to be sure.

Nora and Blanche Olney are 20-something twofers (two for one) - Siamese or conjoined twins. They live in the city of acceptance, "that desperately self-affirming city," San Francisco, where the burgeoning twofer population has found its natural niche.

Half-Life takes place in an alternate present different from our own only in that radioactivity in the air and water and food has created an ever-growing population of twofers, who are now the fastest-growing minority in the country. (Nora and Blanche's mother conceived the twins in a late-night romp on a bus with a geologist from Nevada whose father died from fallout.) In the pro-Togetherist culture of San Francisco, Nora and Blanche share a house with Audrey, a filmmaker and twofer wannabe, and Trey, a somewhat shady character with a host of illegal yearnings, who, like Audrey and Nora, does phone sex for a living.

All would be well in this kitschy, politically correct, sexually open community except that Nora has a pulsing desire that cannot be satisfied: She aches to be a "singleton" - solo, on her own, alone. She has felt alone for more than 15 years, since Blanche went to sleep and never woke up. So if Blanche isn't really there except as an impediment to solitude, why not dispose of Blanche altogether? Nora doesn't want to be a twofer, loathes the cult of Togetherism, keeps a journal of twofers memorabilia - The Siamese Twin Reference Manual, which she deems a "devotional to self-loathing."

After the head of a twin ends up in a bog in England, Trey gives Nora information on a London surgeon who separates conjoined twins. Not separate in the complex way such separations are performed on the Discovery Channel, but just cutting away the offending twin, the binary obstacle, like the barnacle the other twin feels her/him to be. In short, surgical murder.

Long before Nora heads for London to pursue the single life, Blanche seems to be rearing her sleeping, vestigial head: Her eye opens in Audrey's film of the twins, a woman the lesbian Nora is not attracted to accuses her of molestation, mysterious messages appear on Trey's voice recognition software, a plate of cupcakes goes whizzing through the air at a party, Nora awakens in places she does not remember having gone and other unsavory moments. Nora blames Blanche, Audrey tells Nora she needs to embrace her other self, Nora's mother suggests Siamysticism.

Yet Nora reasons that the way to regain her sanity is to rid herself of Blanche, to establish an identity that is all Nora, not merely "not Blanche." She has a growing horror of her twin and of her own twin self, one ignited by the first viewing of Audrey's film in which she truly sees herself for the first time: "At first all I saw was a strange, bifurcated shape. Then I realized I was looking at myself." She knows there is something freakish about being a twin - she feels it in her very bones as she remembers her college years and the solitariness of being a twofer "back then when our numbers were still small, the dirty allure of the midway still hung about us." She doesn't want to be the object of voyeurism and perverse longings.

Jackson's heady fantasy shifts between Nora's chaotic present and the twins' complicated birth and childhood in the ghost town of Too Bad, Nev., and it becomes clear - or is it? - that Nora and Blanche are more than the sum of their conjoined parts.

With dark humor and even darker seriousness, Jackson works the themes of dualism and coupling from beginning to end. In contemplating both her parents and her own twindom, Nora apprehends, "Of course couples are always monstrous. Everyone senses this, and grows uneasy in their company. Nobody likes to watch the blending of things that should be separate. Why would two people who are free to walk away stand side by side and even hold hands? If I were single I would always walk away. I would specialize in it."

For Nora, always in the company of another, the concept of yearning for togetherness is utterly alien.

Jackson's prose is stunning--sharp and smart, witty and urbane in the extreme (at times the cleverness gets a tad cloying) - and the interstitial textual asides (glimpses into Nora's friends' bookshelves or the excerpts from the Manual) are highly engaging.

Half-Life is a complex and often difficult book that is also quite funny and compelling. Jackson has taken the great desire of the 21st (and possibly every) century for true duality - the serene enmeshing of relationships most humans crave like food and air - and turned it on its psycho-babbling head, leaving her readers with much to think about.

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of more than 20 books. Her collection, "The Golden Age: Lesbian Erotica of the 1920s-1940s," will be published in November 2006. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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