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Sunday, 30 November 2014

Half Life

half life

Vanishing twin syndrome usually occurs in the womb. In our case it came about considerably later in the developmental process. – Shelley Jackson, Half Life

If, as I did, you struggled with this book (especially its ending) you might want to read Stéphane Vanderhaeghe’s essay ‘How to Unread Shelley Jackson?’ published in Transatlantica. It won’t answer all your questions but it’ll probably help you ask more sensible questions than, “WTF?” I’ll come back to that.

For the most part this is… correction, appears to be, a fairly straightforward novel. It tells the story of two conjoined twins: Nora and Blanche Olney. There are two overlapping storylines that run chronologically: the first charts their lives from conception until, when she’s thirteen, Blanche falls asleep and refuses to wake up; the second thread begins some fifteen years later when Nora, tired of carrying around what she’s come to regard as dead weight, decides it’s time for Blanche to go (in fact the very first chapter of the book is a copy of her medical release and waiver document). Sandwiched between these two storylines are extracts from ‘The Siamese Twin Reference Manual’ which is really more of a scrapbook Nora has compiled over the years but it serves to provide the readers with some much needed exposition like, for example, why the world is suddenly teaming with “twofers” which is slang term for conjoined twins adopted by North Americans; in the UK it’s apparently “mushies” (“Mushy peas, Siamese … Cockney rhyming slang).

So this is a what-if? book, what would the world be like if, following the detonation of the first atomic bomb, something happened and women started having two-headed babies? Not every pregnancy results in a two-headed baby but there is a considerable escalation. That part of the book was dead interesting. There have been many books written that tweak history and set their storylines in alternate realities: for example The Plot Against America by Philip Roth looks at an America where Franklin D. Roosevelt was defeated in 1940 in his bid for a third term as President of the United States, and Charles Lindbergh was elected, leading to increasing fascism and anti-Semitism in the States; Harry Turtledove’s Southern Victory series of novels are set in a world in which the Confederate States of America won the American Civil War, and Resurrection Day is a novel written by Brendan DuBois that depicts a world where the Cuban Missile Crisis escalated to a full-scale war, the Soviet Union is devastated, and the USA has been reduced to a third-rate power, relying on Britain for aid. It’s basically the butterfly effect.

The world as it now stands is full of minorities all banding together trying to first define and then assert their rights: the right to believe what they want, to marry who they want, to die when they want. This new world is no different in that regard:

[S]ome groups, like the Siamists, Togetherists, and so-called fusion theologists, aver that radiation has nothing to do with twinning. It was a deeper, more metaphysical split that took place when the first nuclear bomb was exploded at the Trinity site on July 16, 1945. Many consider this split no accident, but the essential next stage in the spiritual evolution of a species finally advancing beyond self-interest. To others, it is just the latest fissure in that ever-widening crack in the relation of Self to World whose warning signs first appeared in ancient Greece. Revisionist scholars, on the other hand, claim that a sizeable population of twofers has existed throughout history (“theirstory”), many more than were sung in ballads and broadsides. Indeed, the Togetherists, the most radical of the “fusion” groups, lay claim to an antiquity that rivals the Masons’.

man in the high castleI’ve been a fan of alternate histories for years. Oddly I’ve not read one until now and I really don’t know why—considering the amount of Philip K Dick I’ve read you’d’ve thought I’d’ve got round to The Man in the High Castle—but I did enjoy the setting part of the novel very much and there’re plenty of opportunities for humour, for example, reimagining the premises of television shows:

Three’s Company, about a sexy twofer and her male roommate, and Mork & Mindy: a dark comedy, in which one half of a two-headed alien falls under the delusion that he is a simple American girl.

Or films. She couldn’t resist slipping in a reference to Anna and the Siamese Kings.

But although there’s plenty of sly, wry and often dry humour in this book it has a serious, even a dark undercurrent. What right does Nora have to agree to have her sister’s head removed? Just as with the abortion and assisted suicide issues today there are widely differing opinions. In most countries surgical decapitation is illegal…

…to commit … an act of surgery against your other half, even if she is deaf, mute, an idiot, or insane, unless she’s also gangrenous and leaking pus out of her ears? And even then you have to get a court hearing and the consent of, like, everyone in the world: parents, both dead and alive, spouse, pet goldfish, next-door neighbour, kindergarten teacher, and five total strangers who looked at you once on the street.

But that doesn’t stop people doing it. And one of those whose services are available for a price—and not even an exorbitant price (she’s not in it for the money)—is Dr. Ozka, known in the press as “Doctor Decapitate”; her service is referred to as “The Divorce”.

brothers of the headWhen Nora completes her form she indicates that her twin is non compos mentis but what sort of book would this be if that was truly the case? It’s like the third head in Brian Aldiss’s Brothers of the Head. You just know it’s going to wake up at the end and that’s not going to be good. So is that what happens here?

I’m not going to spoil the book by saying what happens but the ending is far from straightforward. And this is where we start to get into WTF territory. But bear with me.

The book’s narrated by Nora who’s very much her own woman. Even as a child when Blanche was conscious Nora was the dominant twin but not necessarily the bad twin; things aren’t as black and white as they appear. (Nora ó noir ó black; Blanche ó white.) If Nora isn’t as attached (sorry, irresistible pun) to her sister as you might imagine there could be a good reason. The problem is remembering the past and as Nora tells the story of what it was like for the two of them to grow up in the ghost town of Too Bad, Nevada it appears she might not quite have all her ducks in a row. Especially when it comes to the foulmouthed girl she remembers as Donkey-Skin and the girl’s father Dr. Goat. To be honest if you extracted all the chapters about them growing up you’d have quite an acceptable YA novel. The big problem in childhood is gaining acceptance and it doesn’t matter if you’re the only kid with braces or ginger hair or a stutter or a sibling growing out of your shoulder you’re going to find it hard. I’ve known a couple of sets of twins in my life, an identical pair and a non-identical. The identical twins were inseparable—they might as well have been joined at the hip—but the other pair were like chalk and cheese. I was friends with George but I really didn’t have much time for David. Nora and Blanche have similar problems:

Gradually, something changed. The other kids decided that we were not one, but two girls. One had cooties, but the other was all right. They shared their lunch with Blanche—bartered chocolate pudding cup for fruit leather, peanut butter crackers for devil-dog—while I ate chopped olives. Once I tried to swap for a bag of raisins.

“Gross. Nobody wants to touch your food, Nora. Get a clue.” Blanche rolled her eyes apologetically at me and took another bite of Twinkie.

As an adult things have changed. For starters Nora’s no longer living in a backwater; she in the city where there are clubs and bars and a whole social world devoted to twofers. Oddly enough she doesn’t really seem to be a part of this. And the problem here is something along the lines of body dysmorphia: she feels like a singleton born in the body of a twofer and really isn’t that comfortable in the company of conjoined twins.

devil2Oddballs abound. Not quite sure Nora encounters anyone who isn’t a little peculiar or who doesn’t have some agenda. She’s certainly more than a little mixed-up herself. But she knows her own mind. For as long as she’s sure it is her own mind. Because then there’s all that Lithobolia business:

I named the phenomenon after Lithobolia, the stone-throwing demon: a beige blur would whisper past my head, and somewhere, something would smash. I’d look up in mild, disinterested surprise.

The “beige blur” is her own arm or, since she’s not in control of it during these moments, perhaps it would be best to think of it as Blanche’s arm. Blanche who’s still asleep and, presumably, sleep-throwing random object. This is new. And worrying. But as long as Blanche is out of it Nora’s determined to proceed and, after some effort and a few adventures, does indeed make contact with Dr. Ozka. Needless to say things do not go as planned at the clinic and Nora nearly loses her own head. She’s forced to return to the States where she finds herself pulled irresistibly—is Blanche driving?—home where it (whatever ‘it’ is because even some 400 pages into the book at this point I still wasn’t sure) all began.

This is where we start to get into WTF territory and I would recommend reading the final section of this book with a clear head and not, as I did, rush to try to get the damn thing finished because you’d already spent days on it. No, it is not an especially quick read despite keeping my interest pretty much throughout. In her essay Vanderhaeghe writes:

Shelley Jackson’s novel barely functions as this old-fashioned object once called a book used to… Well, it is a book all right, or at least bears every external resemblance to what we usually call a “book”. As such, the object is tangible enough to let anyone open it and adventurously get lost amid pages (white) covered with ink (black)—pages “stained with words” as Nora will eventually claim. But, naïve as the question surely is, does that make it a “book”? And what, then, is a “book”, or what is left of it, in the age of digital manipulation and electronic saturation? One possible answer is that a “book” is something we can always go back to and find unchanged, its contents there for eternity, forever preserved on a bookshelf somewhere in the library next door ; in that case, then, and despite all contrary evidence, Shelley Jackson’s Half Life is probably not a book ; for a simple experiential, hence subjective reason at least : when the readers reach its last page, they suddenly feel it vanish between their hands, even as they are grasping it, and grasping it tight, to get a reassuring sense of ontological certainty. If Jackson parodically makes use of conventional novelistic devices throughout, it seems relevant that, among them, the climax that one usually finds towards the end of a well-driven plot is reinterpreted along literal lines. As a metaphor that over the years has become so familiar as to have lost its full, though ambiguous meaning (if full meaning, ambiguous or not, it ever had), the novel’s “climax” is here envisioned as an atom bomb exploding. Yet the ending of Half Life is not the expected final explosion that would conventionally give birth to its mushroom-cloud of an offspring, but rather its parodic, self-cancelling reversal: the bomb, going off, sucks back its offspring off a mushroom-cloud. In other words, one had better follow the (metafictional) suggestion of One and a Half, this two-headed kitten singing songs to Nora, and refer to Half Life not as a book in the end, but as a “device” instead which leaves nothing intact, least of all the “text” or the “novel”.

Yeah, I had to read that over a couple of times too. There is a diagram at the end of the novel which is slightly helpful once you’ve actually read the book so I’m not really spoiling anything by including it here:

Venn Diagram

When Nora writes “I start to write” this is the point in the book she’s looking back from and from that point on she’s not looking back she’s writing about what’s happening to them day by day because I’m not actually sure what’s left at the end of the book. Not once we’ve gone full (twin) circles. Nora writes:

Everything happens twice, first in the fact, and then in the telling. At least twice: the telling, too, is doubled by the hearing of it. A cleft passes through the centre of things, things that do not exist except in this twinship. That cleft is what we sometimes call I. It has no more substance than the slash between either and or.

Either and or, exclusive or: XOR, one of the four terms that serve as section headings: NOT, XOR, OR and AND. Yeah, it doesn’t hurt to have some idea how Boolean logic works. And Venn Diagrams.

The book gets mixed reviews. According to Goodreads at the time of writing:

5 stars 15% 92
4 stars 28% 174
3 stars 29% 181
2 stars 17% 109
1 star 8% 51

I can understand why. Of the one-star reviews I think Wealhtheow puts it best:

This book is the written equivalent of the last twenty minutes of “2001”—I’m sure *something* “deep” is going on, but I’m not sure what and mostly I just feel bored and nauseated.

To be fair Nora is not the most likeable of characters—I’m actually not sure there was a single likeable character in the book (maybe Mooncalf, a chocolate lab)—and I can understand her thinking of herself as a singleton but what disappointed me most were the other twofers she meets along the way. None of them felt like twins, dicephalusconjoined or not. There was none of this cute finishing off each other’s sentences or making up their own language (cryptophasia) or anything like that but to be honest I was basing my judgement on what little I’ve seen of Abby and Brittany Hensel:

Dicephalus dipus dibrachius. That’s two heads, two legs, and two arms: standard-issue twofer.

plus what I know of Poto and Cabengo and June and Jennifer Gibbons. And, of course, my own experiences.

Half Life is an ambitious book and there’s a lot crammed into it. Perhaps too much. As Stacey D’Erasmo puts it in her review for The New York Times:

All this razzle-dazzle, all the allusions, the narrative loop-de-loops: it gets a bit busy. By the middle of the book, I wasn’t sure how many more cleverness hurdles I could clear, and I’m sure I stumbled over some. I don’t really know what a Boolean system is; I looked it up, then I forgot again. I skipped past the Venn diagram, though it was charmingly drawn.

Those bits I got but then I’ve always had a head for maths. It was other bits that lost me or at least lost my interest. But I was glad I read it despite its length; 450 pages is really my upper limit these days. I would read her again. She manages to balance the intellectual and the visceral quite nicely and at 179 pages her short story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy is more my length; should’ve read it first I think. Bodies clearly fascinate her. In an interview she says:

[T]he body interests me most as something to write about, not to touch (not in a professional capacity, anyway). I am fascinated above all with using it as a object of fantastical transformations, because we care about the body and we know it intimately, and I think that makes it possible to invest bizarre scenarios with very strong, creepy, personal feelings.


Shelley_JacksonBorn in 1963 Shelley Jackson is the author of the novel Half Life, the story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy, hypertexts including the classic Patchwork Girl and Doll Games (with Pamela Jackson), several children’s books featuring her own illustrations, and SKIN, a story published in tattoos on the skin of 2,095 volunteers. A Village Voice “Writer on the Verge” and Pushcart Prize winner, she is also the co-founder of the Interstitial Library, Circulating Collection. Shelley Jackson lives in Brooklyn, NY and teaches at the New School University. Her website can be found at


Joseph Hutchison said...

A fine, thoughtful response to the book at hand, as ever. I doubt I'll make a place for it on my list, having as I do a low tolerance for overly clever writing. But I do want to mention Vladimir Nabokov's wonderful conjoined twin short story, "Scenes from the Life of a Double Monster," which I highly recommend. The divine Mr. N. is always clever, of course, but his cleverness has an emotional purpose, and in the case of "Scenes from the Life," it results in terribly moving tale....

Jim Murdoch said...

I found the story online, Joe. It’s a little short, even underdeveloped—one article on it suggests it’s “a sketch or the unfinished germ of an idea”—but it was okay. I have a book of his short stories that I keep meaning to get round to; it might even be in it for all I know. Interesting that he assigns the storytelling to just one of the twins. One of the interesting things about Jackson’s book is that she has time to talk about all the various permutations. I’ve always assumed that Siamese twins were emotionally close as well as physically inseparable but why should that be the case? I’ve known twins who were very different and can only imagine how grateful they are that they were never fused together otherwise life could’ve been hell for them.

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