- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 11, 2006

HALF LIFE: A NOVEL

By Shelley Jackson

HarperCollins, $24.95, 448 pages

REVIEWED BY JOANNE MCNEIL

Much like KatherineDunn andAngela Carter, Shelley Jackson is a once-in-a-blue-moon delight: a woman who never outgrew her childlike sense of wonder but whose prose is saccharine free, as darkly intelligent as it is playful and charming.

Ms. Jackson is best known for her “hypertext fiction” electronic books, which link images and words to create a reading experience not unlike the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series. She has authored and illustrated several children’s books in addition to the cult classic, short-story collection, “The Melancholy of Anatomy.” Now she has written her first novel, “Half Life,” a soaring, extraordinary debut.

It is the tale of Nora, one head of a “Twofer,” a Siamese twin — although Nora prefers the term “conjoined,” with its “faint echo of the alchemists’ conjunctio and those copulatives copulating in grammar books.” Her sister Blanche (“on my right, your left”) has been sleeping for 15 years, creating a disturbing sense of claustrophobia.

Nora and Blanche are part of the imagined thriving subculture of conjoined twins, born in the mid-20th century due to nuclear tests conducted mainly in the Southwest, not far from their hometown of “Too Bad, Nevada.”

Nora’s tenderness toward her sister is eclipsed by the burden of responsibility. “Sometimes, stirred by a dream she was dreaming, my fingers twitched, my toes tapped. Sometimes while checking the date on a yoghurt container or knotting my shoelace, I felt an incongruous rush of adrenaline. Aside from these tiny reminders, our body was mine. It grew up. I grew up, and Blanche was left behind, like a vacation puppy too dumb to park after the shrinking license plate and the desperate faces tinged with aquamarine behind the glass,” she explains.

Duality in human nature is a common literary trope, but Ms. Jackson has taken countless surprising turns. There is something very sad about Nora’s paranoid fear that her romantic interests much prefer her sleeping sister.

Fraught with anxieties, she insists that Blanche is the “prettier” one, but how can she avoid self-esteem issues if she is routinely instructed to “‘affirm to Blanche that you love yourselfs’”? Indeed, Nora is often at a loss to articulate her individual desires.

Many readers will identify with her similarly self-conscious body issues. The book is reminiscent of the deceptively simple horror film “Ginger Snaps,” which used lycanthropy as a clever way to explore the growing pains of adolescence. As a walking Venn diagram, Nora is an awkward, shrinking violet, perpetually judged for her appearance.

Ms. Jackson obviously intends to draw parallels between Twofers and other minority groups, but she balances sensitive issues with her tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. “Half Life” playfully takes aim at New Age and communitarian ideals, with its rich descriptions of the Twofer subculture.

“To get Together, the superficial boundaries of the self must be broken down. Twofers, you have the glorious privilege of hosting, in one body, two souls, yet all too often these souls parcel up their joint experience, impoverishing both. Our Western notion of self, and the language it has given rise to, is to blame; every time you open one mouth to say ‘I,’ you thrust a lance in the heart of your twin,” reads one especially hilarious flier for the “6th Annual Twofer Pride Festival.”

The clever irony is that these San Francisco “Togetherist” activists are seeking to legitimize a “lifestyle” of mutations almost entirely created by radioactivity.

The froth of the book settles two-thirds of the way in, as Nora seriously weighs the option of getting a “divorce” in England, at the mysterious “Unity” clinic she learns about over the Internet. Is it murder if Blanche has slept for so many years? Nora explains to her friend, “Blanche is a parsnip, babe. An energetic parsnip, I grant you. But a parsnip.” Yet, she later admits, “I knew better. Parsnips do not dream.”

As soon as she finds herself in the office of the “Unity” surgeon, Nora is less confident. Blanche not only dreams, she shares — and perhaps, motivates — all of Nora’s childhood memories that are vividly described throughout the book. Although Nora grew up without her perceptible company, they never neatly grew apart. Nora tosses and turns after the office visit, unsure of her decision: “It was very dark and I listened to her heart beating almost in time with mine and I wondered if it had always been out of synch.”

“Half Life” is an ambitious novel, largely because Ms. Jackson never shies from its deeper philosophical implications. And she skillfully avoids crafting a potentially clumsy plot-driven narrative by interspersing excerpts from “The Siamese Twin Reference Manual,” which gives adequately believable background information. The flashback chapters transition smoothly; even a four-page baroque ballad (sung by a two-headed kitten!) never feels out of place. A reader will turn each page eager to see what the author will deliver next.

“Half Life” is not only the most inventive novel released this season; it is easily one of the best novels released this year. Shelley Jackson’s characters have an inimitable vulnerability that will haunt readers long after they have put the book away.

As the current literary landscape crowds to capacity with the “postmodern” imitators of Donald Barthelme, an author who brings ingenuity and sincerity to her experimental writing is a breath of fresh air. One only hopes Ms. Jackson duplicates the success of “Half Life” many times, and continues writing as prolifically as Angela Carter did before her.

Joanne McNeil is a newspaper reporter and fiction writer.

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