Book Reviewlets: Half Life, Shelley Jackson

In the early aughts, a younger, dapperer TfH encountered Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, one of the best of the first wave of “hypertext”.

E-lit before e-readers, hypertext sought to exploit digital possibility for fictional ends. Armed with the best theories–all the promise of post-structuralism, postmodernism, post-ism–hypertext would would jump-start our glorious future of pure literature unbound from the timeworn conventions of the printed page.

Patchwork Girl, read on a desktop with mouse a-clickin, re-assembled Frankenstein, Mary Shelley biography, queer theory, digital consciousness, and story in a nonlinear mosh pit of images and ideas.

Thing is, Half Life, Jackson’s 2006 novel, does it all better and brighter. In good ol’ print.

But I run through this cliff notes on hypertext for context. The treatise on hypertext is subtext.

Nora and Blanche Olney are a “twofer”: twins sharing a single body from the two necks down. In Jackson’s San Francisco, twofers are a thriving subculture. They’ve got pride parades, rival self-help gurus, insular community newspapers, and a Christian Right preaching immorality upon their bodies.

Despite this flagrant act of metaphor, Nora is actually queer, and it’s no big deal. Making the twofer-as-queer metaphor more a glitter-bomb than a hammer.

Blanche has been asleep for 15 years, and Nora has lived like a “singleton” with a vestigial appendage. But as Blanche shows signs of waking up, Nora’s facade shows signs of cracking up.

Fearing the existential threat of an awakening sister who shares her body, Nora starts chasing signs of The Unity Foundation, an underground movement that may or may not surgically turn twofers to singletons.

And here’s where things get a little Crying of Lot 49. If Pynchon were less uptight and more feminist.

Soon the twofer-as-queer metaphor gives way to the twofer-as-existential-threat plot. Jackson puts late-20th C intellectual history of the fragmentary self into a tilt-whirl. With hypertextual elements–footnotes and multi-authored insertions and extra-textual allusions–much more organic and fun than they’d have been onscreen.

And she does that self-consciousness thing, where the text outlines all its own interpretations.

Characters spew various competing theories of self. Rival factions preach various meanings of the emergence of twofers. With Nora at the center trying to insist that bodies aren’t metaphors. People aren’t metaphors.

The book is as intellectually promiscuous as its characters are sexually promiscuous.

And what astonishing brio! A book about a whole minority population of conjoined twins insisting that bodies aren’t metaphors.

With all its self-theorizing, the book seems to answer all its own questions. The plot seems to coalesce into conventional linear narrative satisfaction.

Everything seems all tidily bow-tied by the near-end.

And then suddenly it’s not. The bow-tie (bolo-tie; they’re in the Southwest) poofs into smoke. And the book gets back to the original promise of hypertext: freeing us from the conventions of linear narrative.

Because for as smart as we are about all those theories of subjectivity, we are idiots about our own lives.

There is no satisfying end to the story. No knowable self. No knowable other, either.

The best we can do is find how to have fun anyway.

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