After a heavy fine and a few sharp whacks from the librarian’s belt, I released Half Life back into the New York Public Library system only slightly worn. I did not want to return it, mostly because it demanded another read (even after one and a half), but also so I could scoop some quotes for yall so you could have a little taste of heaven.
Heaven for me is this wildly imagined book about a two-headed lady named Nora and Blanche. They are twins and share everything but their heads. The thing is, Blanche opted out of consciousness a while back and Nora isn’t doing so well, even immersed in the borderline-smotheringly welcoming arms of a re-imagined San Francisco. In Half Life’s world, man created a population of Siamese twins by fiddling with atoms and twins created a constant, unappreciated reminder of hubris.
Jackson uses the twins to show us the baldest depiction of how desire can mangle love. She has Nora’s quest for self-hood (aloneness) mirror the struggle of every lady I know—how can I be truly me? Who am I? How can I get where I want to be? When will all this bullshit end? Nora herself is like a triple-barricaded version of everyone who laughs at the party line, tells the “welcoming arms” to fuck off and yet seeks the very comfort pride parades and twin hags offer others. Yes, twin hags—Jackson takes the rainbow flag and sees a noose in it, but shows us all the imperfections of being out and extremely proud in inventive, hilarious and deeply satisfying ways. Reading her version of a press release for a twin film fest, as well as her other entries from Nora’s festering scrapbook of twin-related media, is like biting into the juiciest poison apple given by the sexiest witch.
And then there is sex. Half Life pulsates with eroticism even as it plunges into deeply disturbing territory. Part of this is that so much of this book has to do with bodies, what they mean, how they shape who we are, how they can limit or free us. (She seems to be comfortable in the body. Besides her skin project, her first collection of short stories, The melancholy of anatomy, is based around the four humors.) Jackson doesn’t shy away from gore (like when she describes the “museum” Nora and Blanche make up with decaying desert animals as children), but she somehow makes event he most disgusting eruption seem necessary and part of a larger thing. She gives us sex that is life defining and urgent and sex that is lonely. In short, she gives us real sex clothed in an alternate-present two-necked sweater.
The bondage of women is present everywhere in this book from Nora trapped in the body of an unwanted twin to a caged girl held in the ceiling of a trailer while a normal life goes on under her. She seems to say that no woman escapes all the traps that this world sets, but even so, this confinement is not natural and it is not good. I like a read that makes me think about gender but doesn’t tell me what to think. And doesn’t bore or insult me. Rare? Yes, but that is another post.
This book is full of things to think about and little pockets to get lost in. Jackson’s whole take on America’s purposeful forgetting of atomic weapon use (with ridiculous, yet familiar methods) could have been a book itself (I see a more twisted and fantastic, and maybe better (!) OPRH).
The end was nice and open unlike a lot of wacky books. Like, “well kids, I’ve had a lot of fun showing you my chops and my craaaaaaazy writerly craaaaaziness, but let’s tie this up.” I hate that, as satisfying as it sometimes is, especially when a book was total crap. Some people might see the end as a bit of a cop out, but you’ll have to read it to be allowed to think that, won’t you?