Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Melancholy of Anatomy: Stories by Shelley Jackson

Two years ago I read Half Life and loved it. I have been seeking Jackson’s 2002 story collection for a while now and finally, a few weeks ago, the NYPL’s one copy became available. From previous abortive attempts at purchase, I knew that the book was divided into sections mimicking the old medical idea that the bodies’ processes and aspects could be divided into four humors but I guess I wasn’t prepared to feel so lost at the organization of the stories. Maybe I am missing something because I don’t know enough about choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine, or maybe I am missing nothing at all. Despite many passages that were pitch perfect, I couldn’t really get into the stories.

One of the perfect lines was this, in the story “Phlegm:”
Men flatter themselves they are original in admiring me. How confused they are when they find out they competition. (There is no desperation like that of a lover who has decided to do you a favor, and finds himself waiting in line.)

I think the reason that “Phlegm” works better than many of the other stories is that the narrator is a full-fledged character, which is rare in this collection. Many of the stories are about people who are in love with, feeding, or somehow harboring body parts disconnected from bodies, and the stories feel like they are more about the inherent problems with a cancer growing in the living room or a love affair with a bundle of glistening nerve fibers than the effect of such a situation on the characters, giving the bulk of the collection a fable-ish feeling. Reading through, even over time, gave me Aesop-fatigue. Nothing stuck but a vague picture of pulsating tumors and wet things in the night. There were bodies, like in Half Life, but no people to go with them.

Luckily, Jackson’s talent for wickedly on point satirical takes on various forms of writing do make an appearance (in this book, back-of-the-comic-book-marketing-speak and tracts get the treatment)—a delight for anyone who was as excited by those sections in Half Life as I was. In “Blood,” a strangely touching story that echoes the stops and starts of any good oral history showcases both the best and worst of her work in this collection. One the one hand, she makes a story about the disappearance of lower-middle class jobs for women (and the gnarly prestige and culture that went with it) in a London-ish place thought-provoking without being pedantic. On the other, the playfulness with words that marks her better writing also yielded this: “Up we went in all directions, like ferrets after a rat, in our swaddling suits, prodding the tiddlers ahead of us if we was in an area with lots of finicking veins to it, because a finger in a dike is one thing, but you can maneuver better if you can fit your whole fist in there.” Easter-eggery fun? Yes, but also kinda cheap.

I am glad I read the collection despite my modest disappointment in the stories overall. When, when, when will she have a new novel?

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