Thursday, April 21, 2011

Half Life

I picked up this book from Diversity Thrift a few weeks ago, and finished it last night.  I hate to say it, but I can see why it ended up at Diversity Thrift, though I do have some good things to say as well.  Let me break it down:

The characters: Nora and Blanche (full names Nora Grey and Blanche Gray Olney) are conjoined twins ("twofers" as this minority population is called in the alternate reality of the book -- a world in which genetic mutations have occurred at alarmingly high rates due to chemical fallout).  Nora is our main protagonist, while Blanche is more of the sleeping antagonist, and I mean sleeping quite literally, as she went to sleep and has been asleep for years, leaving Nora to speak for both of them and live her life as a twofer who has a vegetable half.  Nora and Blanche are 28 at the opening of the novel, though there are multiple layers of narrative that switch back and forth between their past girlhood and their adult present.

The plot thickens: There are sects within the twofer community that advocate being together, and then there's the sect based in England that advocates for, ahem, "doctor-assisted individuality surgery".  Nora is sick of being a twofer and would like to be a "singleton" -- with Blanche a dreaming vegetable, Nora's character is sympathetic to a point.  The point being, the "doctor-assisted individuality surgery" basically means cutting off Blanche's head, leaving a stump -- murder, basically.

The grammar: Grammar plays a huge part, almost as another character in its own right, in Half Life.  This definitely mirrors the grammars used by other minorities, particularly the GLBT community and the feminist community, as these seem to be the communities that are almost parodied in terms of grammar.  There are capitalizations of words that would not "normally" be capitalized (I use quotation marks around "normally" because I do not want to infer that to be a part of the communities listed is abnormal/negative), awkward pluralities and singulars mixed up on purpose to make points, and wordplay that borders on the ridiculous even while some characters in certain sects take it very, very seriously.  Shelley Jackson (the author) seems to be poking a bit of fun at the community languages of minority groups, and sometimes it's nice to see that hey, these things *do* seem a little ridiculous at times (the whole Goddess sect of feminism can seem a little wackadoodle from the outside), though on the other hand...poking fun at grammar is one thing, but poking fun at how a community refers to themselves is a little more problematic particularly if one is not a part of the communities (I am unsure of Ms. Jackson's membership status).  So I'm a little torn on the use of the device.  But I sort of like it, because it IS a cultural mirror.  I would like to remind any readers that I was NOT a sociology major in college, and I am aware there are certainly better grammatic/social terms for what I'm talking about here, and better ways to be more sensitive, but while I understand a lot of concepts...I'm not particularly good at writing about them without sounding like a jackass sometimes, so...forgive me, and I'm happy to change if presented with ways in which to change my *own* grammar (without sounding ridiculous).

The plot thickens some more: The novel springs back and forth between Nora and Blanche's fanciful childhood, a weird dollhouse, a ghost town run by their parents, and a little girl being kept in a cage by their old neighbor.  This is not an easy book to follow from the start, but as the novel continues, it begins to unravel and unravel, the nice neat ball of yarn slowly turning into more of an unsightly blob.  About halfway through the book Nora summons the balls to go to England under the guise of research, when really she is planning to chop off Blanche's head to rid herself of her twofer status.  

But then things get weird: Visiting museums, weird "freak" dead animals begin talking, Nora throws things and she's not the one doing it, and generally Weird Stuff happens.  The narrative becomes less straightforward, and generally things become bogged down and difficult to follow, though I was happy to hang on halfway through since the first part of the book hooked me pretty solidly. the last quarter of the book, things have gone so downhill that I found myself turning pages and only barely scanning them for anything of importance before turning the page to get to the end.  It seems as though from the scene in which Nora/Blanche are on the operating table and the underground sect gets discovered by the police, a huge plot twist occurs that is difficult to follow in and of itself.  In short, Blanche may be more awake than we've thought, and it's nearly Nora who gets the chop.  

The final quarter of the book is a frank loony spin of words strung together.  Jackson seems to be aiming for the highly existential form of writing, but it comes across less abstract and more jumbled and in desperate need of cohesive editing.  It's simply not coherent.  One can be rambling for pages and pages Ulysses-like, but I weary of the clear effort that was put into it.  The incoherence felt forced.  The pages and pages of wandering about take us noplace, and in the end, we are left with no real closure for the characters.  

The front of the book boasts the praise from the New York Times of "Truly glorious" but according to Wikipedia's link to the NYT full review, the quote went on to say that "All this razzle-dazzle, all the allusions, [and] the narrative loop-de-loops [get] a bit busy."  Indeed, busy is the word.  There's a lot of razzle-dazzle, but ultimately, a novel that's purely razzle-dazzle and no substance leaves me empty.

I would like to say that the book didn't come across with the same level of ableism as Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley's "Evelyn Evelyn" music endeavorer did when it first hit.


The amount of ableism is a bit staggering.  Eve and Lyn, the shy conjoined twin sisters "discovered" by Palmer and Webley, need to be saved and discovered by the "able bodied" Palmer and Webley; they cannot speak for themselves for their shyness; some of their writing says that Palmer and Webley tried to "lure them into the studio" again implying that Palmer and Webley have power that Eve and Lyn do not, and it paints them in a sub-position while P & W are dominant, the Evelyn sisters are painted as wonders, etc...  It should be noted that prior to the Evelyn Evelyn album being released, the sisters were painted as being completely real and not at all fictitious.

DisabledFeminists says it much better than I can though (I am able-bodied, though my mom is disabled -- note that I am not using that as a "I have a [minority] [friend/relative] statement as a 'therefore I understand everything and cannot ever exhibit [racism/ableism/-ism] myself!' argument): The stereotypes about disability here are pretty well-worn: according to this (fictional) backstory, the twins were “discovered by” and need “help” from two abled individuals, Palmer and Webley, to realize their musical potential. Add to this their “inspiring” origin story — which is fodder for a graphic novel tie-in — and you’ve got yourself one hell of a three-ring circus of disability stereotypes.  Thus far, it looks like Evelyn Evelyn’s primary aim is to be “inspiring” to abled folks (and to be a bit of creative fun for Palmer and Webley). The three songs currently available on MySpace only serve to continue this trope; “A Campaign of Shock and Awe,” in particular, casts the twins as “the 8th wonder of the natural world.” Good to know that even fictional people with disabilities are not exempt from being cast as “wonders” from which non-disabled people can draw inspiration and “marvel” at.Sound familiar? Add in a dash of hipster ableism and you’ve got something that looks positively transgressive, especially in comparison to the rest of the music industry.

The good aka back to Half Life: A Novel
I did not get the same vibe from Shelley Jackson's portrayal of the twofer community that I get from Palmer and Webley.  Nora and Blanche are people, not simple wonders to be marveled at, and we aren't led to pity them through the narrative, which probably would have been really, really easy to do, which leads me to suspect that Jackson tried deliberately not to write in an ableist fashion.

The book's premise is interesting.  Jackson presents it well, and I like the inclusion of Venn diagrams as a part of the twofer community language, and the "Siamese Twin Reference Manual" chapter bridges are nice transitional pieces that are witty and a bit biting sometimes.  When it's coherent, the novel is indeed dazzling...if only Jackson could reign it in a little to continue the coherence above the simple play of sounds of words at times, this could have gotten a lot more attention (though apparently some people liked it more than I did, since in 2006 it won James Tiptree, Jr. Award for science fiction and fantasy).  

All in all, I wouldn't say flat-out don't read it...but I would suggest that one should be prepared for a lot of weirdness in the second half.  If you speed-read and scan, it will probably be more enjoyable than if you are a reader who reads every word.  

Final thought: It's still better than Gene Wolfe's Shadow and Claw in terms of coherent narrative.

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