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Shelley Jackson’s HALF LIFE

Mother and father get together: from two, one. This original coupling spawns life, the birth of I, and the journey of the self. Well, sometimes. Not quite so for Nora and Blanche, the twofer, or conjoined twins, at the center of Shelley Jackson's novel, Half Life. For 28 years on earth, their two heads have shared one body, but Blanche, who's been asleep for 15 years, poses a grammatical, physical, and metaphysical dilemma for her sister, Nora. Driven by the desire to be herself and rid of Blanche, Nora sets off from San Francisco to find the underground Unity Foundation, which will give her a surgical "divorce." If duplicity equals dishonesty, perhaps Nora's quest is for truth. This divorce, however, amounts to cutting Blanche's head off with a cleaver - to cleave, of course, being the operative verb.

As Nora's quest begins, it seems that Blanche is waking up. At first, Nora keeps getting blamed for objects flying through the air at the most inopportune times. But soon, Nora's past seems to be reappearing, doubling back, and inexplicably folding over. We follow Nora and Blanche on a Pynchonesque romp through a world of double agents, mercenaries, masters of disguise, underground laboratories, recurring coincidences, singing stuffed animals, and freak museums. We must accept the indisputable logic of each occurrence. Progressively, all lines begin collapsing, all circles start intersecting, and Nora reaches the limits of her sanity.

The question changes from who threw that? to who is writing this book? and whose memories are these? The physical dilemma presented by two heads sharing one body is as much a problem of language as anything else, and language is at the heart of this novel. Conflation of body and text plays itself out in Jackson's previous work, the hypertext novel, Patchwork Girl and Skin: A Novel in Hypertext. It is no less important here. Indeed, the Unity Foundation asks Nora to identify herself as the recto or verso twin. Towards the novel's end Nora writes, "I have spent my whole life trying to make one story out of two: my word against Blanche's. But we are only as antithetical as this ink and this page. Do these letters have meaning, or the space around them? Neither. It's their difference we read."

To read Half Life is to take a heady ride through a surreal culture of the twofer minority amongst a singleton majority, complete with its attendant jargon, histories, documentaries, philosophies, sympathizers, extremists, and pundits. The novel revels in its own language, the prose is dizzying, electric, and satisfyingly strange, from satirical New Age-y jargon to startling descriptions like, "There were black crowdings pierced with tiny stinging lights … an optical charivari that probably said damaging things about my health, but I liked it …."

Half Life has an almost cyberpunk aesthetic: a recognizable mirror-world, a subculture created by radiation, pilings of new language forms and terminologies. The hypertext novel is also present, in Jackson's use of various texts within her text. A postmodern search for self and an unreliable text, a healthy dose of the absurd and a gothic obsession with the double - Half Life is both an original embodiment of and break from existing forms. True, literature has always been obsessed with otherness, the double and the self, but never quite like this.

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