Lance Olsen reviews Shelley Jackson's first print collection.
The extraordinarily bizarre fever-dream worlds Shelley Jackson imagines in her first fiction collection, The Melancholy of Anatomy, are swamped with suet, blood, gametes, guts, malignancy, and the odd sex machine. A town on the Great Plains, for instance, is surrounded by fields of nerves that are harvested like wheat and made into nerve dolls and nerve guitars. An old woman tells her chronicler about the long-ago days when she worked with gigantic tampons as a swabber in the pipes below London through which the city's menstrual flow seeped once a month. In a litany of the kinds and qualities of slumber, a narrator reports how sleep on occasion falls from the sky as a golden rain, on occasion as snow, on occasion as warm dry crumbs, and how, if one wishes to abandon one's current life, one can always mold a substitute for oneself from the stuff of sleep and leave it in one's place; politicians, it turns out, do this all the time.
Reading these stories, one is reminded again and again of the logic of strangeness that shapes Kafka's narrative dimensions, before which his characters evince slight yet persistent perplexity and sadness. The odd, the outré, the outrageous have always-already erupted in our lives without warning; this is the given. Radical metamorphosis has become commonplace. The rest is reaction. One is reminded as well of Calvino's sparkling imagination and his child-like astonishment before the physics of existence and narratology in such works as Cosmicomics -- although in place of Calvino's cool, theoretically angular constructions Jackson provides warm, damp, corporeally amorphous ones. "I am interested in writing that verges on nonsense, where nonsense is not the absence of sense, but the superfluity of it," she asserts in "Stitch Bitch: The Patchwork Girl," her well-known critifictional meditation on the body, femininity, and hypertext. "I would like to sneak as close to that limit as possible without reaching it. This is the old kind of interactive writing: writing so dense or so slippery that the mind must do a dance to keep a grip on it" (533). It is no wonder, then, that her rich, textured language of defamiliarization harmonizes well with Ben Marcus's (she in fact winks in his direction here both by naming him and by echoing his diction and signature disruptions in a long Marcusian passage on "phlegm energy" [118-121]), or that her literary parentage includes genetic traces of Barthelme's dislocated comedy and the ominous absurdities of Angela Carter's fractured fairytales. Stacey Levine interviews Ben Marcus and writes about his Age of Wire and String
Placing Jackson in such company may seem too brawny an evaluative gesture by half, but I'm confident this is not the case. Her remarkable work not only harmonizes admirably with that lineage, but it also self-consciously grows out of and carries on a flourishing conversation with it. Each of her playful and disquieting fictions -- often each paragraph within each fiction -- reveals a fresh and starling sense of what story can be. Each, that is, embraces the notion of what Jackson in "Stitch Bitch" calls "disrespectful texts": writing that through the use of skeptical humor, linguistic and structural disorientation, and impurity of form "staggers off the straight and narrow" (527) and thereby "loosens the categories" (528). While nowadays these traits seem the sine qua non of hypertextuality, Jackson has been quick to point out from early on that "some of the best writing in print" has always possessed them (527). In "Women and Technology, Beyond the Binary," an electronic roundtable discussion in which she participated, Jackson specifically pays homage ("nervously") to the modernist avant-garde in the figures of Joyce, Stein, Woolf, and a "handful of so-called postmodern innovators" who make merry with what she describes as "a proliferation of grammars" designed to continually rethink narrativity in diverse ways.
Viewing "Stitch Bitch" through the lens of The Melancholy of Anatomy, one is quickly tempted to say that the former was never really a theoretical celebration of hypertext at all. Instead, in hindsight, it increasingly appears to have been an autobiographical celebration of the transgressive, the nonlinear, the innovative, the oppositional, and the feminine that has formed a permanent Frankensteinian impulse in fiction's historical dynamics. Apologists' often charged rhetoric notwithstanding, hypertext is therefore simply a fairly recent but by no means wholly unique iteration of that impulse -- a lovely emblem of which is the chivalrous, restless, and extremely strong foetus that literally floats into a town one day and renovates it in one of The Melancholy of Anatomy 's most engaging pieces. Each citizen reads the foetus's arrival differently from his or her peers, each is challenged by it in a singular fashion, and each is changed, some for the better, some for the worse, some for a little of both. The foetus becomes a new religion for some, while for others it becomes the manifestation of love, while for still others it becomes a means toward having more intense sex. In each case, however, one's engagement with the foetus -- as well as with Jackson's story about the foetus -- is transformative:
The foetus is made of something like our flesh, but not the same, it is a sort of über flesh, rife with potentialities (for the foetus is, of course, incomplete -- always; unfinished--perpetually), it is malleable beyond our understanding, hence unutterably tender, yet also resilient. (51)
"I think in things," Jackson once told Mark Amerika in an interview. "Complicated ideas come to me in flesh, concrete metaphor with color, heft, stink." Representative of this turn of imagination, the foetus is a metaphorization of foetal fiction. Both are reminders that, as the narrator of another story in Jackson's collection realizes, "This is the real world.... Pay more attention to it" (66). Both engender possibility spaces that urge us to take notice of and wonder and question and enjoy and find ourselves unsettled by the opulent oddness of things, to think about how we read, how and why we make meaning.
What ultimately separates Jackson's art from the art of those I mentioned above, of course, is its abiding fascination with the body. In the brief autobiographical sketch included in the Anchor Books PR package for The Melancholy of Anatomy, Jackson mentions that she became interested in the human form as early as a life drawing class she took while an undergraduate at Stanford: "My drawings were of bodies falling through space; the mood was apocalyptic." Soon the falling bodies became exploding ones; the mood modulated from apocalyptic into "cheerfully macabre, even funny":
In the confluence of the comic and the grisly in these drawings, more than in my early writings, I can see the origins of the work I'm doing now. It also occurs to me that those gaily exploding bodies are the first appearance of the "body in pieces" theme I'm still exploring years later in The Melancholy of Anatomy.
The "body in pieces" theme also informs her two major hypertext projects. In Patchwork Girl (1995), among a handful of the most successful and powerful expressions of disk-based narrative to date, Jackson appropriates, collages, and manipulates Shelley's Frankenstein and L. Frank Baum's Patchwork Girl of Oz, as well as various imagined and theoretical texts, to suggest through the extended metaphor of flesh-book bricolage that "all bodies are written bodies, all lives pieces of writing." The consequence italicizes the fact that, as Hayles argues in her essay on Jackson's work, any attempt "to achieve unity (that never was) results in confusion worse than accepting the human condition as multiple, fragmented, chimerical." Both gender and identity enter the realm of what Hayles calls the "flickering signifier" (How We Became Posthuman 46-47), a post-Saussurian, deeply Derridean region where randomness and uncertainty -- along with the sense of extreme mutation such notions house -- shape the Ovidian nature of signifying systems. Jackson recapitulates these thematics in her web-based hypertext, My Body (1997), where a sketchy diagram of a segmented female form opens onto narraticules of memoir, critifictional meditation, and imagination.
Jackson has been especially interested in the (frequently female) body as a site of monstrosity: sometimes liberating, sometimes devastating, usually some complex and forever-shifting combination of the two. But this inclination has never been so pronounced as it is in The Melancholy of Anatomy. If in Patchwork Girl and My Body Jackson used hypertext's ability to emphasize in literal ways the reality of cleaving subjectivities and the body's existence as culturally constructed crazy-quilt text, here she uses the (relatively speaking, needless to say) concatenated monoplot inherent in print narrative to explore the body as a locus of continual imperfection -- not in order to diminish it, but in order to more fully understand and appreciate it, take pleasure in its possibilities for sorrow, amusement, and even enjoyment. For Jackson, as for the protagonist of one of her fictions, "all attempts at perfection are destructive" (74). The well-made body, the well-made self, and the well-made plot are rigid dead zones whose artificial formations imply stasis, circumscription, and the failure of creative freedom. The engaging and the invigorating discover their source in the contaminated, the infected, the mongrel, the ill-defined, the unhygienic, the grotesque, the interstitial, the gigantic, the invasive, the gothic, the gooey. Jackson affirms the freakish because for her freaks are the real survivors in evolutionary, gender, and narratological terms.
If in her hypertexts she investigated the enclosed spaces of the jerry-rigged body, here it is as if the body's poorly sealed seams have split open and the body itself ruptured, its unclean contents -- "teeming with life, rich with invention and innovation" (19-20)-- spilling out to embody the world like those comic, grisly, exploding human forms in her early drawings. Black hearts bigger than planets "absorb light, hope, and dust particles, ...[and] eat comets and space probes" (3). After a painful breakup, an anguished woman allows the fat that naturally grows on walls and furniture in her cosmos to amass until she is swimming through the yellowish ooze like an insect in hardening amber. One Thursday, cancer appears drifting in the middle of man old man's living room, "barely visible, a pink fizz, a bloodshot spot of air" (56). It begins growing, and it doesn't stop until it has inundated the protagonist's house and flooded into his yard, its deathly fecundity all the while somehow mysteriously linked to the little girl undergoing chemo next door. A thirty-six-year-old lesbian named Imogen notices a red speck in the corner of her eye and dabs it free with a Kleenex. The speck turns out to be an egg, and the egg, like that cancer, begins to grow. When it begins to attract insects, Imogen hauls it out into the backyard. When it becomes almost as large as she is, she forces herself into it, swimming toward what she hopes will be revelation and psychological revolution--but no such luck. Characters in the world according to Jackson will never locate epiphany or resolution. Their off-kilter existences are about getting on, about continuously adapting to the intricate algebra of change.
These narratives of embodiment slant-rhyme with those of Kathy Acker in Blood and Guts in High School, Bob Flanagan in Sick, David Lynch in Eraserhead, and David Cronenberg in Naked Lunch -- and yet there is something existentially lighter about Jackson's versions. They possess a greater wry acceptance of the body and its variable leakages, a greater stylistic appreciation of the body of language. In one piece, for example, Jackson provides us with an alternate reality in which glutinous phlegm produced through a slit in one's throat has become a major form of social interaction:
Turn on the TV and you'll see politicians holding up their gummy fingers, triumphant sports stars stretching a translucent cord between their raised fists, picture-perfect parents leaning over a crib with improbably large bubbles of phlegm hanging from their faces; in tabloids pale starlets battle through green maelstroms to make Opening Night, phlegm dripping between their D-cups. (95)
The protagonist of the piece, who produces an unfortunate excess of the stuff, is stuck caring for her grief-stricken, dull, phlegm-less father. Reminiscent of the patriarch who refuses to die even after death in Barthelme's postmodern parable, The Dead Father, this old man's lack of imagination, need for control, and aversion to the body's fluid self is his daughter's undoing--and yet the narrative's striking prose, fun with form, and resonant comic vision work as an antidote against the father's stifling drive and all it connotes.
Wonderfully varied in structure and voice, Jackson's thirteen stories (a number, by the way, that implies unlucky in-between-ness itself), reminds us over and over again, as Imogen learns by dealing with her huge egg, that we are our bodies, and that our bodies have a perpetual lesson for us: "we are built to slump, trickle, and run" (29). For Jackson, this -- along, I suspect, with the profound irony embedded in these fictions and others attempting to engage with the question of the body: that in writing one can never know the slumpy, trickly, runny thing itself, only our disembodied words and metaphors for it -- is the melancholy of anatomy. But it is also anatomy's bliss.
Amerika, Mark. "Stitch Bitch: The Hypertext Author As
Hayles, N. Katherine.
How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies
in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
--------------------------. "Flickering Connectivities in
Patchwork Girl: The Importantce of Media-Specific Analysis."
Postmodern Culture. (2000).
Patchwork Girl. Eastgate Systems, 1995.
--------------------. "Stitch Bitch: The Patchwork Girl."
Paradoxa 4.11 (1998): 526-38.
--------------------. "Biography." PR Material for
The Melancholy of Anatomy. Anchor Books, 2002.
Ley, Jennifer. "Women and Technology, Beyond the Binary: A
Roundtable Discussion with N. Katherine Hayles, Marjorie Perloff,
Diane Greco, Linda Carroll, and Shelley Jackson."