Sisters of the Head

Unhappy together: In Shelley Jackson's debut novel, conjoined twins split the difference

Bridget Jones's Diary first gave the term singleton wide circulation, as a sad but hopeful concept seeking completion in marriage. Before that, it had a biological meaning; or it was a design pattern for Java software developers, or a solitary card dealt of its suit. Now into this variance comes the singleton as Shelley Jackson's unattainable Other: The novel Half Life concocts a world in which twofers—conjoined or "Siamese" twins—are a politicized minority. Protags Nora and Blanche join their many fictional precedents, including, very recently, the twins of Lori Lansens's The Girls (born under a tornado) and DBC Pierre's Ludmila's Broken English (separated at 33 and set loose in Europe). Mark Twain's Those Extraordinary Twins, reconstituted as Pudd'nhead Wilson and included with that book as an appendix, is the granddaddy of a genre that easily turns mawkish or absurd, and Jackson quotes Twain on the manuscript: "I could not offer the book for publication, for I was afraid it would unseat the reader's reason." He pulls the twins apart.

Monstrosity in the realm of possibility is both our great fear and fantasy, and Jackson doesn't flinch. Problematic from narration onward, twofer fiction concedes from the get-go the unsuitability of language to comprehend beings neither single nor plural. (So too law and religion: Half Life's cast includes French twins Evangeline and Bernadette, who are seeking separation before taking the veil because they "do not wish to make of Christ un bigame.") Such asides are cute, but Jackson oversteps the fumbling—"everytwo," "themself"—and manages a remarkably poised and total work. This isn't to say farce doesn't go rewarded: Freudian slips are left unexcised, or purposely, hilariously laid. As Nora slinks to London from twofer headquarters (pun not intended) in San Francisco to seek the services of a shadowy "Dr. Decapitate"—heads keep popping up on the banks of the Thames—she thinks, "I had given nothing away; there was no reason I should give anything away, if I kept my head." Planning murder, admittedly, is trickier when the target shares your body, controls your right hand, and may or may not be conscious (the slowly awakening, nose-whistling Blanche has been "asleep" for 15 years). But the criminal mind develops early, in this case in a ghost-town childhood where dom twin Nora simulates decapitation on barrel cacti: "Do you think I can take your head off with one stroke," she asks Blanche, "or do you think I will have to saw? I will have to cauterize the wound, or I might lose too much blood. Vultures will come. Do you think it will hurt?" Later she adds, "I meant hurt me, not you."

With every multiplication of the types and pains of man comes more psychology to be conquered, and Half Life's setup pretty much demands a glut of talk, mostly parodic, about identity, choice, deviancy (is it snuff porn or, simply, a way to live?), transitional objects, etc., giving it a hyperbolic, time-stamped feel. Jackson works the lingo, but the book's best and fiercest when at its most elemental. Nature/language conundrum Nora flails between extremes—twofer-pride terrorists the Togetherists and elimination proponents Unity, who liken the word and to a venereal disease—but her anxieties are refreshingly unsophisticated, perhaps because literal. On couples and her "intimacy issues": "Nobody likes to watch the blending of things that should be separate. . . . Why would two people who are free to walk away stand side by side and even hold hands?" But on loneliness: "Sometimes I looked at singletons and asked myself, Were they so much happier than me? No, they did not sail their singleton boats on solo voyages and sing songs about being happy alone; they huddled together and went on short trips to familiar places and often asked one another, Do you want to come too?"

Like Jackson's other fictions, the hypertext novel Patchwork Girl and story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy, Half Life doesn't—can't—distinguish between the body's revulsion, its lust, and inescapably and fatefully, the grief at its loss. Men get hard-ons "running to help someone in an overturned car or even driving by some horrible sight"; Nora gets wet as she walks to meet Dr. Decapitate. Campily improper and good fun until it's serious, Jackson's new-age western returns for a last act to the empty bluffs of Too Bad, Nevada (San Francisco proves overlenient; London's like slasher Shakespeare with demented twins coming out of the woodwork). In a scene that feels old as dust, as if glimpsed from some lost reel of the motion pictures, the heroine staggers blindly through the desert, having carved two holes into a dollhouse's hinged halves to wear on her heads. When she says, for the first time, "I was alone in the room," it's a heart-stopping sentence that somehow achieves the opposite of the problem of oneness that is existential literature's bread, and is every bit as terrifying.

Give us comedy, gentle and ridiculous—but at this point, late in the game, retreating to that land where heads knock like castanets in swerving taxicabs, Jackson suggests, would be as impossible as re-entering the womb.

 
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