Embodying the World

Embodying the World

2002-05-02
The Melancholy of Anatomy
The Melancholy of Anatomy
New York: Anchor Books, 2002. 179pp. $12.00.

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 an 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.

works cited

Amerika, Mark. “Stitch Bitch: The Hypertext Author As
Cyborg-Narrator.”
href="http://www.heise.de/tp/english/inhalt/kolu/3193/1.html">Alt-X.

Hayles, N. Katherine.
How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies
in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics
. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

————————–. “Flickering Connectivities in
Shelley Jackson’s
Patchwork Girl: The Importantce of Media-Specific Analysis.”
href="http://www.iath.virginia.edu/pmc/text-only/issue.100/10.2hayles.txt">Postmodern Culture. (2000).

Jackson, Shelley.
Patchwork Girl. Eastgate Systems, 1995.

——————–.
My Body.
Alt-X, 1997.

——————–. “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.”
href="http://www.heelstone.com/meridian/rtable3.html">Riding the
Meridian.