A brilliant, disquieting first novel about a pair of conjoined twins who are deeply unhappy in each other's company. Nora, the dominant twin, is strong, funny, and deeply independent, thirsting for love and adventure. Blanche, by contrast, has been sleeping for nearly twenty years. Finally sick of carrying her sister's dead weight, Nora decides she wants her other half gone for good, so she leaves San Francisco for London in search of the mysterious Unity Foundation, which promises to make two one. And that one, of course, will be Nora -- Blanche will be mourned, but not missed.
But once Nora arrives in London, her past begins to surface in surprising and disturbing ways, forcing her into a most reluctant voyage into memory. Something seems to be drawing Nora's thoughts back to the site of her rather unusual conception, birth, and childhood -- the reconstructed ghost town of Too Bad, Nevada, where lizards skitter across the playa and "Shootout at Noon" comes every day. Searching for meaning and understanding in both her own and Blanche's past, Nora pushes herself to the brink of insanity -- and begins to question her own, and Blanche's, grip on the truth. Grotesque, funny, intricately wrought, verbally and conceptually dazzling, Shelley Jackson's first novel is an imaginative and touching portrait of two lives in a cleft world yearning for wholeness -- a world not unlike our own.
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About the Author
Shelley Jackson is the author of the short story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy, the hypertext novel Patchwork Girl, several children's books, and "Skin," a story published in tattoos on the skin of more than two thousand volunteers. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Read an Excerpt
Half LifeA Novel
By Shelley Jackson
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Shelley Jackson
All right reserved.
Blanche, white night of my dark day. My sister, my self. Blanche: a cry building behind sealed lips, then blowing through. First the pout, then the plosive; the meow of the vowel; then the fricative sound of silence.
Shhhh. Blanche is sleeping. She has been sleeping for fifteen years.
I can tell you the exact moment I knew she was waking up. But allow me a day's grace. Let me remember that last afternoon, unimportant in itself, wonderfully unimportant, when I was still Nora, just Nora, Nora Olney, Nora alone.
The flags lining Market Street from Church to Castro flexed and snapped, showing sometimes one, sometimes two linked rings. The stop signs shuddered on their spines. The wind had picked up in the late afternoon, as usual, and now the whole sky seemed to be toppling sideways over the Twin Peaks, carrying with it whorls of smoke from the incinerators and pure white spooks of fog. I was meandering home from the movie theater without the tickets I'd gone there for, joggling two oranges in a plastic bag and going over my excuses. Blanche was sleeping. Of course she was. I dropped into the gutter to skirt some crowd-control fences ganged in readiness against a streetlight,and our heads collided. A distant, confused echo of her pain overtook and lost itself in mine, but her breathing stayed steady and deep.
I was threading my way along the curb. The sidewalk was already thronged with out-of-towners, already dressed for Pride in brand-new T-shirts with rubbery silk-screened slogans, "One's Company" and "22" and "YESIAMESE." They were strolling in twos and threes and fours of varying molecular structure, exchanging glances of appraisal and nervous pleasure. The singletons anxious to understand, to be seen understanding. The twofers beaming, indecently grateful for one weekend of sanctioned self-satisfaction. Tomorrow they'd all be here: Siamese and Siamystics, conjoined and joiners, doppelgangers and gruesome twosomes, double-talkers, double-dealers, twice-told tale tellers. An odious prospect. Already I was getting looks of curiosity and sympathy, like the birthday child in a leukemia ward.
The twin amplifiers flanking the temporary stage back at Eighteenth Street retched, rid themselves of five beats of that ubiquitous "We-R-2-R-1-4-Ever," went dead. No we're not, I thought, reflexively. I pulled one hood of my hoodie farther over Blanche, but her blond hair spilled out, catching a rogue ray of sun, and the tourists gave each other quick digs with their elbows. It's Sleeping Beauty! As for the hag with the two-faced apple in her pocket, everyone knows how the story goes. Sooner or later she'll have to turn the other cheek.
"Repent," advised the wizened lady in the plastic visor who protested every day at Market and Sixteenth. Today her hand-lettered sign read "GO BACK TO SIAM."
"Oh, I do," I said, fervently, hand on hearts. She slit her eyes at me, suspicious.
Let me be clear, while I still can. I am a twofer -- what they used to call a Siamese twin, though I prefer "conjoined," with its faint echo of the alchemists' conjunctio and those copulatives copulating in grammar books. I'm the one on the left, your right. Blanche is on my right, your left. I -- oh, say it: we -- have strong cheekbones, long earlobes, hazel eyes, and dirty-blond hair, which is also usually dirty blond hair. Glamour is not very important to me, and it seems goofy to groom Blanche, like trimming my pubes into a heart. But I'm not really a hag. I am stern, though, and wear the marks of habitual sternness, while Blanche is smooth as soap. I never used to need a mirror to see what I looked like, I just turned my head. But we have grown apart, Blanche in her beauty sleep and I.
Dicephalus dipus dibrachius. That's two heads, two legs, and two arms: standard-issue twofer. Aside from that pair of face cards we hold an average hand, not much different from yours. Novelties include the short third collarbone we share between us; a spinal column that begins to divide in two around the sixth thoracic vertebra, flaring the upper chest; two windpipes, two and a half lungs, and a deuce of hearts. Audrey says vampires also have two hearts, one good, one bad. While the good heart beats, the vampire is as capable of kindness as any human soul, but when the good heart stops, the beat of the bad heart strengthens in the dying breast, and makes a decent woman rise from her coffin to prey on everyone she once loved best. The blood of kinfolk wets her chin.
If this is true of twofers too, I know which heart is mine.
I cut around the flower stall at the corner, vaulting a white bucket in which a single sunflower was privately flaunting itself, filling the whole bucket with a secret glow. My shadow eclipsed it for the duration of a blink. Blanche's head jerked when I landed, but this time, my hand was there to steady it. In the lee of the stall, I suddenly felt the lingering warmth of the June day. My temples prickled. The smell of smoke and roses rose around me. The light strengthened, the streetcar tracks shone like new scars, and I thought of the young woman recently killed by a streetcar on Church -- "Decapitated," Trey had reported with relish, though you couldn't believe everything he said -- and let go of Blanche's neck.
Across the street, a duplex figure in a festival T-shirt waved a fluttering pink flyer. Cindi and Mindi? I could not remember their names, but I had a feeling they rhymed. Twofer names so often do. Jane and Elaine, then, or Mitzi and Fritzi, were passing out flyers with both hands next to a leaning cutout of RubiaMorena, this year's Pride queen. Knowing it was futile, I kept my face lowered as I crossed, as if trying to read something in the shadow that glided along with me, symmetrical and terrible as a Rorschach blot.
Excerpted from Half Life by Shelley Jackson Copyright © 2006 by Shelley Jackson. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
“I loved this book. . . . Half Life is twisty and vampy and campy, grotesque, picaresque, droll, and dazzling.”
“Ingenious, sensual, gleeful. . . . It demands of its readers only imagination, and rewards them with hilarity, terror, and marvels.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Complicated, yet entertaining and imaginative book about a troubled siamese twin in a 'twofer' society. The story speaks loudly on current events. Loved how the story was written off in different periods of the protagonist's life. I could never put these sort of books down!
Jackson has created an incredible, disturbing world where radiation poisoning has given birth to a new minority of 'two-fers', or Siamese Twins. The book includes details on the whole counter-culture, complete with bumpersticker and t-shirt slogans, political party agendas, activists, and medical underground movements. Be warned- this book has some rather disturbing scenes. But altogether, this book is an amazing fictional look at a life very few people actually live.
The premise was interesting--the twofer population, what happens when your sister is rightthere. Some of the stories of their childhood were repulsive--I was actually nauseated and would have to put the book down. Towards the end, the main character, Nora, seems to be going through some kind of mental breakdown and frankly, I felt like I was having one too, and I do not read to feel insane. It hurt my brain a little.
I found this book unusual and intriguing until the ending. I enjoy a good surreal mind bender. And this book certainly came through. The plot was non-linear and the readers was forced to extract reality from hallucination in an alternate reality setting. I really liked the reality of the conjoined twin world from their status as a minority group to the social, political, and economic ramifications of such a group. From two hooded hoodies to the argument of plane fare and the impact on the criminal justice system. Even romantic relationships take on a very complex structure.That said, she makes the moral of the story a little too plain and ties up the book in a neat little package of metaphors at the end. As if I couldn't figure out on my own that the battle between two drastically different conjoined twins is actually a metaphor for the battle of one's own dark and light sides.Overall I liked the book. I just tend to get put off when an author begins to preach to me.
I backflip to behind the rock and say "well theres the mirror to the human world". I sign and say quietly wait, we all are not allowed in there but im gonna take a risk i thought to my self. Then i quickly open my bag and pull out a human map that i took from elizias bag that it droped in res one. Then i thought hmmmm if i go into the human world i i have to look like a human. As i pull out my brush and my bag of clothes for backup and makeup. I straighten my hair and put on human makeup that you cant see like humans say. And i put on a pink tanktop and shorts and tall black heel boots up to the khees. There im done i say". I grab my bag and put it on my shoulder. I climb up the rock and jump and make an ice bridge. "ouch" i say. As i get up and walk on the bridge. I stop and look down and see something, i jump down and walk in a cave and see a book and matching icepen. Hmm as i say comeing up to it and pick both up. I open the book and see its blank. I say to myself hmm this must be perfect for my quest to the human world to see what it looks like before emma finds out that we not sapposed to go in the human world". I thought. As i put the book and matching icepen in my bag. As i put it on my shouldner andgrab the map ive found. I walk up to the ice bridge and walk and jump through the portal to the human world. (Human world is at human world res 1).
Ciaro is talking about you but idk what about *leaves*
She approached the rock pile and looked around to make sure no one was around. When she was sure she was alone she went through the gap and into her personal cave. There she pulled out of her bag her book and its matching ice pen. Setting them down she stood up and smiled. "Tomarrow I should probally bring some food if im going to be spending time here." Pleased for now she exited and made her way back to the main forrest.
I get it, Jackson! You are able to write flowery, narrative passages. You got too caught up in the language, that I lost the story. The futuristic twofer society, and Nora's personal struggle were interesting concepts. I wish you'd focussed more on fleshing that out than having passages of free association writing.