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Half Life [Hardcover]

Shelley Jackson

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Amazon.com: 3.4 out of 5 stars  19 reviews
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Almost brilliant...but then not 11 Dec 2006
By korper - Published on Amazon.com
The re-imagined world this book inhabits is nothing short of extraordinary. The minority "twofer" community holds a (cracked) mirror up to the gay and transgendered communities, feminism and religious minorities, pulling no punches with regards to any. Shelley Jackson has a rich imagination and a gift for prose and she knows it. During much of this book, I was rapt and swept up by the story.

What a disappointment, then, when it collapses into post-modern drudgery. Jackson lets her language get away from her in some passages (even after re-reading, I still have no clear idea of what happened to Nora and Blanche on the operating table), then completely loses her novel to gimmickry in the all-but-unreadable last 100 pages. The book's "Part Three" is so maddeningly self-referential that it's almost masturbatory -- a dull, seemingly endless list of overly thought-out entries in a "diary" that neither advances the story nor contributes fresh insights. "Part Four" tries to get back on track but instead settles for absurdity and evasion. Half Life's stubborn refusal to answer the multitude of questions it raises in its first three quarters could be read as Lynchian but instead comes off as a failed, half-baked writing experiment.

Too bad because there's a lot to admire in this book. I haven't read any of Shelley Jackson's other works, but I hope with her next book she drops the gimmicks and just tells a story. I'm sure it could be amazing.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An exceptional debut 5 Sep 2006
By Eric G. Anderson - Published on Amazon.com
Comparisons to Nabokov are both inevitable -- the novel's first line pays homage to Lolita's opening -- and apt, as Jackson shares her predecessor's preoccupation with ambiguities of identity, authority, and signification, as well as all the opportunities for wordplay and symbology that these themes present. But Jackson's voice is also very much her own -- cynical, relentless, and very funny.

It hardly does the novel justice to call it densely layered. It can be read as a satire of identity politics, a meditation on semiotics, a critique of the nuclear age, a murder mystery (of sorts), a love story -- that's just for starters. Readers who have dipped a toe into post-structural theory should put this novel on their desert island reading list -- there's plenty to occupy them here. But the story is so firmly grounded in the visceral and emotional that readers in search of an un-deserted beach read won't be disappointed either.

I've read more Amazon reviews than I can count and have never posted one before now. This novel drove me to it. Heck, I'll probably get on board for her tattoo project too, if its success will spur more writing like this. Jackson deserves a big readership and other good things.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Surreal to the point of incoherence 16 Mar 2007
By Jamie Holcomb - Published on Amazon.com
I picked up the book because the premise was intriguing, and it was compelling enough that I read all the way to the end. Gradually, though, it became surreal to the point of incoherence as Nora (or Blanche) experiences increasing hallucinations.

I'm not a lazy reader who can't tolerate any ambiguity or odd moments. But I feel that those pages should be a minority in a good book. Storytelling should come first. I am much more willing to wrestle with a difficult bit if I have something to work with. For the last hundred pages or so of this book, there just wasn't anything to grab on to. In addition, the frequent, unnecessary references to bodily functions were off-putting. If you like this sort of pretentious fiction, go right ahead- but if you like a book you can actually read, pick something else.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful plot idea---but why can't the author just tell the story??? 10 Feb 2007
By Suzanne Amara - Published on Amazon.com
Books like this always make me want to scream---Just tell the darn story! The plot idea is a great one---a slightly altered present reality where conjoined twins are more common than in the real world, mostly those with one body and two heads. They are enough of a minority to have advocate groups and so on. The narrator is one of a set of twins. Her conjoined sister has "fallen asleep" into what seems like a coma, and the narrator is seeking an illegal operation to have her sister's head removed. That's a plot that I think could carry most any book, but instead of USING the plot, the author tells around it with dream sequences and flashbacks and odd subplots and writing in forms like lists or poems that you just about go crazy trying to figure out what actually has happened. A great deal of the tale is about the childhood of the sisters, but in a few words you are left thinking that none of what is remembered actually really happened. I guess there are those who enjoy this kind of writing, but I can't say I really do. But although I kept thinking I would just stop reading, I never did---the plot was enough to keep me reading and TRYING to figure out what the ending was---and I can't say I'm sure I ever did. I can't really recommend this book, but I can say it's unusual and not something you will read a lot else like---for what that is worth!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Partial success. 14 April 2008
By frumiousb - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I have the urge to start comparing this book to other books-- two other specific books, to be exact. I want to compare it to Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet and Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. The comparisons are, in their own way, cheap shots. Both books have an obvious point of overlap in the subject matter (the interest in the bomb testing grounds in the Millet and the idea of reclassifying normal personhood in the Dunn). All three books seem to me to do the same thing (to greater or lesser degrees) where they paint themselves into a corner with their good ideas.

As you can guess from this description, I found the second part of Half Life somewhat disappointing. While I enjoyed the obvious energy and skill of the writer, the prose pyrotechnics (lists, poetry, dream sequences, etc.) started to grate at a certain moment. In the first half of the book, I found the various non-standard narrative elements exciting. By the second half of the book it felt busy, and a distraction from the too-obvious fact that the plot was not holding up very well. I still enjoyed reading the book, but I just cared less and less about the fate of Blanche and Nora. At least a little bit less would have been more for this reader.

(If you don't know, Jackson is writing about a hypothetical world where siamese twins start being born on a regular basis-- a proper mutation, nearly, rather than a freak. This story asks what happens when siamese twins just can't get along in the same body. It is not as silly of an idea as it sounds, and Jackson handles the conceit rather well-- aside from the concerns that I note here. The world building was very well done.)

Three-and-a-half stars, really. In the end I rounded up rather than down for the energy of the author.
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