Shelley Jackson does not accept the functions of the body and humans as benign. In the series of vignettes that make up her new book released this month from Anchor Books, The Melancholy of Anatomy, Jackson gives the body's parts and functions personalities that are larger than life.
Sperm, for example, is not a mere bodily fluid. To Jackson, it is something that needs to be hunted and reigned in, like staking out a deer or a fox. There is even a Sperm Conservation Corps, keeping the hunted "off limits from sportswomen and the food industry." The sperm once ran free in a herd that "raised a line of dust across the Great Plains, racing a locomotive."
Sperm also take on the characteristics of their owners: males. The sperm can form a bond with a woman, and become increasingly territorial, stalking the woman with "increased cunning." In an indirect judgment of boys and men, Jackson may have gotten it just right: "The clever antics of the pup are not so cute when the sperm is fully grown."
Not all parts of Jackson's first offering in print are as straightforward. She seems to be a master of the complexities of language; her text is heavily layered with rich phrasing and turns of language.
The heart, the first body part addressed in Melancholy, is very dark and mysterious to Jackson: " I do not understand what the heart is. In this investigation, invisibility is evidence, blindness the closest I may come to insight, the particular shape and tenor of ignorance, a clue and a scripture."
Jackson described cancer, like all the other functions and parts of the body she addresses, is larger than life and represents society's true feelings about the fatal disease. Cancer suffocates the life of its sufferers and their families; as Jackson puts it, "There is something brutal about its vitality."
Jackson puts herself in the place of spotting the cancer in the room with her, watching it grow, wanting to guess its final size, yet it keeps growing. "It had an animal presence, uncouth, yet sly, subtly critical, disturbingly womanly."
Addressing other issues of the body such as blood, sleep, fat and phlegm, Jackson taps into the deepest feelings about the mysteries of our bodies and their effect on the person and people around that person. The body may be a single and contained entity, but in this book, the body is outside itself and affects everything around it, including birds and the neighbor's dog.
Several excerpts from the book will appear in publications such as Grand Street, the Kenyon Review and Black Book Magazine.
Shelley Jackson is best known for Patchwork Girl, an electronic text that is a re-working of the Frankenstein myth. She also illustrates children's books, including two of her own, The Old Woman and the Wave and the forthcoming Sophia: the Alchemist's Dog, according to her Web site. Jackson also gives her fans online periodical hair color updates.
Jackson grew up in Berkeley, Calif. She received a bachelor's in art from Stanford University and a master's of fine arts in creative writing from Brown University. The author's liberal attitude is unmistakable; on her Web site, she apologizes to the world's trees for being used to print her book and asks readers to have their favorite independent bookstore order her book.
Jackson began a short, but wide-spanning reading tour on April 1 that will end April 19. On May 1, she will begin a month long book tour with Kelly Link, dubbed "The Great Pippi Longstocking Memorial Tour." Link's book, a collection of stories, is called Stranger Things Happen and the cover design is Jackson's handiwork.
The Melancholy of Anatomy
By Shelly Jackson
Anchor Books, March 2002