The Melancholy of Anatomy
by Shelley Jacson
"Sperm are ancient creatures, single-minded as coelacanths. They are
drawn to the sun, the moon, and dots and disks of all descriptions,
including periods, stop signs, and stars. They worship at nail
heads, doorknobs and tennis balls. More than one life has been saved
by a penny tossed in the air."
Reviewed by Holly Corfield Carr
The world of The Melancholy of Anatomy is a world under
attack. Each story in this great oozing, sluicing collection
documents another assault from a host of uncanny, unhygienic aliens.
However, Shelley Jackson has devised a world that is attacking
itself. The aliens are, in fact, from around these parts.
Oversized internal organs loom, heavy and expansive and startlingly
familiar over the city; in the dark of the bedroom; in the next
toilet cubicle; in the soil. These aren’t stories of aliens from
outer space. These are stories in which adolescent sperm lollop
along like loyal puppies, a brooding tumour sits on a sofa, a fetus
the size of a zeppelin floats in a hangar on the outskirts of the
It’s an invasion of aliens from inner space.
The short, short Heart opens the body of the work, ruminating
on the black holes being created by hearts the size of planets out in
space: "hearts that absorb light, hope, and dust particles, that
eat comets and space probe".
In pulsing, paranoid prose Heart introduces the idea that the
hearts emit "backwards light" that makes them visible "in the
form of a blind spot". It’s a fascinating idea and one that
continues to rattle around my head while I progress through the other
stories – can we see something when, or even because, it is
The hearts' uncanny presence at the start of the collection is
something that reminds me of what the philosopher Slavoj Žižek
calls "the blot", the smudge on the lens of a film camera. A
film shows us a complete and convincing reality: we sink into the
fiction. But the smudge on the camera punctures the illusion and
alerts us to another dimension; an invisible dimension beyond the
frame, behind the camera. The fiction doesn’t collapse – but
there’s a bit of grit in it that rubs.
The presence of bodily aliens in The Melancholy of Anatomy is
similarly gritty. In Hearts the
galactically-proportioned hearts are too heavy for reality and "they
punch a hole in it and sink through to the dream underneath". And
it is to the pulse of these hearts, and of the prose, that the rest
of the collection keeps rhythm. Jackson takes something as familiar
as our own body and punctures it, turns it insides out to show us the "dream underneath" our own skin. And it’s not a pleasant
The collection divides itself into humeric categories — ‘Choleric’,
‘Melancholic’, ‘Phlegmatic’ and ‘Sanguine’ — and moves
through the stories like a surgeon turning over each organ and
cutting it loose. The results are excellent - the stories are
The ‘Choleric’ section opens with Egg, a quietly
petrifying story about a shop assistant who find a little bit of grit
in her eye. So far, so Brief Encounter. But the grit isn’t
a plot device for our protagonist to meet a stranger at a railway
station. Like Žižek’s blot, this "irritant, a red dot smaller
than a pinhead" slides into Imogen’s world, and inverts it. This
story is an eerie, eggy Close Encounter.
The egg swells until it becomes a gargantuan, sticky orb that
attracts flies and attention. Imogen’s fascination swells
alongside, until she perforates the egg’s membrane and swims
inside, starts to cook its oily flesh and sleeps with it at night.
Interspersed with ‘Reading Notes’ full of philosophical and
historical accounts of totemic eggs, definitions of essential
eggy-ness and dark folkloric tales of ovate terrors, Egg best
demonstrates the thrilling injections of the extravagant, wonderful
untruths that Jackson’s fiction can convince us – we hope against
hope – could be true.
Jackson’s experimental style and vivacious imagination continues in
Cancer, the first story of the ‘Melancholic’ section. The
tumour in Cancer grows at an "improbable speed" but not in
the body of the narrator. In fact, the cancer "appeared in my
living room sometime between eleven and three on a Thursday". The
weary detail of this opening line belies the extraordinary tale it
This is a cancer that appears as a "pink fizz" mid-air, and
proceeds to root itself through the city. This is a cancer that
seems to be all of animal, mineral and vegetable at once. It grows "twigs" out of a body as "solid as meat". This is a cancer
that spreads from the most domestic of settings until it affects
everything: "The sky looks like it hurts".
Blurring the boundary of skin, the cancer then tries to get back
The narrator wakes up one night ingesting a root of her own cancer: "a
sweet taste was in my mouth and there was some sediment on my
tongue, granular and faintly chalky". Again, the grit, the
irritant – these are uncomfortable, uncanny stories.
The title of the collection, The Melancholy of Anatomy, is
an inversion of the title of Robert Burton’s 1621 publication,
Anatomy of Melancholy. The exchange of subject and object in
the collection’s title anticipates the exchange that takes place in
each story, as Jackson populates the stories with autonomous organs
that terrorise the characters: object eats subject.
In his book, The Inhuman (1988), Jean-François Lyotard talks
of "a mind haunted by a familiar and unknown guest which is
agitating it, sending it delirious but also making it think." This
object, this "guest", requires the subject to reflect on who, or
what it is. And this is what Jackson’s collection so powerfully
demonstrates – the eerily familiar turning on us and turning us out
of our minds.
It is an brilliant first collection from a writer whose other works
have included a short story, Skin, published solely in
tattooed ink on the skin of 2095 volunteers and a ground-breaking,
feminist hyperfiction, Patchwork Girl, which retells the story
of a Frankenstein’s monster through short, unstitched passages that
the reader navigates through. The sinister, hovering body-in-pieces
presented in The Melancholy of Anatomy continues Jackson’s
investigation into the fragmented body, and the poetic, chaotic
stories are enough to send you delirious. But, boy, they make you
Read a story from this
collection in Fence