The Melancholy of Anatomy
by Shelley Jacson

Anchor Books
First Collection

"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 city.

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 invisible?

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 dream.

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 terrifying.

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 begins.

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 in. 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 think.

Read a story from this collection in Fence

Holly Corfield Carr is a Bristol-based writer. She is currently working in collaboration with a sculptor and ceramic artist in Stoke-on-Trent for a commission supported by Rednile Projects in partnership with the British Ceramics Biennial. She will be writer-in-residence at the Burslem School of Art in July 2012.
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Shelley Jackson is a San Francisco-based writer and a leading innovator of hyperfiction and electronic literature. She grew up in California in the women’s bookshop that her family ran in Berkeley. She is the author of the critically- acclaimed hypertext reworking of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Patchwork Girl (1995).