Wednesday, April 24, 2002

The Melancholy of Anatomy: Stories

Posted By on Wed, Apr 24, 2002 at 12:00 AM

It takes a certain intuitive strength and skill to pull a reader into the realm of the unreal and hold her there.

With just one hypertext novel (Patchwork Girl) under her belt, young writer Shelley Jackson has constructed The Melancholy of Anatomy: Stories with a level of seductive engagement that reeks of something primitive as much as it is marked by sophistication and skill. Her strange tales enclose the senses in a space full of dreamlike symbols: a giant, wet, living egg, cancer in the form of a plant, a fetus that walks the earth, the alchemy of bodily fluids, etc. And the mechanism that captures the imagination does not let go willingly.

Stretching, overflowing, conjuring and melting the everyday with the surreal, Jackson works like a painter or a maker of lucid dreams along the lines of authors Kathe Koja and Kathy Acker. She dissects ruthlessly. She transplants skillfully moving parts, forms and contents of the human body into puzzling contexts. For example, the egg and sperm are moved outside the body and the context of sexuality. By the end, each of her stories illuminates its subjects, manifestations and substances, allowing us to see through the diaphanous skin into inner spaces where blood and secrets pulsate.

Jackson frames her wildly unconventional work in tradition. She divides her stories into sections based on the four carnal humours found in English literature of the 17th century: Choleric, Melancholic, Phlegmatic and Sanguine. Within these categories, titles such as “Heart,” “Egg,” “Sperm,” “Nerve,” “Blood” and “Milk” appear. Only two of them seem out of place at first: “Cancer” and “Dildo.”

She works on each tale like a surgeon would approach a body, with the intent to invade, expose, reinvent. She may be accused of letting her often violent imagination loose on them, but not without letting them snap back at her, as if they had a life and will of their own. Some are cut and spliced with short films, historical documents and other odd breaks in the narrative. All of them maintain a kind of intelligent, hallucinogenic quality.

“Sometimes I miss things, or see things that aren’t there, flashing shapes like the blades or warrior goddesses, the vanes of transcendental windmills,” the narrator in Jackson’s short story, “Cancer,” confesses. And that must be at least partially true for the author of the quiet, troubling and provocative hallucinations in these pages.

Shelley Jackson will join Kelly Link, author of Stranger Things Happen, for an appearance on Tuesday, May 28, 7 p.m., at Shaman Drum Bookshop, 313 S. State St., Ann Arbor — call 734-662-7407.

E-mail Norene Cashen at


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