Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Behold, the Turd

(Dear Shelley Jackson, if you're thinking of reading this blog entry, DON'T. You have an audience; it just isn't me.)

Ever been out doing the lawn warrior thing and pick something up wondering what it is only to discover you're holding animal excrement? Me too.

Lately, at the library, I've taken to snagging a few novels from the "new arrivals" racks every other visit, because I've found some fun, off-the-beaten-path stuff. Of course, on occasion I find myself gripping a turd, yet again.

For the record, my perusal technique has been the same since college: 1) read the jacket notes until it starts giving away the plot, then stop; 2) read the "about the author" section (the more awards listed, the more likely the book will suck), 3) read the first few paragraphs and see if it grabs; and 4) read a random page in the middle to see if it gets boring (on the premise that most authors hone the intro, but can get lazy later). This usually steers me away from the dreck.

Half Life by Shelley Jackson passed all the tests except the one I skipped, the "about the author" section. Had I read it, I certainly would have chucked the book back onto the shelf, leaving it for some other hapless soul, for it contained this as one of the author's accomplishments: "'Skin' a story published in tattoos on the skin of nearly three thousand volunteers." (More on that later.)

But since I was remiss, there I was last night, family in bed, silence ringing in the house (as it does when it first descends), a new novel in hand, full of promise. The premise seemed interesting; conjoined female twins, one of them in a coma. I crack it open and dive into the first page. Three pages later, I've read nothing but victimology-laden, and (dear God) experimental prose. Tripe, in other words. I turn to the "about the author" for clues, and there was all the proof I needed (mentioned above) that the author was a wack-job. I've since discovered they prettied her up for the author photo because her web site shows her with her body-piercings intact. (When the publisher is trying to hide something, usually there's something to hide.)

Constant readers will know that I loathe all things that smell of "Identity Politics". This book is essentially a manifesto on IP. Check this out from Jeff Turrentine's (The Washington Post) review on Amazon: "Jackson's alternative universe is much like the one we inhabit now, with a few key exceptions. In it, American remorse over the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has led to the creation of a postwar National Penitence Ground in eastern Nevada, a "Proving Ground of American Sadness" where a "despondent American government [has] commenced organized hostilities against itself" in the form of repeated bombings. ... To those who would prefer Jackson to remain on the lofty banks of the pomo literary fringe, I've got good news and bad news. ... First the bad: While waiting for the ink to dry on her 'Skin' project, she has produced a new novel, Half Life, that for most of its 400-plus pages is a shimmering, dazzling delight, filled with the kind of humor and poignancy that should endear her to thousands of new readers who wouldn't know Kathy Acker from Kathie Lee Gifford. ... But the good news for fans of her more esoteric work -- bad news for the rest of us, I'm afraid -- is that she ultimately sabotages her own novel with an ending designed, apparently, to 'lift' this novel from a mere great story to a graduate seminar on identity and its erasure."

So if my carping doesn't keep you away (or intrigue you - I'm happy either way), that should.

The thing that still sticks in my craw the most - because, after all, I didn't waste any time on the book - is the tattoo thing.

Maybe it's just me, but it strikes me as ... oh, I don't know ... arrogant to even ask people to alter their bodies to serve your artistic vision, which may be deeply flawed. To put it another way, imagine if it weren't words but music (the actual sound, not notes) that could be put into a tattoo, and you had convinced folks to put it on their bodies; they could be walking around with the equivalent of "You Light Up My Life" permanently inked into their person until they rotted in the grave. The mind boggles.

Perhaps my lack of understanding or insight into the body modification culture is really the issue here, but "Skin" just strikes me as deeply fucked up.


Sya said...

I almost never read the author bio when I'm deciding to pick up a book. Usually I just glance at the back cover summary and/or the flap and decide from there. That's not very reliable, but at least it weeds out the stuff I definitely do not want to read.

About the tattoo thing--sure it's her artistic vision, but she asked them and those people chose to be tattooed. She didn't drag them kicking and screaming to be inked (or at least I hope she didn't). And if they don't like it, they should have never decided to get tattooed in the first place.

Yahmdallah said...

Yes, they did it voluntarily, of course. But, if you were the tattoo kind of person, wouldn't you be flattered if someone asked you to be part of an artpiece, and that might suspend a lot of your judgment on the worthiness of the art - kinda like someone really hot offering to buy you a drink at the club. In this case, though, the next day blues are permanent.

So, I agree with you in the larger sense, but experience has taught me that sometimes the instigator/artist has to be responsible because of the tendency of people to do things they normally wouldn't if they think they're going to be somehow made famous by it.

And it's the permanency that bothers me. If she insisted it always be a temporary or henna tattoo, I wouldn't be grousing.