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5Attack of the Queer Atomic Mutants The Ironic Environmentalism of Shelley Jackson’s Half Life It didn’t matter if the Arms Race ground to a halt, if a bomb was never used on a foreign country again, for the U.S. government had begun a war against the people and land here long ago and was going to lay siege to them until the half-life of the longest-lived radioactive elements was multiplied many times over. —Rebecca Solnit, Savage Dreams: The Landscape Wars of the American West An ironic ecology . . ., rather than either dominating or venerating nature, would . . . value and proliferate “impure” and vernacular mixings of nature and culture, new shared meanings and practices, new ways of dwelling with nonhumans . . . Its defining legacy would be neither the nuclear power station, nor the nature reserve, but a living, evolving plurality of shared forms of life. —Bronislaw Szerszynski, “The Post-Ecologist Condition” Sincethe1940s,Westernculturalproducershaveimaginedmyriad new organisms that U.S. nuclear technology might produce, from giant ants (1954’s Them!), to shrinking humans (1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man), to creatures that steal human brains and spinal cords (1958’s The Fiend without a Face).1 Shelley Jackson’s 2006 novel Half Life imagines a politicized minority populationofconjoinedtwins.Oneofthesetwins,Nevada-borntwenty-eightyear -oldSanFranciscanNoraOlney,servesasthenovel’sostensiblenarrator. We are privy to her innermost thoughts and neuroses as her madcap quest for the removal of her comatose twin, Blanche, unspools. In the affirming sociopolitical world of Half Life—constantly ridiculed by the witty, sardonic Nora—medical intervention for conjoinment is abhorred, not to mention Seymour_Strange.indd 147 2/4/13 10:28 AM against the law. Nora’s removal of Blanche would thus be understood as a murder of the most politically incorrect kind. Half Life might be described as typically postmodern in several ways. For one thing, its form is intertextual and multivocal: it consists of a main text, Nora’s self-conscious account of her quest, interspersed with items that she collects for her “Siamese Twin Reference Manual,” including fliers for “twofer” film festivals, declarations made by twofer political subgroups, and lyrics to popular songs featuring conjoined characters. The novel also features incessant wordplay; frequent allusions to popular culture, literature , and critical theory; and various academic and political in-jokes. For instance, one page of the Reference Manual features a list of groanworthy titles from a twofer bookstore, including Altar Ego: My Twin Took Holy Orders, Fat in Spite of Myself: When One Twin Overeats, and I Love Me! [and You]. Similarly, Nora’scatalogingofherroommate’sbookshelfturnsup Autogeminophilia,an allusion to Ray Blanchard’s now widely challenged “autogynephilia” theory, which holds that male-to-female transgender people are sexually attracted to the idea of themselves as women; and The Geminist Manifesto, a pun on “Gemini,” or the Twins, as well as on Marx’s The Communist Manifesto and the term “feminist” (91). In yet another inspired move, the novel cites literary critics’ claims that Shakespeare was two-headed (245–46)—a reference to real-life critics’ attempts to claim Shakespeare as queer, as female, as a corporate author, et cetera.2 Jackson’s targets, then, range from the progressive and intellectual (the cultural institution of the feminist bookstore, Marxism,feminism,NewHistoricism)tothepopularandprofane(self-help andreality-TVdiscourse).Giventhefrequencyoftheseparodicallusions,we might say that Half Life’s dominant affective mode is irony. But the novel is also ironic on the highest of narrative levels, insofar as the main character is a minority striving against a social structure not because it is oppressive to her, but, rather, because it is accepting. Perhaps more importantly, her efforts to escape such acceptance by becoming a “singleton” are eventually undercut: not only does Nora never rid herself of her sister Blanche, but Nora’s narrative voice begins to blur with that of the ostensibly unconscious Blanche. Half Life thus ridicules its own structure, that of the hero’s quest for freedom. Perhaps most obvious in terms of postmodern irony is Half Life’s queerness . The world of the conjoined twin populace is humorously modeled on queer communities and their politics, while Nora is also described as queer (she’s a lesbian with a history of sleeping with men). Conjoinment itself, as I show in the second section of this chapter, also has significant queer resonance: throughout U.S. history, it has been paralleled with non148 chapter 5 Seymour_Strange.indd 148 2/4/13 10:28 AM normative gender and sexuality, and has posed the same kind of categorical crises as have...


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