Amusing, touching, and unsettling, The Melancholy of Anatomy is that most wonderful of fictions, one that makes us see the world in an entirely new light.
Here is the body turned inside out, its members set free, its humors released upon the world. Hearts bigger than planets devour light and warp the space around them; the city of London has a menstrual flow that gushes through its underground pipes; gobs of phlegm cement friendships and sexual relationships; and a floating fetus larger than a human becomes the new town pastor. In this debut story collection, Shelley Jackson rewrites our private passages, and translates the dumb show of the body into prose as gorgeous as it is unhygienic.
In her oddly infantile, solemnly scatological first collection of stories treating the body's four "humors," online fiction diva Jackson (The Patchwork Girl) sends up Robert Burton's sprawling 17th-century medical treatise, The Anatomy of Melancholy. In her take, the humors Choleric, Melancholic, Phlegmatic and Sanguine function as the intriguing divisions of this dark, slender work. Around each, she attempts to construct, if not a story, then musings on a bodily necessity, with each part further broken down into its most visceral elements: Choleric into chapters called "Egg," "Sperm," "Foetus"; Melancholic into "Cancer," "Nerve," "Dildo" and so forth. Wisely, Jackson chooses to open with the one coherently plotted story: "Egg" concerns a 36-year-old woman in San Francisco working in a grocery store and living with her ex-lover, Cass; the narrator removes an egg from her tear duct, nurtures it until it grows as big as a boulder, then allows the care of its pink insatiable perfection to lift from her the burden of desire and decision. In other stories, similarly feckless narrators focus with morbid obsession on trapping bodily fluids and herding sperm; growing cancer like a species of exotic, intractable tree; gathering nerve fibers and fashioning them into inflammable hats for ladies. Though Jackson endeavors to keep the tone high by giving her prose a sarcastic scientific veneer ("Sperm are ancient creatures, single-minded as coelacanths"), her references do not go deep enough, and her humor here is arch and superficial. Cleverly imagined but laboriously executed, these stories are squeezed too tightly through the wringer of their premise. Author appearances in New York. (Apr.) Forecast: Anointed as a Voice Writer on the Verge and heralded as a top online talent (like Eisen see below), Jackson has already made a reputation for herself. Whether she can cross over successfully remains to be seen, but the low paperback price will help. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.