Literature: Half-Life

Half Life is a 2006 novel by Shelley Jackson. It is set in an Alternate Universe in which the United States government, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the early H-bomb tests, announced the need for “penitence”. Hence, “the Sadness”, an intense period of bombing itself with nuclear weapons. The result is a dramatic uptick in genetic mutations, and especially Conjoined Twins.

Nora Olney, the novel’s protagonist, is one (of two) of those twins, not too surprising since she was born in Too Bad, Nevada near one of the Sadness targets. Her twin, Blanche, has been unconscious for fifteen years, the reasons for which are slowly revealed in the course of the story. While she’s a “twofer”, Nora secretly harbors a wish to be a “singleton”, the out-group name for non-conjoined individuals. This wish gains in urgency when she comes to suspect that Blanche is waking up. A friend informs her of rumors emanating from England, stories of a Unity Foundation that exists to grant wishes such as hers, and the anonymous criminal “Dr. Decapitate”, who specializes in just such work. So Nora and her unwanted sleeping beauty baggage go on a road trip.

Not related to the video game of the same name.

This novel contains examples of:

  • Byronic Hero: Nora’s driving motivation for most of the novel is finding a way to murder her twin so that she won’t have to share her body.
  • Colorful Theme Naming: The twins at the novel’s center are named “Nora” (Italian for “black”) and “Blanche” (French for “white”). Further driving it home, their respective middle names are “Gray” and “Grey”.
  • Conjoined Twins: All over the place.
  • Fictional Document: The book is broken up by quite a few of these, many in what’s referred to as “The Siamese Twin Reference Manual”. These include personal ads, regular ads, talk show transcripts, and song lyrics.
  • Footnote Fever: The longest chapter is mostly made up of entries from Nora’s diary, which contains copious footnotes, including footnotes on other footnotes.
  • Heavy Sleeper: Blanche, who’s been under for fifteen years.
  • Language Equals Thought: Togetherists, who see being conjoined as an exalted state, have coined the second person plural pronoun “tyou”. On the other side, the Unity Foundation is so obsessed with oneness that it bans the word “and”.
  • Odd Friendship: Max, the Butch Lesbian lover of the girls’ mother, struck up an abiding friendship with their shy geologist father.
  • Tantrum Throwing: Nora finds her hands throwing things across the room unbidden by her, one of her first hints that Blanche is coming back.
  • Wild Child: The Nevada neighbor whom young Nora and Blanche refer to as “Dr. Goat” keeps his daughter – whom they call “Donkeyskin” – locked away in a cage behind his house.