Review: 'The Melancholy Of Anatomy', Shelley Jackson



★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

The Melancholy Of Anatomy
Shelley Jackson
Ebook, aprox. 200 pages

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.

Why did I read this book? First, the title-cover combo did the job of getting my attention. Then, the blurb struck me as very experimental, perhaps even a little pretentious. I googled Shelley Jackson, found her novel Half Life, and realised she was probably the kind of writer my bookshelf would like to be friends with.

I was right. The Melancholy Of Anatomy might just be the most original book I've ever read. It's a short story collection, which opens with a short short piece titled Heart before splitting into four sections, according to the four temperaments: Choleric brings us Egg, Sperm, and Foetus; Melancholic delivers Cancer, Nerve, and Dildo; Phlegmatic is composed of Phlegm, Hair, and Sleep; and Sanguine closes the show with Blood, Milk, and Fat.

Style-wise, Jackson is just the kind of writer I like - her words are beautiful and intricate, but they never overpower her content. It would be easy to file something this experimental under the good old "style and no substance" category, but there's a moment in every single one of Jackson's stories where you just can't pretend you're reading mindless surrealism. I've read short stories by Haruki Murakami, and those, I had to make peace with - sometimes, they really don't make any sense. But Jackson's stories do. Foetuses float and cities menstruate, but the people who inhabit this world are very much like the people who inhabit our own - their struggles are our struggles, sometimes oversimplified, sometimes exaggerated. Sure, they obsess over eggs and fall in love with nerve bundles, but so do we. They exchange bodily fluids to ascertain relationships, so do we. They try to keep their houses and cities squeaky clean, sterile, so do we. They battle blood and fat and their own organic fluids. So do we.

Coming as no surprise, considering the references I just made, my favorite stories of the bunch were Nerve and Blood, which were incredibly bittersweet, and tremendously well thought out, respectively. Besides those, Heart, Foetus, Cancer, and Fat will stay with me for a really, really long time. There was just one little thing I could have lived without, and that was Phlegm. A reviewer on Goodreads stated she "could not read [it] all the way through because it made [her] want to cry and die", and I have to agree. I made it through the whole thing relatively unharmed, and I did find the human element of the story very good, but gods, why phlegm. Why.

I was fully convinced, then and there, that Shelley Jackson doesn't give a damn about her reader's comfort, and I love her for it. This is a surreal, sometimes gross, sometimes shocking book. But it's also one of the most honest takes on the human condition (with all its strange fluids and organic mishaps) that I've ever read, and for that, it gets four stars. Probably five in three months, when I look back and realise I haven't stopped thinking about it. Go read it!

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