New Paperback Original from a Life-Long Bookseller

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Shelley Jackson's debut story collection, The Melancholy of Anatomy (an Anchor Books trade paper original), boldly turns the human body inside out, as the visceral becomes visible and takes on a life of its own through her fantastical tales.

A floating fetus transforms into the pastor of a town, menstrual blood flows through London's underground pipes, an egg pulled from a tear duct is nurtured into the size of a boulder, nerves form into dolls, talking hair -- all are components of Jackson's stories, which are based on the four humors of ancient physiology: Choleric, Melancholic, Phlegmatic, and Sanguine.

"In The Melancholy of Anatomy, I became interested in thinking about bodies that are considerably more than the sum of their parts," said Jackson. "I got interested in the excess of meanings, both cultural and personal, that attach themselves to certain magnetic objects and substances: sperm, egg, blood, etc.... I found that if I detached these objects from their normal context I could take great liberties with reality, without losing the connection to direct personal experience. I found this combination of the disquietingly intimate and the abstract and fantastic both disturbing and exhilarating."

The heart, egg, sperm, fetus, cancer, nerve, blood -- which are also the book's chapter headings -- tell their stories through unique narrators: Imogene, a 36-year-old lesbian; George, an executive for a nerve supplier; the nameless phlegmy tramp who resembles Charlie Chan.

Jackson's stories were inspired by Robert Burton’s classic The Anatomy of Melancholy, old alchemic texts, modern self-help books, folk ballads, natural history books, and Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor.

She grew up surrounded by many of these titles in her family's women's bookstore in Berkeley, California, where, as a very young child, she can recall spending her days reading. When her parents noticed her counting on her fingers, she was sent to public school, but the bookstore had claimed her passion for books.

"I figured out at an early age that books are the most important things in the world, and, also, that far from being repositories for the past, bookstores are where the most pressing issues of the day are being worked out.... I think I absorbed the idea that all areas of thought should be accessible to everyone, that the homeless guy on the street should read Hegel, and probably already has; and that the bookstore, where knowledge of all kinds mingles promiscuously, is what makes this possible. Philosophy meets politics meets art meets the street in the bookstore," explained Jackson.

After graduating from Stamford University, she worked in a used-book store that became her lending library, exposing her to pulp fiction, children's books, classics she had missed through truancy, and a miscellany of other titles, including how-to books on taxidermy and uranium prospecting. It was during this rush of reading, Jackson said, that she transformed herself into a fiction writer.

Jackson left the bookstore to study writing at Brown University. There, she discovered a new medium called hypertext. (Hypertext is electronic literature, where the reader defines the narrative by clicking links in the work, thereby creating its structure.) She wrote a hypertext entitled The Patchwork Girl in 1995, which was part novel and part theory, about a female Frankenstein monster. Following its publication, she returned to San Francisco and worked at another used-book store. After receiving a grant from the Howard Foundation, she quit her job and moved to an island in the Puget Sound to write a novel, but, instead, found herself writing the stories that became The Melancholy of Anatomy.

"While working on the novel, I periodically felt the need to write something disjunctive and strange and bumptious as an antidote to the slower rhythms and necessary repetitions of a long piece," said Jackson. "I didn't originally conceive of these stories as part of a longer project, but once I did, that suggested further permutations. The idea that I should organize the stories into the humors actually came very late in the process."

Jackson hopes readers find her stories funny and peculiar, but also strangely familiar and even touching in ways they can't quite pin down. She admits to being a little sad that she won’t get to hold her book in hardcover, but she believes it makes sense to publish new fiction in paperback.

"When I was working in bookstores, I saw so many great books going unread by exactly the people who would most love them, solely because of their steep prices," said Jackson. "I want students and coffeeshop scribblers and people with piercing and funny hair to buy my book, not just the respectably employed. I can't expect them to shell out 25 or 30 bucks for something they've never heard of before. That's a lot of cappuccinos!"

Jackson originally wanted to send out promotional copies in a biohazard envelope, but her editor dissuaded her, convinced that the packages would be too scary to recipients. Jackson hopes that booksellers who read, enjoy, and want to handsell the book will not pigeonhole it to any one type of reader. "The bookseller stands for the conviction that ideas matter, literature matters, and that an individual doesn't have to confine herself to her specialty but can, and should, inform herself of all the deviant strands of culture," she said.

"I have twice fallen in love in bookstores, and just recently I was signing a pile of books and a girl walked past, did a double take, and said, ‘Oh my God, did you write that book? I'm reading it right now! It's great!’ That never happened to me before." -- Gayle Herbert Robinson