How the Other Half Dies: Narrating Identities in Shelley Jackson’s Half Life (2006)

Sascha Pöhlmann

The self just won’t stop getting itself into trouble. In modernist fiction, it faced problems of understanding the world and gaining knowledge about it; in postmodernist fiction, it needed to find its place among the many worlds constructed and destroyed in texts. Brian McHale’s famous distinction between an emphasis on epistemological questions in modernism and ontological questions in postmodernism (9-10) has provided a simple and useful tool that makes these elusive terms work at least to a certain extent; it may also be an opposition that may help answer the question of what comes after postmodernism, and what may be of central concern. With McHale’s ideas in mind, one can imagine one way of taking a further step in the fusion of the epistemological and the ontological, without one dominating the other. One contemporary novel in particular has achieved that complex feat, and has given an original twist to the ‘old story’ of identity: Shelley Jackson’s Half Life, published in 2006. In this essay, I am going to show how this text employs a variety of narrative strategies that conflate the epistemological and ontological problems of narrators, characters, and readers in a vast meditation on identities and selves, especially by confronting readers with a narrator whose unreliability is unprecedented in a number of ways.

John Barth wrote that the “storytellers’ trade is the manufacture of universes” (17), a statement made about literature in general, but one that particularly applies to its postmodern variety. Half Life presents such a universe, a complex parallel world which is not quite this one, and in the classic manner of science fiction differs from ours basically in only one respect from which all other differences are deduced—it is populated by large numbers of “twofers” (6), Siamese twins that could be described as two heads sharing a body and who coexist with one-headed “singletons” (6). The phenomenon of dicephaly began to occur in significant quantities after a proliferation of atomic explosions at the Nevada test site called “National Penitence” or “Proving Ground of American Sadness” (225), where in 1951, “saddened by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and recognizing the need for a national activity of penance, a despondent American government commenced organized hostilities against itself” (225), blowing up ever more accurate simulacra of American culture, and eventually its symbols and names.

The symbol which Half Life explodes most effectively is that of the I; it replaces it with “I2” (37). The novel is narrated from a unique first-person dual perspective: Nora Gray Olney shares a body with her sister Blanche Grey Olney (3), and she tells the tale of how she wants to get rid of the head beside hers due to “irreconcilable differences” (3). Blanche’s opinion on the matter is not known, since she has been “sleeping for fifteen years” (5). Half Life is nothing less than an attempt at offering an encyclopedic narrative of a twofer world, giving a full picture of a society in which issues are real that matter only as thought experiments to a few philosophers of identity in this one. Nora supplements her narrative with trivia from the twofer world in her “Siamese Twin Reference Manual” (23), telling of twofer cinema—for example “the award-winning twofer lesbian kickboxing romantic comedy, One Two Punch!” (23), attempts by literary scholars to rewrite the canon by claiming Shakespeare as two-headed (245-46), the problems of twofer sexuality— “When S is M: Sadomasochism Between Conjoined Twins” (82), not to mention “twincest” (164), legal problems of “a civic body neither singular nor plural” (136), and just about every facet of life reconsidered from the twofer perspective. Edward Mendelson defines encyclopedic narratives as those that “occupy a special historical position in their cultures, a fulcrum, often, between periods that later readers consider national pre-history and national history” (1267-68). While Half Life does not exactly qualify for the category of an encyclopedic narrative as described by Mendelson, it aspires to another, denationalized version of it and fulfills a sufficient number of his definitional criteria to merit a reading in that light: “Encyclopedic narratives all attempt to render the full range of knowledge and beliefs of a national culture, while identifying the ideological perspectives from which that culture shapes and interprets its knowledge” (1268). While Half Life presents its own version of American (and English) culture and history, it focuses on the fictional subculture of the twofers. It also displays the “peculiar indeterminacy of form” (1270) Mendelson ascribes to the encyclopedic narrative, which is always also an “encyclopedia of narrative, incorporating, but never limited to, the conventions of heroic epic, quest romance, symbolist poem, Bildungsroman, psychomachia, bourgeois novel, lyric interlude, drama, eclogue and catalogue” (1270). Jackson’s novel incorporates these conventions as well, and adds graphic images, metafiction, science fiction and autobiography to the list (which could be expanded). It is encyclopedic in a way similar to Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” not in an attempt to encompass a certain culture at a certain point in time, but in trying to present a fictional culture in a sufficient entirety so that its textual world qualifies as one that both overlaps with and differs from ours in a significant and recognizable way. As Borges shows, this can be done in a few words, and even if Jackson uses a lot more, she succeeds in creating a world by writing parts of its encyclopedia and by showing its production process and the many narratives connected with it. Borges’s narrator holds in his hands “a substantial fragment of the complete history of an unknown planet, with its architecture and its playing cards, its mythological terrors and the sound of its dialects, its emperors and its oceans, its minerals, its birds, and its fishes, its algebra and its fire, its theological and metaphysical arguments...” (21-2). The narrator of Half Life is writing precisely such fragments.

A school of thought in Tlön maintains that “while we are asleep here, we are awake somewhere else, and that thus every man is two men” (26); it is around this problem that Half Life revolves. It may not be one of those very few texts that split a culture into an era before and an era after them, but what it does is split its own protagonist into two (who are one). The reader quickly learns to accept this duality, and as her familiarity with the twofer world grows, she must increasingly realize that the story is told from a strikingly singular point of view, and grow suspicious of the absence of the other viewpoint. Nora’s narrative splits into four parts, using Boolean operators as a structuring device whose implications are explained in detail in the text itself (385-6); they are said to “govern our relations with the other—the other in the world, and the other in ourselves” (385), which in the case of Nora are identical. In part one, NOT (1), we get an exposition of the twofer world and Nora’s childhood, and learn of her intention to have her sister’s head cut off by a clandestine surgeon. Part two, XOR (133), sees Nora move to London to have the illegal operation performed, resulting in failure and her narrow escape from the hidden clinic after having found out on the operation table that it was her head that was to be removed, not Blanche’s. Part three, OR (339), is Nora’s attempt to make sense of the events and her condition in a diary; her growing suspicion that Blanche is awake is virtually confirmed, and as her past returns to her, Blanche becomes more and more involved in the actual storytelling, up to the point where Nora herself does not know whether she or Blanche is writing the diary, and the book (373). Part four, AND (383), uses the blurred narrative perspective to take Nora and Blanche to their childhood home, where Blanche brings back repressed traumatic memories to Nora, and they may or may not reunite as the text disintegrates, and the reader is left with an open question as to the identity of the narrator, a question that, with retrospective insight, actually haunts the whole book. Half Life represents what is called in the text a “Boolean Search for Self” (97), as Nora embarks on a quest for her repressed past and her sense of self and identity, both of which involve Blanche more than Nora would admit in the beginning. This quest for knowledge about the self and its world is carried out in the form of a confessional and autobiographical text, a memoir of memories to be unearthed in the writing process, a writing cure for the malady of a self that cannot deal with its other. The text shows the process of narrative identity formation of the protagonists which, at certain times, also becomes a narrative world formation for them and the reader. The problems of knowing, of world-making and of self-making in Half Life are quite indistinguishable, and so the following discussion of these points will seek to keep them separate only by laying emphasis on one after the other for the sake of understanding them better. However, it is important to keep in mind that the text strongly blurs the boundaries between these issues in order to conflate the epistemological and the ontological.

Even though Nora identifies herself as a twofer right from the beginning, her narrative perspective is initially singular and appears authoritative. She is not an omniscient narrator, but the benefit of hindsight gives her subjective past-tense tale an air of objectivity. Her voice presents itself as trustworthy for the reader by offering a narrative about an experienced past that is not doubted in itself, but whose blanks need to be filled. At first, the reader only shares her own epistemological problems, following her in her quest for knowledge in her world. Her speculations about her sister’s condition are those of an apparently stable self. However, it soon turns out that this is a textual trap set up for readers used to the conventions of traditional first-person singular narratives, for Nora’s self is neither stable nor singular at all. (The novel playfully acknowledges and violates the expectations built by a canon of first-person narratives in literary history, for example by intertextual references such as “Reader, I fucked him” (309), which alludes to Jane Eyre. This novel has had considerable formative power over how readers expect a first-person narrator to narrate and behave, and it paradigmatically represents the conventions Half-Life seeks to break.)

Nora’s increasing inability to account for her own behavior and certain past or present events in her life is firmly framed in epistemological terms in the first two parts; her problems are problems of knowledge. Even as her unreliability as a narrator becomes more and more apparent, there is no reason to doubt her identity as narrator, her place in the textual world of Half Life – as unreliable as she may seem to the reader, Nora is still the narrator. Here, it becomes clear that all of the questions Brian McHale identifies as part of the epistemological dominant of modernist fiction are of central concern to Half Life:

“How can I interpret this world of which I am part? And what am I in it?” […] What is there to be known?; Who knows it?; How do they know it, and with what degree of certainty?; How is knowledge transmitted from one knower to another, and with what degree of reliability?; How does the object of knowledge change as it passes from knower to knower?; What are the limits of the knowable? And so on. (McHale 9)

Nora is toying with her power as narrator and the reader’s inability to know the truth of what she tells him: “I can think up someone who never existed and tell you I met him today and you would believe me, if you had no reason to think I was lying. Of course, by this time you might well doubt my word. Believe this if nothing else, though: I am trying mortally hard to remember my life” (244).

In part three, however, the unreliable narrator becomes unreliable even ontologically. Opening with a radical break and a change of form, under the heading “Dear Diary” (341), this section is consistently metafictional, directly addressing the reader, commenting on the pages written so far, switching from past to present tense. The invocation “Uncap thy glue stick, Mnemosyne” (341) introduces the fragmented and chaotic attempt to collect and order information that led up to the present of the narrative, with additional comments in footnotes from the point of view of that present. Epistemological issues are pushed to an extreme and become ontological ones precisely at the point where the narrator wonders not only about what she can know or learn about her world, but also about her own self in that world, and the status of that world itself. The decisive event causing that narrative and personal crisis occurs when Nora, already on the operation table, finds out to her terror that it is her head that is to be cut off, not Blanche’s. Apparently, Blanche filled out a form as well, and the surgeon has decided that her claims to life were more substantial than Nora’s, whose form Blanche has apparently hidden (335): “From our point of view I am talking to a malignant tumor” (322), something that seeks to destroy life. Having escaped this deadly threat, Nora knows that Blanche is awake, and from this piece of knowledge derives an uncertainty that ultimately is both epistemological and ontological, and that affects both Nora and the reader, who is bound to her perspective and at the same time knows he cannot trust it at all. Nora’s attempt to “leave a true and faithful account” (342) of events in her diary is from the beginning only her attempt, not Blanche’s, and it is written with her and the reader’s knowledge that it omits and excludes precisely that point of view that would explain everything that plagues Nora. Since Blanche does not speak and Nora can only speak for herself, Blanche’s absence from the text is manifest until the very last page from then on. Because “being Nora was very largely concerned with, almost synonymous with, not being Blanche” (42-3), Nora’s story is indeed only half the story. The two title pages pay tribute to this: if one does not read across from the black to the white page to get “Half Life: A Novel. Shelley Jackson” but reads the left page on its own, it actually says “Half A Novel”. The opening line, introducing the reprinted form which the Unity Foundation hands out to twofers who want one head removed, then appropriately reads: “You should have received two copies” (3), two copies of Half Life itself.

The absence of the other half becomes the central issue of the text precisely in the second half of the book. Part three is a long meditation on silence and on writing, in tune with Nora’s motto, which is also that of the National Penitence Ground, and comes straight out of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-philosophicus: “It could be that this book is just another way of saying no. ‘That of which we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence’” (43). While Penitence sought to eradicate guilt and shame by replacing names with silence (226), Nora eradicated her own guilty past by silencing Blanche. However, as Blanche’s silence is increasingly putting pressure on Nora, and as more and more of their history is uncovered, Nora literally learns to distrust herself (and her self), a process phrased in textual terms in her self-exploratory diary. Appropriately, she shares a last name with James Olney, the renowned theorist of autobiography, whose “very large, very difficult” (6), very famous questions are made only larger by the fictional autobiography of Nora and Blanche: “What do we mean by the self, or himself (autos)? What do we mean by life (bios)? What significance do we impute to the act of writing (graphe)–what is the significance and the effect of transforming life, or a life, into a text?” (6). Nora’s autobiography constitutes an act of self-life-writing, only with more than one self. The self she tries to gain and communicate knowledge about is hers and it is not hers; the life she writes about is, as the novel’s title suggests, just half a life; her writing may or may not be her own writing. This absolute uncertainty of and about the self results in absolute uncertainty about the epistemological context of that self, since it is possible that Nora knows only that about the world which Blanche lets her know. Alluding to an earlier episode, Nora questions not her knowledge but its conditions: “I can no longer ignore the obvious: if Blanche can persuade me that skulls can talk and make me tell that story, what other lies have I dutifully written down? If my thoughts aren’t safe from her, how can my words be?” (366). While a traditional (i.e. one-headed) unreliable narrator is unreliable because he or she mediates something, the narrator of Half Life is doubly unreliable because her mediation is itself mediated by yet another narrative instance, which is also herself. Nora does not even know whether the words in her diary are her own; more importantly, she cannot know it, since the conditions of her knowledge do not allow it. Furthermore, she cannot trust her memory, since she admits early on that “For everything I remember, more has been erased” (98); erased by Blanche, that is. Traces of Blanche’s influence become more and more obvious in Nora’s retrospection, showing that she has been moving unwittingly through a “blanched landscape” (154). Sentences that in another novel would sound like self-criticism in the third person become criticism of that third person who is the other first person: “Stupid Nora had no idea there was a museum of childhood, actually” (198). It is impossible to know that it is not Blanche speaking here, and once this grain of doubt is sown, it sprouts across the whole text. All epistemological questions focus into a single one: “Who’s writing this book, anyway?” (372). The answer that follows is this: “I am. Not good enough” (372). By adding in a footnote the question of “who is writing these footnotes?” (372), the text acquires the utmost level of epistemological instability, and at the same time highlights the ontological significance of these problems for the reader and the textual world Nora and Blanche create and exist in.

With more than nagging doubts about the truth value of the narrative within its given textual universe, the reader must begin to question not only what Nora tells her, but also the ontological status of Nora herself, of Blanche, and of the parallel world(s) of Half Life in general. Again, a set of McHale’s questions concerns Half Life, this time relating to the ontological dominant of postmodernist fiction:

Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of my selves is to do it? […] What is a world?; What kinds of world are there, how are they constituted, and how do they differ?; What happens when different kinds of worlds are placed in confrontation, or when boundaries between worlds are violated?; What is the mode of existence of a text, and what is the mode of existence of the world (or worlds) it projects?; How is a projected world structured? And so on. (10)

These questions are raised by the multiple possibilities that arise from the suspension of the suspension of disbelief, none of which are ultimately confirmed or denied by the text: Is Nora imagining Blanche to be awake, projecting her own traumas on her sleeping sister, but otherwise telling the truth? Her friend Audrey at one point tells Nora that Blanche is her “fall guy for your inconsistencies. But if Blanche magically disappeared I bet you’d find out that a lot of what you were calling Blanche was you all along” (368). Is Nora a twofer at all? Could it be that Blanche is exactly that person Nora talked about when she told the reader that she “can think up someone who never existed and tell you I met him today and you would believe me, if you had no reason to think I was lying” (244)? Is it Nora telling the story, or is it Blanche? If so, did Blanche take over at some point, or has she always been telling that story? Is Nora impersonating Blanche, is Blanche impersonating Nora, are both impersonating each other, or is it a third (fourth, fifth) voice? Nora admits early on that she herself had trouble keeping her and Blanche apart even as kids: “Gradually, I learned to keep track of Blanche’s doings as if they were mine, and a new problem arose. I started thinking they were mine” (78). This confusion reaches its climax when she wonders about the authorship of the diary: “This has led me into a hall of mirrors. If I can produce an imitation Blanche, with my right hand, then what makes me think she can’t produce an imitation Nora, with her left?” (352). At one stage, Nora comments on the line “the solipsist errs” with the footnote “My handwriting?” (372), not even being able to tell her own textual production from someone else’s; all in all, as she admits, Nora increasingly has trouble “telling the two of us apart” (9).

The ontological status of the narrative becomes highly uncertain as epistemological questions lead to the complete distrust of the narrative voice, a process made possible by the unique point of view of the twofer. The writing of the diary becomes such an extreme instance of self-doubt that all of the writing that is Half Life must be doubted by both narrator and reader. Even the writing process itself, as far as it is described and that description is to be trusted, becomes a source of doubt. Nora states that she writes “with my left hand, though my penmanship is better with the right, because I trust it more, though even my left, while it never succumbed to that Lithobolia business, is not entirely clear of suspicion” (9). Before “our body was mine” (9), before Blanche fell asleep, she was in control of the right hand; “Lithobolia,” the throwing of objects without Nora’s involvement or knowledge, is a harsh reminder of that fact. It is remarkable that Nora is still suspicious of the left hand even though it is supposed to be hers, and the suspicion of what it writes contributes to the ontological suspicions about the text itself, and Nora’s narrative existence in it.

“Nora”—and for the sake of simplicity I will maintain that name even as the identity of the narrator(s) becomes completely uncertain—ponders acts of storytelling in their capability to create, not only describe, realities. Mythopoesis works extremely well in Half Life; by creating memory and history, identities and selves come into existence. The members of Nora and Blanche’s family, inhabitants of “Too Bad” (38), Nevada, invent the town’s history in order to turn it into a credible ghost town that will attract tourists, building new ruins because “the old ones weren’t picturesque enough” (143), dabbling successfully in the art of “making up the past” (144). In a noteworthy passage, Nora tells of her childhood with Blanche, and their roles in the act of narrative creation: “[Blanche] could take any poor, dry flake of a story and eke it into splashing life, and she believed everything I told her. A thing about me: I took a keen joy in being believed, and that joy was all the keener when I was lying, for then the credit was mine alone, not shared with the truth” (78). They not only understand their world by turning it into narratives, but they also change and create worlds through these narratives, the largest of which may be Half Life itself, an elaborate, encyclopedic lie that creates a twofer cosmos. The power to change reality and its perception through narrative affects Nora and Blanche not more than singletons, but more obviously.

Since it is not at all clear who has the power over narration in Half Life, the ontology of the tale must remain uncertain. At first, Nora just wonders whether “Blanche’s dream world is merging with my waking one” (345), and she maintains their separate consciousnesses while imagining their connection. However, soon after this, after having found “something in my notebook I did not remember writing” (346), Nora wonders whether Blanche could actually intervene, could take “advantage of a moment’s distraction to slip into my skin, possess my pen, dip her words in my ink, and tell my story for me?” (352). Nora soon realizes that “[t]his writing is not separate from [Blanche’s] waking, it is part of it” (369), and so the diary brings Blanche as much into the world of the novel as it brings Nora into it. Nora’s suspicion that Blanche is the author of Nora’s character culminates in philosophical questions that ultimately summarize the conflation of the epistemological and the ontological in Half Life: “Consider possibility that Blanche is writing my experiences into existence” (372), and, more concisely: “Consider possibility that I am Blanche” (373). The truth value and ontological status of what Nora has told the reader in the two chapters before, and goes on to tell him, is irrevocably undermined by this question, and it is the point where epistemology and ontology connect to form a paradoxical circle: a fictional narrative is told in such a way that its narrator is absolutely unknowable, and the telling of the story itself occurs in absolute uncertainty because of this, and yet both uncertainties find expression in that same story.

The recognition (not yet acceptance) of the unknowability of her double self is only the culmination of a longer quest for that self. Nora is forced to reject any possibility to write in such a way that Blanche will not be able to read it; the only other option is to not write at all, to choose silence (350). However, silence is not unproblematic at all, since the “real book” (355) consists of what has been erased, just like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus is about what he did not say. Wittgenstein told Ludwig von Ficker that his work “consists of two parts: the one presented here plus all that I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the important one” (qtd. in Janik and Toulmin 192); Nora tells the reader that the

blank spaces aren’t just empty. They’re stained with words I’ve taken back. Sometimes the same word is reinstated, then revoked again. This book has been so much erased that its larger part, like an iceberg’s, is invisible. I begin to feel that that is the real book. The words you are actually reading are just sort of erased erasing, a cautiously omitted omission. (355)

It is this combination of ideas of Derrida, Hemingway and Wittgenstein that foregrounds the instability of representation in Half Life, the uncertainties the text cannot speak about, but hint at strongly. Absolutely uncertain of her writing, Nora tries to cling to reality, “the fragments I shore up against mirages” (356), the garden at her house, the pond in it, and especially the goldfish: “I still think the goldfish are real” (356). However, the three fish—named “Molloy, Malone, and the Unnamable” (358)—soon afterwards just vanish from their pond: “They were just gone: absent, abducted, plucked” (358). The last things Nora held to be real just disappeared, and with that her existence fully reveals itself to be textual, fictional (though not to her). The allusions to Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Beckett’s trilogy only strengthen that impression, especially as in the latter Molloy, Malone, and the Unnamable form a progression of narrators, each having told the story of the one before him without the reader’s knowledge at the respective time. The ontological dislocation in Half Life does not fall back on any safe ground for the reader, though; no auctorial intervention signals a metafictional level familiar to postmodernists. Instead, the narrative voice remains suspended in between, at the same time Nora’s, Blanche’s, Shelley Jackson’s, the narrator’s, and (indeed why not?) the unnamable voice of a story telling itself.

When Nora wonders in her diary whether the world is “in my mind, or in the world” (356), it is a question of the conditions of both the knowledge about and the being of that world. Her perception of the world is in fact linked to the actual creation of that world early on. At a party, she believes to witness a girl “giving a blow job to a man in fake fur who was leaning back on the pile of coats” (69), but quickly realizes as the girl rolls over on the fur that the coat was empty, and there was no man. Her comment on this, given in brackets, provides a crucial statement about the ontology of the text itself: “I should think more about this. We construct worlds this way, not piecemeal, but in one demiurgic surge. How many of them go uncorrected?” (69). Knowing and constructing a world are merged here, especially as the knowing and constructing subjects are identical and different at the same time. The question echoes Oedipa Maas’, who asks in The Crying of Lot 49 when sorting through the immense amount of information that could either prove the existence of a huge conspiracy or her own insanity: “Shall I project a world?” (64). Oedipa’s quest is quite similar to Nora’s, and The Crying of Lot 49 clearly is a major intertextual reference of Half Life; yet while it also conflates the epistemological and the ontological to a certain extent, Oedipa’s subject position remains separate from and opposed to that of Pierce Inverarity, the person who may or may not have made it all up for her to assemble the pieces. While Pierce may have planted all the clues in the most elaborate prank in world history, the idea that Blanche did the same for Nora necessarily seems incredible to her: “If anatomy had allowed it, I would have thought Blanche was scampering ahead of me everywhere I went, planting tokens for me to find” (252). For Oedipa and Nora alike, gaining knowledge about their world amounts to creating that world, since both learn that reality is only what their paranoia constructs it to be. In the end, Oedipa may gain a piece of information that finally verifies one of her versions of reality; however, the reader is denied that revelation. Similarly, that final revelation in Half Life must remain suspended because of the irreducible duality of the narrator’s voice. The Crying of Lot 49 only alludes to its status as text, and it leaves the ontology of its cosmos not uncertain but open; Half Life instead opts for radical ontological uncertainty.

When Nora calls herself and Blanche “only as antithetical as this ink and this page” (433), she hints at their integral role in the textual production of Half Life and its cosmos. She goes on to explain their newly found identity within difference: “Do these letters have meaning, or the space around them? Neither. It’s their difference we read” (433). The answer to Nora’s puzzle of “What’s black and white and read all over?” (371) is Half Life, a text coming into being through the difference of white and black, of Blanche (the French feminine form of blanc, white) and Nora (echoing the French noir, black), conflating the levels of narrative, signifier and medium up to a point where the knowledge of and about the characters also becomes knowledge about the text, and where their being cannot be separated from that knowledge. Their middle names, “gray” and “grey” (3), in a deconstructive move similar to writing différance with an a, testify to their difference and textuality, their status as writing; their middle names combine the black and white of their first names, and contradict their last name and its implication of being the only one. They merge and remain separate at the same time, forcing readers to think beyond the either / or binary in best postmodern fashion. The strand of DNA displayed on the title page probably offers the best illustration of their relation; the fact that Half Life only has even page numbers and omits the odd ones lays further emphasis on this twoness.

The novel ends with Nora looking at a blank page—“But I can read it perfectly” (437). The quest for her self has led her to the point where she can incorporate her other self, reading the blanched landscape of the blanks that Blanche had offered her to fill in, “closing in on myself on twin tracks” (434). The last line reads “’Nora?’ I say” (437), a voice in the first person speaking a word whose ambivalence only confirms the epistemological and ontological uncertainty of the text instead of resolving it. Is this the voice of Blanche waking up, calling Nora? Is Nora answering, or is she asleep now, overpowered by Blanche’s attempt to take control of the body as Nora once did? Is it Nora calling herself, knowing that she is also Blanche (but then why is she asking for Nora)? The unity achieved in the end is not free from contradiction and difference, and the problems of identity are not resolved; the narrative point of view is not fixed, and the whole text therefore remains in its state of uncertainty.

In this uncertainty lies the achievement of Half Life; it is through this that it offers an effective fusion of epistemological and ontological questions without any of them dominating or subsuming the other. The Siamese Twin Reference Manual tells us that “Twofers are the new Viewmasters. They possess the binocular vision of the soul. Through them, and only through them, we can glimpse this new world” (102). What this new world may indicate is that the postmodern death of the subject should not be mistaken for the death of the self; after all, Foucault proclaimed the former and then moved on to discuss the care of the self. Indeed, the self in literature is the nexus where epistemology and ontology can be made indistinguishable, as Half Life shows; it raises an abstract question that has profound implications for what comes after postmodernism: “Do we really have the option not to believe in the self?” (312). It provides the answer with the question: as long as there is a self to ask that question, this option does not exist. What Half Life emphasizes is the plural, the we asking the question instead of the I. Nora tells her friend Audrey that “only a singleton would think it was a privilege to be plural” (367), and Audrey’s reply shows a much greater awareness of how much the plural and singular actually matters for the self: “Only a twofer would think there was such a thing as being singular” (367). For that matter, we are all twofers; just like Nora, we will have to learn how to deal with multiple selves even after the death of the subject, and with the multiple perspectives of these multiple selves that can and should no longer be forcibly unified into a coherent singular subjectivity.

Works Cited

Barth, John. “How to Make a Universe.” The Friday Book. New York: Putnam’s, 1984. 13-25.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Trans. Alastair Reid. Ficciones. Ed. Anthony Kerrigan. New York: Grove, 1962. 17-35.

Jackson, Shelley. Half Life. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.

Janik, Allan, and Steven Toulmin. Wittgenstein’s Vienna. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. London: Routledge, 1993.

Mendelson, Edward. “Encyclopedic Narrative: From Dante to Pynchon.” MLN 91.6 (December 1976): 1267-75.

Olney, James. “Autobiography and the Cultural Moment: A Thematic, Historical, and Bibliographical Introduction.” Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Ed. James Olney. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980. 3-27.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. New York: HarperPerennial, 1999.

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