Fun with Eugenics: A Review of The Colony, by Jillian Weise
Jillian Weise is a first-time novelist but not a first-time writer of book-length fiction, a fact not reflected in her biographical note at the back of The Colony, but no news, nonetheless, to readers of her acclaimed poetry collection The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, which told in lines and lyrical fragments and, occasionally, prose, the romantic biography of a young woman with a prosthetic leg. The Colony’s protagonist, likewise, has a prosthetic leg, and she is likewise formidable, whip-smart, and attractive to men.
But the similarities mostly end there. Where The Amputee’s Guide was tightly enclosed, The Colony is expansive. Weise has made the leap from psychological realism to near-future (2015) science fiction. No longer is she foregrounding the domestic and the purely personal. No novel featuring Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (where pre-World War II eugenics researchers stockpiled index cards on the bloodlines of Americans they hoped to “remove”–a cursory study of Hitler’s genocides reveals that they were intellectually undergirded by pseudo-scientific research conducted in the United States and Great Britain), characters named Charles Darwin and James D. Watson, and a love interest who possesses the “suicide gene,” could be accused of anything less than a gesture toward public discourse. Thematic and moral questions are front and center, not least in chapters made of miniature essays delivered in researched (and sometimes invented-research–the text pleasingly does not differentiate) collage, with titles like “What Makes a Human a Human,” and “Origins of the First Fake Leg,” and “Modern Science (Some Things I Know About It.)”
That’s not to say that there’s anything dry about all this grave stuff. The only word I could imagine to approximate the tone of the book is exuberant. Weise’s gift as a poet is her ability to cloak the trouble in dizzyingly narcotic language and intelligently deflecting humor, so that we might venture closer to the trouble than we otherwise might, so that it might trouble us as it should, once we’re close enough that it can. And here we see the enlargement of that gift. Where before the trouble was offered primarily by the brief spark of lyricality, and everywhere the epiphanic, now we have also the cause-and-effect chain of the long narrative, the jigsaw puzzle of the story’s secondary frame (the history and possible future of eugenics), and a fierce and renewed sense of justice, once turned inward, but now turned outward. (Let the world beware.)
Is The Colony a perfect book? No. The writer wants to have the pleasures of the postmodern pastiche alongside the pleasures of the straightforward narrative. Often these impulses are contradictory, and they compete such that one strategy undermines the other. So the book misses its opportunity to offer the mystical, elusive effect of, say, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods (the model text for the contemporary novel-in-documents), or the steam-train immersion-in-consciousness and uninterrupted-dream that top-shelf authors like Alice Munro or even Anne Tyler can so often offer.
Is The Colony a worthwhile read, anyway? Yes. The subject stings, the pages turn quickly, the voice is pleasant and companionable, and the story insinuates itself into the reader’s consciousness such that the book won’t be done with you even though you might want to be done with the book. These are things that books ought to do, but these are things that books seldom do.
(1) The Colony by Jillian Weise, Soft Skull, $15.95, paperback.
(2) Original art by Alison Kuo.
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