by Jillian Weise
Soft Skull Press
352 pp. $14.95
review by Travis Schneider
I’ve recently had a difficult time getting a job with my philosophy degree, and could probably stand a wider awareness of what exactly it is I’ve learned. But watch me subvert its credibility even further by describing what constituted a “lesson” in my epistemology class: My teacher, an elderly type who managed to bend the entire curriculum of the class to extol the wisdom of age, passed out a paper with two pictures and a short article, “A Feeling for the Organism.” The two pictures were of Barbara McClintock, separated by some forty years. McClintock’s fabled approach to studying genetics involved spending an inordinate amount of time with corn. I say inordinate because the individual stalks of corn became like people to her; she gave them names, and even developed friendships with the worthier of the crop. And in this way she made the landmark discovery of jumping genes, the process by which corn sexes itself. Ostensibly, the lesson in epistemology we were supposed to garner from the article was that science, and the knowledge that results from it, could benefit from a more personal approach. The article maintained that McClintock’s discovery owed more to a certain kind of intuition than to a sterile, indifferent lab environment. It seemed that my teacher placed more import, though, on this: “Look at how well she aged,” he would say, referring to McClintock.
I found McClintock again on page 16 of Jillian Weise’s most recent book, The Colony. The novel follows Anne Hatley, a 25-year-old high school teacher who walks with a computerized limb after a genetic mutation leaves her with only one leg. Anne catches the attention of Cold Spring Harbor, a research facility specializing in genetics. Anne and four others are invited to the Colony, an extension of Cold Spring Harbor, where they can be treated while their DNA is studied: Mercedes has the fat gene, but has yet to succumb; Leonard is bipolar; Eliot has the Alzheimer’s gene; and Nick has a newly discovered “suicide” gene. Together, they comprise the best cross-section one could make of the American populace—forgetful, temperamental, self-destructive, and a peculiar mix of fat and health-conscious that only we could be capable of. And mutated (there’s been many a day I’ve felt like an amputee, though it is clear that Anne would hate my saying so). Anne quickly develops an interest for suicidal Nick, even though she left her long-time boyfriend Grayson behind her in Durham, North Carolina. Later we learn that her relationships with both these men are complicated even further by the memory of a third man, an “Old Faithful” that was her first love, and one that she has a hard time coming to terms with.
Weise writes, “My favorite (of the monuments of Cold Spring Harbor) was Barbara McClintock.” Everything this book wants to say is so succinct in McClintock—not because the fictional mediators of Cold Spring Harbor treat their charges like McClintock corn, but because the book often criticizes their failure to do so, which is probably meant to be generalized as a complaint against the scientific community at large. A qualification should be made, though: this criticism is not always so indicting—it sometimes excuses science its faults. For instance, one of the characters likely would have survived if not for society’s moral squeamishness when it comes to animal testing. So it is a book that can’t decide whether it is comfortably swaddled or claustrophobic in its scientific parameters and near-future implications. Anne, after defying the expectations of everyone by surviving, goes on to become the first “Regen.” Through the stem-cell therapy provided by Cold Spring Harbor, she will grow the leg she’s never had, and all associated crises of identity ensue.
The university I hail from is known not for its philosophy, but rather for its agriculture, namely for the potatoes they specialize in. The world wants better tasting, more resilient, and eventually more autonomous potatoes. So we play potato-god. We remake potatoes until they are as we prefer them to be. Potatoes are only one example, for we seek to “improve” many things around us—corn, apples, house cats—but we hesitate at our fellow humans.
Weise is perhaps primarily a poet, her other notable works being The Amputee’s Guide to Sex and Translating the Body. Poetry is broken into lines and verses, discrete elements that together evoke what is essential to a poem. The Colony, too, often seems to weave its essence from such elements. The beautiful chapter “The Bricklayer, the Mortar, and Love” begins, “The problem, beyond the bed, begins at first touch, when a bricklayer enters the room. ‘You are touching her,’ the bricklayer says. ‘I am here to build an extensive labyrinth between the two of you.’” Another chapter is dedicated entirely to Anne’s medical history, formatted like a form you have to arrive fifteen to twenty minutes before your appointment to complete. And most salient of all was Darwin, who appears at random intervals in the more abstract chapters to interact with Anne alone. He is much more a phantom than a real character, and his ephemeral comings leave behind such wistful traces as this:
I know a guy who fucked up. Fell in love young and was reckless. Did some asinine young-guy things. Asked for a threesome with her cousin. She gave it to him. Asked for kink and caboodle. She gave it to him. Made love to the max. But he didn’t realize, in the middle of that willy-nilly, she was breaking. I don’t mean her heart. I mean something else. Like if she was a tree, he was making little marks in her bark. And eventually he felled her. You have to be good to your tree.
The metaphor of a tree as love’s tolerance for recklessness embodies well the parabolic, anecdotal nature of the larger novel.
Although Anne has had a prosthetic leg her whole life, she doesn’t seem much desensitized to the questions, lectures, and attempted heart-to-hearts the general population aim at her. Much of the book is Anne complaining about these people, and a lot of the book is her reminiscing on her first true love, a love that she can’t seem to escape even with the recourse of exciting new people to have sex with. Kafka is unemotional, her boyfriend Grayson says. No, he weeps on the page, she replies. And in the end, even though she’s not so sure anything is really wrong with her (there is a pseudo-historical chapter about why the prehistoric trend of self-regeneration ended for humans—positions like the “Flamingo Fandango” became possible without a leg, and this was sufficient for the cavemen not to want to grow them back—one of many humorous points), she breaks under the pressure exerted by those around her and agrees to treatment—she doesn’t want to be special, doesn’t want to be looked at differently. Her words just moments before the ground-breaking therapy to regenerate her leg is started capture the ambivalence pervading the novel: “For better or worse.”
Weise handles Darwin sympathetically. “I get stuck with ‘survival of the fittest,’” he says. “That’s not what I said. They take Spencer’s words and put them in my mouth….I was the world’s foremost barnacle expert, but who remembers that?” Other important figures, she is not so kind with. She derides both Peter Singer and most of the scientists associated with Cold Spring Harbor, with the aforementioned exception of McClintock. I used to hate Singer just as much, but I’ve since come to admire anyone who spends considerable time trying to figure out what is right and wrong. And I am not defending eugenics, necessarily, but I have this much to say: not only is it admirable how McClintock looked at corn, but also how my epistemology teacher looked at McClintock. There was nothing erotic in the way he said “Look how well she aged,” just a deep appreciation for the human condition.
The Colony is torn about how it wants to look at the motivations of a person who would want to so fundamentally change the human being, a motivation implicit in the research conducted by both Darwin and McClintock, and everyone at the real Cold Spring Harbor—but more important, perhaps, is the person herself who is changed. Although Anne buckled under society’s pressure and allowed her leg to be restored, the transformation overwhelms her. “Who will want to stay still,” Anne asks herself, “stay in my canoe, stay mortared to me now?” As she stands on her new leg, prepared “to be given” to the cameras and the celebratory crowd, she feels her new leg growing and expanding, the zipper of her boot snapping, and wonders “Who would stop it?” as the crowd screams. Nick reassures her, “I’m still with you,” proving that science alone cannot protect our every vulnerability.