By Jillian Weise
Soft Skull Press, 338 pages, $15.95
By Soyia Ellison
You know those long lists of terrifying side effects that actors recite at top speed and low voice at the end of prescription-drug commercials? The ones that warn that the cure could be worse than the disease? How do you suppose the drug companies discover those side effects?
The human kind.
And that is what “The Colony’s” Anne Hatley is. It’s 2015, and the charmingly caustic high school teacher, born with a gene mutation, has volunteered to take part in an experimental research project that could grow her missing leg. Mostly she’s in it for the money. That and the chance to make a break from her devoted but dull boyfriend.
“Once you get familiar with someone, ” Anne muses, “new games have to be introduced. This is why Cleopatra spoke thirteen languages and the Hustler adult-toy store was invented.”
Anne is funny, self-destructive and a little mean — a fearless character in a fearlessly imaginative first novel by Jillian Weise, a writer with roots in the South and a collection of poetry titled “An Amputee’s Guide to Sex” inspired by her personal experiences.
Anne leaves North Carolina for a research colony in Long Island with no intention of actually undergoing the growth experiment: She will submit to three months of tests, donate her genes and return home.
Having only one leg is part of what makes her special, of what makes her who she is.
But then there’s the night she’s sitting around with her fellow research subjects — Nick (suicide gene), Mercedes (obesity gene), Leonard (bipolar gene) and Eliot (Alzheimer’s gene) — and the conversation turns to the urban legend about the man with a hook for a hand who kills lovers in cars because his girlfriend rejected him after he lost the hand.
They all think it’s hilarious.
“They don’t even know what they’re saying right now, ” Anne reminds herself, “but if you cry, if you change the topic, if you do anything, if you move an inch, if you go to the bathroom, if you leave abruptly, then they’ll know. People will say things like this, again and again and again and again, for the rest of your life, but if you don’t say anything, they’ll never know, so shut up and don’t cry.”
And so she agrees to the treatment. But what price will she pay for perfection?
Folded into Anne’s story are lessons on eugenics, the history of sexual protection, early theories on the causes of birth defects, American plastic surgery statistics.
Weise is interested in big ideas: genetic ethics, self-esteem, slippery slopes.
And she constructs her tale in unusual ways — some chapters are nothing but lists or quizzes or strings of quotes. She is fond of mixing real characters with fictional ones. (Anne and a very real Charles Darwin visit Applebee’s and nearly get kicked out for smoking.)
If that sounds bizarre, it is, but it’s also brilliant.
Weise has a wicked imagination. She gives us “transgenic wine” (try a pinot spliced with pork and blackberry) and sleeping pods that when set to “ocean” mimic the feel of the sea right down to occasional saltwater sprays.
But mostly her world feels like ours, largely because she anchors her out-there ideas with very real emotions.
Nick, a bartender-gardener, woos Anne by telling her the story of Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, two people destined to be together though they spent years apart.
That’s about as far from the world of science fiction as you can get.
But this is a science-fiction tale, as its distressing final pages remind us. If the ending is a bit of a letdown, it’s because the story seems to stop rather than end. Then again, science fiction is a genre of sequels. Here’s hoping the talented Weise continues Anne’s tale in the not-too-distant future.