Book Review

Poetry and memoirs by people with disabilities are getting to be almost commonplace, but novels by writers with disabilities that actually feature a protagonist with a disability are still quite scarce. In this context, The Colony by Jillian Weise would be welcome simply by virtue of its publication. Luckily, Weise, an accomplished poet, makes it a cause for some hope that perhaps this genre is finally getting off the ground.

One of the main challenges that a writer whose novel features a main character with a disability faces is the immediate assumption that this is going to be "heartfelt" and elicit either a sense of pity or a surrogate feeling of victory through overcoming. Any one expecting this from Weise should save themselves the $15.95 price of the book. The Colony's style is somewhere between a comedy of manners and Catch-22 with a dash of Ionesco and John Kennedy Toole thrown in for good measure. Weise is an equal-opportunity offender who leaves no one unscathed – not even women with prosthetic legs. It has often been argued that comedy is more intellectually penetrating than tragedy and Weise's novel adds evidence to that theory. Beyond the jabs that Weise delights in taking at peoples' attitudes towards disability lies a much deeper concern for the way that society is headed when it takes science as religion.

The novel pivots around five characters who agree to be part of a genetic research project at Cold Spring Colony. As the narrator, Anne Hatley, explains in the opening chapter, "We were picked for our renegade genes. Five of us. Five types. In return for housing and money, we would submit our DNA." Hatley carries a mutated gene that caused her leg to stop growing at the knee. She wears a computerized prosthetic leg. The other invitees to The Colony are Eliot Fitzpatrick (Alzheimer's), Leonard Carroll (Bipolar), Mercedes Minnow (Obesity) and Nick Burkowitz (Suicide). Interacting with these fictional characters are three historical characters. Charles Darwin, James D. Watson and Peter Singer. As one might guess, only Darwin is treated kindly.

Hatley is a contrarian who has agreed to take part in The Colony for two reasons: it provides her with basic necessities and she is bored with her liberal, socially progressive boyfriend. While the others are taking part in the project in hopes of finding a cure, Hatley has no desire to be "fixed." Her annoyances in life are other people. She becomes sexually and emotionally involved with Nick Burkowitz, however, and about half way through the book allows herself to be talked into having the remainder of her leg grown from her own cells. The result of the gene reconstruction and therapy for each of the residents is different. In Mercedes Minnow's case, it leads to a scene worthy of a Jim Carey movie. In Hatley's case it is…well, the climax of the book.

In the hands of an amateur writer, The Colony, could have come off as slapsticky and pubescently supercilious. Weise, however, brings three gifts to her book that make it a winner: a Swiftian wit, a background of research, and the important announcement that eugenics is not dead. She also keeps the chapters short (some as short as a sentence), setting a quick pace to the book. Her chapter "Modern Science (Some Things I Know About it) give some sense of the style and pace of the book:

GOD CREATES MAN. Allah creates man. The big bang creates amoebas that become man. Woman happens out of a rib. Out of a pair of goddesses. Out of amoebas oozing in the ocean. God, God, more God for many, many years. Enlightenment. The microscope. Finch, finch, Galápago. Charles Darwin signs letters to his wife, Emma, "Believe me." We do. Evolution. We go to war. We get out. We go with better weapons. Hand to club to spear to gunpowder to chemical. The doctors say, "Due to the use of toxins in a sandstorm, which planted themselves in your father's genes, you will die as a child. You're just not meant to be." I don't die. "Okay," they say. "You will not die a child. We were wrong. Now we have determined you will be in a wheelchair." I'm not in a wheelchair. They are shocked, disappointed, they discuss it at the water cooler: "I'll be damned. Bones grew where no bones were. I think that Hatley girl intends to walk." I schedule appointments. I spend months traveling up and down in elevators. "Okay," they say. "You will not be in a wheelchair, but neither will you walk on your own two feet. Your leg has no knee. For walking, we will allow you a leg with a computer for a knee. You can plug it into the wall like a lamp." I do.

Though many of the chapters are dialogue-driven and keep the book flowing quickly (one could imagine a series of vignettes for the stage being culled from them), Weise's chapters are also comprised of a haberdashery of elements including charts, surveys, epigraphs, diagrams and interviews. A chapter called "Waiting on the Leg and Reading the Files" is composed of one sentence: "Please See the Appendixes" and, indeed, appendices at the back of the book provide the information that Anne is reading during her waiting room visit. In addition, a series of "Notes" at the back of the book cite, chapter by chapter, the source material Weise has drawn upon for the non-fictional references in the novel. By so thoroughly mixing fictional and non-fictional people and facts, Weise works to break down the claim that science can be taken as the knowledge base from which all decisions should be made.

From a disability fiction perspective, The Colony is a direct descendent of the work of Anne Finger – a writer whose work deserves a much greater reading than it has gotten. Though Flannery O'Connor certainly incorporated characters with disabilities into her short stories, it was Anne Finger's work, beginning with her short story collection Basic Skills in 1988, that tried to stake out territory in fiction that spoke to the issues faced by women with disabilities. Followed by Past Due, her memoir of and pregnancy and childbirth in 1990 and Bone Truth, a novel, in 1992, Fingers' work spoke with an authentic voice. While she wrote fiction, her central characters, more often than not, were modeled on her own life. Just as it took a Wright or Hurston to write credible fiction about the black experience, it took Finger to write similarly of the experience of disability in America. Though Finger is still writing, if The Colony is any hint of things to come, Jillian Weise may be her heir apparent.

Like Finger's stories, Weise's novel is told in the first person by a female narrator who is prone to sarcasm. Unlike male characters with disabilities who are often called upon to prove their machismo, Weise and Finger's protagonist find themselves up against conventional standards of beauty and sexuality. One arena in which this takes place is the concern that society forces women to invest in clothes. The narrator of Finger's short story "Like the Hully Gully but not so Slow" says:

"Dear Fashion Editor," I could write, "my problem is that I wear braces on my legs and walk with crutches. When I get dressed up nicely, I look like a robot in a party dress. Any fashion suggestions?"
            You're in luck. The fashion show in Paris this year featured the metal look. It hasn't hit these shores yet, but within a year the other drivels at school will be dressing themselves up in aluminum foil and carrying purses made of steel girders – casting jealous eyes at your high grade aluminum and anodized steel. So just hold on for a little bit more, and you'll be right in the swing of things!
            I know what I'd really get. True beauty shines from within. Wear a pleasant smile and clothes that are wrinkle free. Avoid loud prints. Take part in a lot of after school activities. (Basic Skills, p. 13)

Twenty-five years later Weise has Anne Hadley saying,

I put on fishnet stockings and leopard-print heels with straps. I adjusted the heel height on the fake ankle. I practiced walking in the heels and wondered what it would be like to sit on a lap without thinking–Is the plastic digging into him?–what would it be like not to notice the right side from the left, the real from the fake, the good from the bad, this movie seat from that, what would it be like to sit down on either side without thinking, and what it would be like to never have to explain things to anyone. I looked in the full-length mirror. The calves matched exactly.

Finger's bent is much more overtly political than Weise's – sometimes to the point of didacticism – and Weise's writing tends to be more focused on literary concerns such as language, style and compositional structure, but both touch on many of the same issues. One of those issues is the attempt to eliminate differences, to bring everyone to the center, i.e. to normalize everyone. In Basic Skills, Finger says, "her hair is cropper short. It was supposed to come out looking like a 'wedge' – as they call it in women's magazines – short and fashionable. Normal. Normalization is a big thing here at Basic Skills." (p. 75)

Weise, too, directs her critique at societal mores, as Finger does, but extends her attack on the impulse to normalize to an even more impregnable institution – science. One of the more overt instances on biological attempts comes in a conversation with a geneticist ("The Gee") near the beginning of the novel:

"Listen, Anne, Your gene is invaluable….Do you realize the implications such a gene could hold? I want to use your stem cells to grow your leg in a matter of days."
"I'm fine with you studying me. I'm fine with you using whatever sample you have for whatever they can do. But I don't want to grow a leg."
"You should at least consider germ therapy, so that you can have children."
"I can have children."
"Certainly you wouldn't be that socially irresponsible. Naturally, if we offer to do something for you, to make you more equal in life, then we expect you to show us, and future generations, a modicum of generosity."

One can imagine this short bit of dialogue keeping a book group or a college literature class in discussion for quite a while. And that is one of the great values of The Colony to disability literature.

One of the claims of both disability rights activists and disabilities studies scholars is that the medical establishment is a paternalistic system that, while wearing the cloak of objectivity, attempts to define disabilities as aberrations from the norm that need to be remedied. The Colony's contribution to this discussion is its attempt to show that the current emphasis on genetics and its attempts at gene manipulation are grounded in and merely updated versions of the eugenics movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Weise's inclusion of Darwin in the novel functions to argue that genetics has hijacked the theory of natural selection for its own purposes. By marrying images of Nazi experiments and early 1900's sterilization of the institutionalized to modern gene manipulation to correct "defects", Weise taps into a ready made source of emotional revulsion to win readers to her point of view.

Anne is a far cry from Richardson's Pamela and not everyone is going to like her – which may be part of Weise's point - but it is hard to think that there are many people who would not enjoy the novel. Beyond being just a fun, interesting and quirky read, though, The Colony is an important contribution to disability fiction and deserves to be read widely. It is published by Soft Skull Press.