Friday, September 01, 2006

Book-A-Day #43 (8/29): James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips

First of all: yes, this is as good as everyone has been saying. Allie Sheldon had a long, full life, did a lot of interesting things, and was the kind of complete mental wreck whose life is morbidly fascinating. On top of that, Phillips is a subtle, engaging writer who takes the time to tease out Sheldon/Tiptree's contradictions, and who can present her life fairly, without whitewashing or demonizing. Phillips is particularly good at synthesizing all of the different parts of Sheldon's life, and her paragraphs often start with a quote from Allie at the time, flash-forward to expand that with a Tiptree quote, and then dive back to the original time-period, without losing focus or coherence. She also shifts pronouns, referring to Sheldon as "she" and Tiptree as "he" -- this doesn't come across as affectation, but instead as an honest, serious attempt to keep the personas separate. (It actually aids comprehension at times, which is amazing.)

Sheldon changed careers many times in her life; it seems like she couldn't stand to do the same thing for more than three or five years straight. The reader can get very frustrated and unhappy with Sheldon as the book goes on; she keeps abandoning things just when you hope it will help her turn herself around and find a purpose for herself. (Yes, of course we all already know how it ends -- how it has to end -- but you still want Allie to somehow transcend the already-known facts of her life and burst free into herself.) As with many other aspects of Sheldon's life, the reader keeps wondering if she would have had it as hard if she had been born a man. Could she then have been able to find something fulfilling and stick with it? (And what could she have accomplished if so?)

It's inevitably a life full of "what if"s -- Sheldon had so many problems (her relationship with her mother, her two not-quite-functional marriages, her desire to do something artistically without quite knowing what, and, above everything else, her tangled, tormented sexual life) that the reader keeps wanting to reach into her life and do this or that to fix things. But all of those problems intertwine, so even the imaginative reader can't quite figure out the magic bullet that would have made her happy, healthy and the artist she so clearly both yearned to be and could be.

It's odd that a life so long and full of events -- she had been on three year-long African safaris before she went to college! she went to boarding school in France and basic training! she worked for the CIA and ran a chicken farm! -- feels so unfinished, but that's because the pieces didn't add up to a whole. Every piece was part of Allie Sheldon's search, and the end of her search only brought her to the barrel of a shotgun.

James Tiptree, Jr. is a book that got me thinking seriously about feminism, and, more generally, just about the roles people are born into and can't get out of. Sheldon needed a society with a more fluid perception of self; maybe she would have been happier and healthier born five decades later (in my own generation), but maybe even that wouldn't have been enough. I can say that some of the expectations and ideas she encountered from men seem quaint and historical to me (born in 1969, educated at Vassar College but not a feminist), so the world has moved on in some direction. And, just maybe, Allie Sheldon as James Tiptree, Jr. had a little bit to do with that motion.

If you're at all interested in the lives of writers, read this book.


Anonymous said...

For some reason this biography has received extremely wide notice; I found a review in Entertainment Weekly, of all things. That's really not the place to find a biography of a minor author, in a scorned genre.

Any theories as to why all this attention has come its way? Is it just the feminism, or is there something more?

Andrew Wheeler said...

I don't think there's any mystery -- James Tiptree, Jr. has received lots of review attention because it's a) a great book about b) a fascinating life.

Every couple of years there's a major event biography of someone relatively minor, and it's always because the book is just that good. (The last one I can think of is probably Isaac's Storm.) This time, we were lucky enough to have that book be about a SFnal person.

Post a Comment