Mutations of Meaning

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A first novel by playwright Jillian Weise tackles the moral and ethical questions surrounding both medical research and human relationships.

In her first novel, The Colony, poet and playwright Jillian Weise takes the familiar situation of a group of strangers on retreat—did someone say, “writers conference?”—and ups the ethical ante by making genetic defects their reason for being together. Successful applicants to the Colony at Cold Spring Harbor get $5,000 a month plus three months room and board in return for submitting their peculiar DNA for scientific research. They can choose whether to undergo potentially risky treatments while in residency, but the on-site geneticist assumes they’ll jump at the chance to be cured.

Weise explores the moral dimensions of both medical research and human emotions. Anne Hatley, the exuberant heroine of The Colony, is missing a leg due to her faulty gene. Fitted as a child with a prosthesis that enabled her to walk, at age twenty-five she’s content with her computerized artificial leg. For Anne, the colony means time off from work and a chance to relax while watching television and socializing with fellow residents. Soon every colonist but Anne is undergoing treatment, including sweet-talking Nick who has the suicide gene, Leonard (ANK3—bipolar), and Mercedes, who despite having FTO, the fat gene, is extremely thin. Anne tells us, “I walked around the Colony annoyed that I was the only one whose gene manifested itself physically.” She’d just as soon not grow a new leg using her own cells, something the doctors insist is possible given her unique genetic makeup. As the weeks pass, pressure mounts on Anne to get with the program.

The Colony reads as literary realism, but Weise establishes this framework only to deviate sharply from it. Anne’s first-person narration makes way for lists, pseudo-myths, and a hilarious Phone Sex Quiz. Soon Charles Darwin arrives for tête-à-têtes with Anne:

My second week at the Colony, Darwin visited. He wore a top hat and his beard dragged the floor. A trail of sand followed him. He put the soundtrack from The Jazz Singer on the flat screen. I gave him a beer… I sat on the ottoman in front of him and lit a cigarette. We sat there listening to Al Jolson… “You’re ashing in my beer,” he said.

When Mercedes’s treatment makes her so buoyant she risks floating up into the sky, we know we’ve entered the territory of magical realism. But Weise moves easily from fantasy into factual material, introducing medical charts, corporate mission statements, even a print of the first X-ray. Brief essays provide relevant background on genetics and its justly maligned predecessor, eugenics, while the narrative sections abound in the specialized knowledge fiction is uniquely capable of delivering. When Anne goes into a convenience store with a friend, the clerk talks to him—as if she weren’t there—about the “hardships” she faces. She describes her techniques for surviving those moments when someone’s casual joke reveals unconscious prejudices against people like her. She tells us how it feels to know, deep in her bones, that these painful situations will recur because even the people she loves best persist in thinking there’s something wrong with her.

Categories come with unspoken assumptions—e.g., Amputees are worse off than the rest of us. But Weise’s novel challenges such received wisdom. Anne hails from Durham, North Carolina; she likes cigarettes, sweet tea, and lacy lingerie. She seems happier with her body than the average woman, confident of her sexual attraction to men, and downright hedonistic in her pursuit of pleasure. Although she has a boyfriend back home and is still smarting over a past affair with a married man, she finds her parents’ advice to “keep your legs closed and your Bible open” hard to follow when suicidal Nick makes a play for her. In scenes with Nick and Anne, every word of dialog, every gesture and descriptive fillip, serves to build the sizzling sense of attraction between these two characters.

Is it fantastic to suppose that gene therapy could prevent suicide, cure obesity, or even regenerate a missing limb? Assuming such treatments are possible, what are their moral and ethical implications? Weise artfully stitches together fiction and fact in a climactic scene featuring (real-life) American philosopher Peter Singer. Through Anne, readers experience what it might be like for a person born with a genetic mutation to hear Singer, who has come to the colony as a guest lecturer, attempt to justify his public statement that “killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all.”

As a fictional whole made up of varied textual elements, The Colony succeeds on an ideological level by keeping readers engaged while the author develops her argument. In the best narrative tradition, Weise entertains and involves us right up until her devastating final point is driven home.

Karen Laws lives in Berkeley, CA. Her story “Paolo’s Turn” appears in the Summer 2011 issue of The Georgia Review. You can follow her on Twitter @karenlaws. More from this author →