Headcheese by Jess Hagemann

Headcheese_Jess Hagemann.jpg
By Jess Hagemann

Publisher: Cinestate | Release Date: Dec. 18, 2018 | Pages: 300

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Headcheese might be one of the most fascinating and simultaneously disturbing novels I've read in quite some time. Jess Hagemann takes a mosaic approach to her exploration of amputation, giving us a richly diverse cast, many of whom are seeking to become whole by removing parts of themselves or who have turned the loss of limb or organ into a sexual fetish.

There's Lorrie, who "accidentally" cut off her toe as a child and, now, as an adult wants nothing more than to have her leg removed. Bartholomew, aka Captain Hook, lost his arm to a sniper in the Middle East, but discovered that his body is all the more whole because of it. He wants to help others find themselves by granting them the gift of amputation, performing dismemberment as a ritualized performance piece in underground art exhibits for cultish followers. George suffers from tinnitus and only wants the constant ringing to stop, while Trice, a prosthetics engineer, discovers he has a son damaged by war and is given the opportunity to rebuild both their lives.

Headcheese is presented with an almost journalistic detachment, with Hagemann presenting herself as a documentarian of these people's stories, occasionally providing her own asides and reflections. At times it's easy to forget that Headcheese is fiction, it feels so real, its characters and their experiences carrying the richness of authenticity. Hagemann presents the occasional detour, though, into full-fledged moments of body horror that remind you that no matter how realistic its depiction of Body Integrity Identity Disorder and real-world inspirations, this book is still largely the product of its author's imagination. One minor vignette revolves around a doctor performing a post-mortem head transplant that's clearly, thankfully, fictitious. Another segment of self-mutilation, though, feels startlingly, painfully, gaspingly realistic, made all the more powerful, and worse for it, thanks to the almost clinical detachment Hagemann assumes in writing of the removal. I suspect, readers, you'll know the scene I'm referring to when you get to it, and I'm sure you'll find yourself squirming just as much.

I'm curious to see what other readers' reactions to this book will be and where their sympathies will lie based on the questions raised throughout this narrative. Is Body Integrity Identity Disorder a psychological disorder than can be cured, or is it closer in experience to being transgender? In much the same way transsexuals seek sex reassignment surgery to alter their bodies to more closely match their gender identity, do we readily accept the medical necessity of somebody who feels they were born with unneeded arms or legs? While I found it easy to empathize with amputees, I must admit that it felt odd at times to sympathize with, at times even root for, people who want and even physically need their limbs removed, even as I felt aghast at their actions as they take matters into their own hands.

For all the straightforwardness of its narration, Headcheese inspires a number of complicated thoughts and emotions surrounding issues of bodily autonomy and ownership versus psychological damage. What is normal and what do we accept as normal? How much of a laissez faire attitude do we take when it comes to an individual's willful demands to be amputated in order to feel more complete and healthy? Hagemann gives her readers here plenty to think about, challenging us repeatedly along the way, but most especially in its aftermath. Headcheese is unique, both in its topic of exploration and execution, but also most certainly important thanks to the potential for discussions it can and should generate. Read it!

[Note: I received an advance reading copy of Headcheese from its publisher, Cinestate.]