I read this great old sci-fi story where the author described his main character as, “someone for whom life was difficult to the point of impossibility.” This line echoed in my head while reading Jeff Jackson describe the series of catastrophes that he experienced from ages six to eighteen. His forthcoming novel, Mira Corpora, is exploratory and innovative in the study of exploitation, oppression, and fear, and it features an autobiographical crust-punk-meets-Dante narrator who at one point bites an appendage off another human’s body. Reading it is bodily, irritating. Part of this feeling is that Jackson consistently flirts with the line between real and surreal, daring the reader not to believe. Reading this style is like conversing with a really gifted liar. It arouses those same levels of suspicion and anger, and yet you can’t help but be convinced. The aggravating factor is that Mira Corpora is virtually unassailable from a technical or stylistic perspective. It’s structured like a gothic cathedral: brutal and overwhelming with sharp, hard angles and dimly lit corners. I was self-consciously quiet while reading it, as if making any noise would disrupt the bizarre ritual I was watching develop. And when it was finished, I still couldn’t fully convince myself that it wasn’t all real. After finishing Jeff Jackson’s novel, I was pissed off in the best conceivable way.
The story is broken up into six episodes taken from different years of Jackson’s life. According to his foreword, the stories all come from his rediscovered childhood journals. In the book, Jackson struggles with the difference between fantasy and memory as his character navigates forests haunted by wild dogs, a commune under the spell of teen oracles, the streets of a city almost Gotham-like in its seediness, the pitfalls of squats and sleeping on the street in cardboard boxes. Reading the first-person narration of these absurd scenarios is like listening to someone describe a dream. That is, while dreaming, it seems perfectly ordinary for any number of extraordinary things to happen. Scenes like this one, from the first section, are presented with a straight face:
“We stand in a clearing with a small tree. The girl kneels ceremoniously on the grass and unzips the inner pouch of the backpack. The boy instructs me to sit against a tree. The siblings shake some rope from the bag and wrap it tightly around me. They remove some glass jars from the pack and unscrew the aluminum lids. They smear my entire body with runny chunks of dog food and slimy kitchen grease. Some of the gritty brown paste sticks in my eyes and I blink it away. There’s a word they each keep using. The boy pronounces it with a slight stammer. He says: 'B-bait.'” (29)
The voice suggests Jackson’s character thinks that everyone spent their formative years eating out of dumpsters and running off into the mountains to live with a group of orphan-by-choice teenagers. What’s most compelling—and terrifying—about this narrative is the originality and execution of its conflicts. The text has a very cinematic quality to it, like the dreamscapes of a Lynch, or, better, a strange, filmic mash-up of Lord of the Flies, Demian, and House of Leaves, as directed by Harmony Korine. Jackson really captures that quintessential dreamlike quality of Korine’s films in his presentation of unfamiliar versions of familiar settings. This creates a powerful, frightening effect and forces the reader to go over scenes multiple times to make sure they weren’t misreading anything. Scenes like this funeral from chapter three, “My Life in the Woods,” come to mind:
“The fresh air has accelerated the decomposition process. The body has pickled and the skin has started to suppurate. The mottled flesh is inhuman. They awkwardly swing the corpse back-and-forth to gain momentum. They toss it atop the fire. It rolls off…it takes three more tries before the dead girl lies on her back atop the pyre. Her empty face stares up at the blinking stars. Flames conflagrate beneath her body, separated by only a few wooden planks. It’s a breathtaking sight. The girl looks almost majestic. I think that claptrap about the spirit might be true after all. Then the stench.” (70-71)
Oh, and those teen oracles I mentioned earlier? They call themselves The Chorines.
Perhaps because of Jackson’s background as a playwright, the structure of the book is as well planned and executed as the story itself. Jackson breaks the text up into three, clearly demarcated acts that are then subdivided into chunks addressing specific episodes in the character’s life. He exploits the unique opportunities splitting a narrative apart like this offers. An italicized parallel story arc—that immediately recalls the structure of Hemingway’s In Our Time—prefaces each of the three main passages, for example. At the end, there’s something like a fusion of these two narratives in an epilogue called “Mira Corpora: My First Fiction,” where all the motifs make one last appearance. Then there’s the thematic organization of the book, which bears a strong resemblance to Vollmann’s The Atlas. That is, Jackson relies on episodic, novella-length scenes arranged in a thematic palindrome that are tied together by a titular story combining all the themes of the book. And like The Atlas, this story stands alone, conspicuously aloof from the others. Mira Corpora is the only episode of the book not written from Jackson’s perspective. These elements of the book are responsible for that wonderful anger I experienced at the end. It’s a joke with no punchline, a riddle the teller forgot the answer to. Jackson gives you every piece of the puzzle but one, so even though you can see what the picture is meant to be, you have to imagine for yourself what’s missing.
Stylistically, I was pleased with almost all the decisions Jackson made. The narrative is as character driven as a one-man show, and yet he somehow manages to expose this character to so many levels of oppression in so many different voices. He takes his protagonist/himself through a hyper-accelerated growth process marked by newly discovered forms of exploitation that arrive as regularly as birthdays. In a slick piece of formatting, Jackson accompanies each new section of the book with his character’s current age. Apart from being reflected in the tone and diction of the writing, this creates a chilling series of realizations and re-realizations that you’re watching a little boy wake up in a cardboard box behind a dumpster, drink a glass of moonshine, steal a car, bury his ghosts in a shallow grave…The real trick that he pulls off is writing episodes this peculiar without asking you to suspend your disbelief. Rather, he demands you believe it all, every word, and that you believe it of him, Jeff Jackson, author and main character. This plays to a specific cluster of cells in our brains that wants to believe that The Blair Witch Project is actually Based on True Events, that we really did see that UFO from our porch at two in the morning, that the diet soda is a smart health choice. We like the idea of make-believe coming true because it validates a lot of suspicions we hold about the world we live in, events in our lives that we can’t explain, certain coincidences that defy logic. Jackson knows this and uses it to brilliantly manipulate his reader.
Jackson said of Mira Corpora that it was a coming-of-age-story for people who hated coming-of-age-stories, and it was absolutely that. However, there were several ways in which the story suffered precisely because it was turning certain conventions of the Bildungsroman on their heads. The principal complication was that the supporting characters seemed like Flatlanders when put next to the four-dimensional protagonist. Jackson introduces a number of characters with high potential that don’t really materialize as much as I would have liked. In particular, I wanted more from his alcoholic mother. There’s a fantastic early scene wherein Jackson—still a young boy if not a toddler—is trapped in the house with her during a binge. Near the end of the book, Jackson approaches the same elements of this scene from a different direction in a culminating moment that could have had a lot more power if we’d seen more from the mother earlier in the book. Namely, because Jackson-as-character bears so many traits of an adult child of an abusive alcoholic. He’s codependent, irrational, a substance abuser in his own right…To see more of their dynamic would have added a lot to the text for me, particularly because of the gravity this relationship takes on in the last chapter of the book.
Another problem I had with the text was some of the decisions Jackson made regarding place and character names. I already mentioned The Chorines, but there’s also the commune of teen runaways called “Liberia” and the adjacent shantytown “Monrovia.” Or the reclusive singer-songwriter, “Morrisot.” While I can appreciate the effect these choices were trying to produce, they came off as a little too cute, even tacky. It almost seemed like Jackson was nervous that the Reader wouldn’t get it if he was as opaque with these references as he was with the general symbolism of the entire text. However, it is precisely this opacity that gives the book intrigue and lends itself to closer scrutiny of that fantastic epilogue.
Jeff Jackson has a pretty impressive résumé and a GoodReads “currently reading” list that will make you swoon. He’s also worked with Don DeLillo in a couple different capacities, and to me this collaboration seemed natural. My reaction to Mira Corpora was similar to how I felt while reading White Noise. Like DeLillo, Jackson has a gift for taking an ordinary setting and tweaking it just enough to make you itch. He’s the kind of guy that will come into your house while you’re sleeping and tilt every hanging frame about five degrees to the left, just to make you look at the painting. Mira Corpora is the embodiment of this spirit of reexamination. It’s a riddle that lingers with you long after you finish reading. And best of all, it’s Based on True Events.
Mira Corpora is being published by Two Dollar Radio, available on September 24.