Books

The Hex of Jeff Jackson

In Jeff Jackson’s new novel Mira Corpora, we meet strange characters, endure bizarre events, and travel unlikely landscapes. All that’s great, but what has me pushing the book on everyone I come across is beyond all that cool stuff. What makes the book worthy of attention is its capacity to cash in on the quotidian, subverting it to construct an experience that leaves the reader with questions that can’t be answered by language alone.

Jackson, an established playwright and debut novelist, locates the ordinary then exploits it, pitting mundanity against itself. Through this method he births configurations that leave the reader wondering why scenes so strange feel so familiar.

He’s not the first, of course. I worked out a lineage connecting “The New Weird” (the VanDermeers, China Miéville, et. al.) to Jackson, but it doesn’t work. “New Weird” moves from Poe and Lovecraft to Thomas Ligotti and Clive Barker. Those writers terrify, but it’s the supernatural that’s their focus. Too evident and too tangible to be deemed similar to what Jackson and his vanguard of the quixotic banal are working out.

Kathy Acker might be a pirate who’s dead and also a rat savaging physics for the sake of wild transgression, but Grace Krilanovich (the best or second-best at the engrossingly banal—Jackson may be in the lead) is making a list of items you’d find in an unkempt gas station run by out-of-work carnies.

Georges Bataille, William H. Gass, Donald Barthelme, J.G. Ballard, Dennis Cooper: These (and, obviously, Lynch) are the ancestors of this unidentified, superficially immobile movement.

Gass’s inebriating inventories of streets, stores, names—once stripped of their toothsome alliteration—resemble Jackson’s mention of a wallet made of black duct tape, the consumption of a cassette, a map drawn on the back of a Chinese takeout menu.

There’s Barthelme’s deadpan explanations of impossible happenings—bodies becoming inanimate, changing shape and losing individuality. Jackson drinks at the fountain of Barthelme. Better put: Jackson sips Barthelme tea from a worn, white mug with the residue of a Goodwill price sticker dirtying the mug’s exterior.

Where Ballard is frigid and engineered, Jackson is conspiratorial, elegiac, and anxious. We find his narrator panicked into a corner where his only recourse is to speak slowly and with great restraint. Still, a hissing.

Initially, Jackson’s present-tense narratives are jarring. But like a 3D movie, you settle in quickly. And in this case it’s a first-person present that’s the past of those of us who grew up odd, curious, American, and white. (In Jackson’s case, it’ll also help if you identify as male.) These are the collected fears and feelings of confused, young (born between ’78 and ’84), white boys everywhere. (At the ages specified—six, eleven, twelve, fourteen, fifteen, and eighteen—fears are feelings and vice versa.)

That the novel is sectioned without apology into quasi-distinct stories is one of many mystifying ingredients whisked into the sizzling cauldron. But flummoxing a reader, intentionally or otherwise, is nothing new.

While New Weird might find its origins in Poe, this “Banal Will Eat Itself” stuff seems to draw less from literature and more from the consideration of objects, the body being one of those objects. The New Weird includes time travel and clarified alternate universes. Any new cosmology must at least make sense to itself. In whatever genre Jackson’s book lies, frequently there is no time. Markers of temporality are themselves fictions, something normal to be ignored. The world is the world but changed, seen through glasses greased with teenage cravings for acceptance.

The first chapter, aptly titled “I Begin,” is a four-paragraph author’s note that sets up the book to be read as the reworkings of Jackson’s rediscovered childhood journals. Whether this is true or not is inconsequential. Sentences like, “These days I’m on a need-to-know basis with myself,” and “All pathways lead to the same point,” lead us to the eponymous last chapter’s epigraph attributed to Robert Frank, which reads, “Passing off what might be true as fiction seems a better vocation to me than passing off what is quite possibly fiction as truth.”

Deep into the book’s 186 pages, Jackson uses self-insertion, recalling an endless list of great writers who’ve done the same: Ben Marcus, Paul Auster, Philip K. Dick, Jorge Luis Borges, Philip Roth, Percival Everett.

Mira Corpora invites the reader to understand, and with studious sleight-of-hand, concusses us with bathos time and time again:

“I wrestle through the tangled strands of wire and nuggets of broken glass. I lurch a few steps forward and begin to gag. The noose is still fastened around my neck and I’m dragging the shattered chandelier behind me.”

Jackson’s failed attempt doesn’t stop what he refers to in one chapter as his “lizard-brain” from persisting in its search for death.

“I’m heading straight for the window, probably planning to finish the job with a headfirst dive.”

He can’t say for certain what his intentions are.

“The frame of the window is almost within reach, but the light keeps growing fainter. A sudden eclipse, maybe. I muster the energy for one last lunge. The light is almost totally extinguished now. The eclipse is full… or whatever…”

And the section ends.

Jackson is a character who is a writer remembering a youth that never was. In this way the reader is provoked to become the character of Jeff Jackson. Consequently, it’s us who are marooned in a dangerous forest, unhinged by a prophetic painting of truckers hacking teens apart. We awake homeless in an anonymous city suddenly in search of a punk rock demigod we’ve never head of. It’s our body that lies dead but aware while partygoers bid on our corpse. A dime store Christie’s with a hammer for a gavel.

The way that Gass has said that The Tunnel isn’t a book, Mira Corpora more resembles the experience of holding a shell to your ear to hear the dreary growing pains of brewing adulthood than curling up with a paperback.

Sex and violence are, when executed in this world of the everyday, more a trip to the Laundromat than a romp in the dungeon. The topics that have driven expression since we were slime on forgotten beaches are, in Jackson’s world, demoted to happenstance. What stands in for their usual power is the fear of them channeled through fetishized objet trouvés such as a pack of cigarettes, the design of which evidences a threatening pitbull.

Jackson writes, “I pass packets of laundry soap, party balloons, multi-colored shoelaces. I finger bags of chocolate marshmallows, dried noodles, jellied fruit.”

Somewhere in this ranking beastly necrophilia occurs.

A prima facie livelier section reveals Jackson’s attraction to urban mythology: “Every morning freshly shattered glass shimmers on the sidewalks like dew. Kids casually cross the avenue with newly stolen car batteries tucked under their arms like purses. There are stories about winos waking up to bloody incisions and missing kidneys.”

But to example from the book is unfair. Maybe there are another 300 pages of Mira Corpora somewhere in Jackson’s hard-drive, but he was smart enough to keep the novel slim, readable in a single sitting. This is an essential element of its success. It reads like an incantation—more like a hex—and to put it down is to break the spell. What Jackson is (or we as readers are) cursing, I haven’t figured out. Maybe anything he (we) can find.

He harnesses the grotesqueness of simplicity. Erik Satie, for instance, would love this book. It’s simple when we expect it to be complex, stultifyingly clever when we anticipate the prosaic. It’s also surprisingly funny, though you may not get the joke until you’ve read a few pages past it.

“We cluster around a telephone pole, pretending to be fascinated by a handwritten notice about a missing hamster.”

Ridiculous, jocular, and believable.

It’s a séance of a novel with a pace evened as though Jackson took a rolling pin to its telling. Taken as a whole it sweats with sensual profanity and black magic, but line-by-line Mira Corpora reads like Descartes’ grocery list. That is, if Descartes had grown up in the Pacific Northwest listening to his mother suck off drifters through a shared wall.

Jackson is a maximalist who makes use of minimalist strategies, taking an eraser to what could have easily begun as prickly, jagged prose, rendering a story that pretends not to know itself. This is smart smut operating incognito as phlegmatic doubt.

When Jackson uses slang or obscenity it agitates and bewilders, inspiring a feeling of morbid embarrassment and shock. Something like watching your typically stoic father cry for the first time. 

A few months back I read online that Mira Corpora’s publisher, Two Dollar Radio, had become for one reader like Dischord Records—they were confident that any book TDR would print would be one they’d cherish. High praise. But take the analogy a step further and I get a little lost. Which book is like the cheeky discography of The Make-Up?

If anything, the Columbus, Ohio based press—with its distinct aesthetic decided by disparate textual voices—is more like a museum whose renovations were halted before the place lost its funding. All the dusty stuff in the basement crowds the wings. The juxtaposition of an ancient ceremonial headdress under glass with a filthy mop resting against the cracked case.

In September, Jackson contributed the playlist for his novel on the always-awesome Largehearted Boy site. To me, most of his selections don’t fit his book. The one selection that rang true was Young Marble Giants, detached and unconventional, facetiously subdued.

The other day I was doing some forgettable housework and listening to Love Life. The combination of whatever boring thing I was doing and the music of the long-defunct dirge-dwelling outfit felt like a better fit for Mira Corpora’s mood. Slow, guttural, repetitive, frightening. Just when you think they’re finished they rush out from the dark to scratch and bite. These mean whispers in the night comprise just one side of Jackson’s study of abjection, shame, and misshapen youth.

We’re faced with a mortality we thought we’d conquered long ago, and by its gory reemergence we seek hope. Jackson, though I’ve heard otherwise, offers us none. It may be that in Mira Corpora we finally have a textual rubric to begin to navigate the question: What if my parents die and World War II was really real? The question’s been asked before, but in different ways (Viz. Ornette Coleman’s Skies of America).

Metric tons of shit have to be waded through to get to an island where we’re able to confront our collective Western grief. It may be true that these are “first world problems,” but it’s ridiculous to consider these problems unproblematic. Anything less than trickery dissuades the convinced from their cause. Here, Jackson adds to the canon of essential deceptions reminding us that, yes, all is lost, but tomfoolery included, we might be able to reconsider our pasts and, for once, learn something.

Mira Corpora is a self-help book. A joke book. And somehow, not a book at all.

Mr. Jackson, please take your seat in the rickety tree house among the Krilanoviches, the Marcuses, the Blake Butlers, the Amelia Grays, and the Lara Glenums. I’m sure that together you’ll sublimate some kind of sandwich from a box of rusty screws, a piece of bark spray-painted red, and a bag of cotton one of you stole from the 99¢ store.

Hurry. We are hungry.

Patrick Benjamin is a writer living near Los Angeles. He lives with his sister and grandmother.