Monday
Sep302013

Mira Corpora

By Jeff Jackson


 

Two Dollar Radio
September 2013
978-1937512132

 

Reviewed by Michael J. Solender


 

Mira Corpora is the heady debut novel from New South author and playwright, Jeff Jackson. Jackson is a writer whose fiction should be featured and read, though don't expect an easy go of it; Mira Corpora requires a significant amount of heavy lifting from its reader. Jackson wants his audience to feel the presence on the other side of the page and he plays with recurring themes, images, and scenes that demand ordering, but leave little in the way of instruction as to how the puzzle pieces fit together. An easy, breezy beach novel it is not.

Six years in the making, Mira Corpora puts together the fragmented elements that comprise the formative years (ages 6 to 18) of the ambivalent and rather petulant Jeff. It reads as the autobiography of a troubled adolescent boy on a fairy-tale like journey through repressed memories, strained relationships, and a future that promises a number of possibilities. A significant inheritance presents itself in the form of an estate Jeff is called upon to settle. A small cottage offers permanence and a sense of home that has somehow eluded him for years. Music, a rare source of pleasure for Jeff and an outlet for his untapped creativity, is also foreshadowed to play a large role in his future.

Jeff is more of an alabaster-skinned vessel for containing emotion and recording action as opposed to a fully developed character that elicits deep feelings from the reader. We learn of his smallness and vulnerability and his role as a mascot of sorts for a tribe of rough and tumble miscreants who are more worldly and thus more jaded than Jeff. He learns of sex and drinking and the peeling of oranges, of mysticism and hidden meanings found in secret recordings:

The kids talk about the place in whispers. Everyone calls it the dead village, but the row of condemned houses on the edge of the woods is officially named Monrovia. It's a failed settlement that no longer appears on even the most local maps. Briefly converted into an outpost by the forest rangers, the houses are now abandoned. These once stately structures are marked by decay, wood rot, flood lines, and scattered rubbish. The only inhabitants are three girls who are reputed to have occult powers. Kids occasionally leave camp to visit them and have their fortunes told. Most are too spooked to make the journey.

Jeff spends his youth, like most of us, in search of purpose. Through teachings that don't come through traditional channels, he struggles for knowledge and meaning that is just beyond his reach. His alcoholic mother, for example, is a presence and a force Jeff has to navigate:

A noise upstairs jars me out of my vigil. The sound of my mother's drunken footsteps rustling across the floorboards. It's like a ghost, bumping into furniture. We've been living here on the edge of the woods for 116 days according to the secret tally I've been keeping on the back flap of the peeling rose wallpaper in the bathroom. Or maybe it's longer. The tiny scrawls have almost merged into a single desperate slash. This is typical of our cycle. I've spent years moving from orphanage to orphanage. Every so often, my mother reappears to claim me. This time I'm eleven years old.

Jeff finds parental guidance through a series of strangers. We are introduced to the likes of Lydia, Isaac, Lena, and Markus, but none of them make lasting impressions or play outsized roles in the storyline's progression. There is a cold aloofness to most of Jackson's characters and his eponymous namesake is difficult to warm up to or empathize with as he faces the kind of indignities and vagaries of life that plague us all. Slights, abandonments, bullying, and loneliness are incorporated into the meandering narrative that teases the reader to find an order. Nonetheless Jeff is our gateway to an odd and at times emotionless world where logic and reason are content to be bystanders to a somewhat comforting dystopia and chaos.

Gert-Jan, introduced nearly two-thirds into the book, is one character who captures the reader's attention and fully captivates and enchants young Jeff with his care and empathy. It is only when this father figure enters that order begins to present itself. While all is certainly not completely revealed in a definitive moment, the coalescence that occurs with Gert-Jan's introduction and his subsequent stewardship of young Jeff through the novel's conclusion is ultimately rewarding. Gert-Jan arrives at a time perhaps where Jeff is at his most vulnerable; Jeff's hand is injured and he is in need of a doctor. And at 15 years old, Jeff is on the cusp of discovery and maturation that will likely propel him from the "underground" life he's led to a more traditional existence. Gert-Jan is part mentor, part guidepost, and the bridge Jackson has chosen to facilitate Jeff's rite of passage:

I can't explain why I continue to lie prone on the chilly exam table. Maybe part of me is hoping Gert-Jan will cure my supposed illness. Maybe part of me doesn't care anymore. My eyes remain shut until it's over. I struggle to keep my body wholly unresponsive while Gert-Jan ties my wrists, but my left pinky keeps bucking and jerking, as if it's acquired its own nervous system.

Afterward, he removes the gag and cups my chin while I cough. "You are cured," he announces. He still wears one of the powdery green surgical gloves. It's dappled with droplets of blood.

I quickly abandoned trying to determine whether Mira Corpora represents Jackson's fantasies or actual memories; this question is unanswerable and ultimately unimportant. Jackson's novel isn't plotted in a traditional sense, but is instead a series of scenes and anecdotes that are loosely stitched together to form an account of those transactions and characters he feels are most relevant to the reader. The novel surrenders nothing in the way of extensive narrative, putting its reader on notice from page one that there is work to be done in interpreting this Lewis Carroll-like, in-your-face expressive tale of one boy's rite of passage. With deft touches, Jackson keeps his reader in the here and now with expressive scene development and immediacy:

I find myself crossing two lanes of traffic and heading towards this structure. It's a beacon in the beached terrain. As the night drains away, I stand on a grassy strip of median and inspect its brick architecture and darkened façade. A solitary window on the third floor is lit up. A silhouette flits in and out of the frame. It takes a moment to realize I'm back where I started. The fitfully pacing figure is Gert-Jan.

Strange and oddly poetic, Mira Copora offers the type of fiction that engages the reader at a very primal level. It is writing that isn't afraid to take the risk of dismissal and engages us with a story without discernable beginnings and endings.