Collected Alex

By A. T. Grant


Caketrain Journal and Press
June 2013


Reviewed by James Orbesen


Collected Alex, a novella by A. T. Grant, begins with a celebration. The narrator, Alex, tells the reader that on "My eighth birthday was when my parents gave me this dead body."

Isn't that what every little boy wants?

The body becomes a constant companion for Alex: "I carried it for hours each day. When one shoulder got tired, I switched the body to the other. When both shoulders got tired, I set it against a wall. The dead body made a good cushion. I leaned against it and used its legs as armrests."

Alex's parents even concoct a special formula that keeps the corpse from decomposing. Each day, Alex must spoon the thick liquid down the dead body's gullet. The parents have only two rules: 1) Give the body its formula each day, and 2) Never, ever, ingest the substance.

Despite lugging around a dead body, no one seems to mind. People at parties even give Alex an avuncular, "That's some dead body. How long have you had that thing." Conspicuously, Collected Alex doesn't used question marks, making these comments more like statements or facts, rather than something that should provoke a response.

What exactly is going on here?

Divided into three sections, the novella follows the titular Alex. Section one, narrated in the first person, details the dead body and the abrupt, off-page death of Alex's parents. Seeped in loneliness and desperate to connect with his only companion, the corpse, the section ends when Alex breaks rule #2: don't consume the formula.

Section two picks up in a confined room. The point of view has shifted, moving into the third person. Much like the inside of one's head, Alex cannot escape. He measures the room using his own height and finds himself confined to a space with only an opaque window. The only other additions are a device for speaking and one for listening, much like an antique telephone. Both seem inoperable.

There are no clear exits and he is utterly alone, just like in the first section, except now he's without his corpse. He is so isolated, in fact, that almost each chapter in the second section begins with "Alex is alone in the middle of the room." It becomes a refrain until Alex realizes he can communicate with an outside world, vaguely, and with great effort:

He clears his throat, takes a breath and says loudly, Hello. His voice rings and rings in the talkhole like a feedback loop. Like the word has reached into a void. His word expands in the void and projects back into the room. He lets the word decay while he decides what to say next. He speaks from deep within himself when he says, in a quieter voice, What is the voice that spoke to me through the hearpiece. Can I hear the voice again. I just want to hear the voice again. He repeats these words over and over until his throat is so sore he can no longer speak.

Once more, no questions marks; these are questions that will not be answered because there is no recipient. Alex pleads for contact, and A. T. Grant really evokes the desperateness of isolation. Eventually, Alex has a static-filled conversation with a nameless voice on the other end. When this contact, spread across an indeterminate number of days, ends, Alex becomes apoplectic: "Now do you see me now do you see me do you see who I am do you love watching me and do you love me do you love me do you."

This wonderful paratactic run on prompts Alex to break out of the room, ushering in the third section. He stumbles onto a stage in front of a large, faceless crowd, and is asked to perform. A glaring spotlight eggs him on, mesmerizing him. Backstage there are dozens of Alex costumes, one for every emotion and identity, which he tries on to appease the masses.

For a while, Alex appreciates the company until the crowd becomes hostile, demanding he perform more and more while the spotlight pokes and prods him. The stress is enough for Alex to confess his heart's desire: "All I have ever wanted is to see someone. For someone to see me. For us to see each other and not turn away."

This is all a very long and convoluted way of saying that A. T. Grant is examining loneliness from a number of angles. The running thread through all three sections is Alex's grappling with his singularity. Whether viewed from inside or outside, Alex is constantly in search of connection. Grant's prose—sparse, punchy, and haunting—evokes an atmosphere of disconnection. His sentences don't always flow smoothly from one to the other and that seems to be the point. The search for that connection, that linkage, dominates Collected Alex and will linger with you long after you finish these pages.

Alex eventually comes to a fitting end. After destroying the hated spotlight and stripping himself of his costume, he finds someone waiting in his green room.

Alex opens his eyes and looks into the eyes of the face. The face looks back. The look from the face does not bore painfully into him. The look is not a burn on his skin. It does not grip him like a spotlight. […] Alex and the face stand there like that. Seeing. They see each other, and the face does not flinch. The face does not turn away.

The connection is coming. However, ominously, Alex's reaction is placed separately on the following page: "Neither does Alex." What this means is unclear but that often makes for the best sort of ending—it is up to the reader to figure it out.