Jeff Jackson’s debut novel, Mira Corpora, is a coming-of-age story that concerns itself with youth and violence – violence both committed by youth and acted upon youth. The book’s narrator (also named Jeff Jackson), abandoned by his alcoholic mother, finds himself journeying alone through bleak landscapes filled with desolate characters. Early on, the narrator hears of a teenage oracle and decides to seek her out, but upon receiving a reading from her, he is stricken to learn the tragic fate that awaits him. So he continues moving aimlessly onward, having no clear direction or goal in mind beyond survival, encountering violent gangs, homeless street teens, a mystical rock star, and a “guardian” who turns out to have very evil motives. The narrator is ever-roaming, and the story lies in his seeking, although it is never quite clear what it is he wants.
The book is divided into three installments – “I begin,” “I continue,” and “I end” – and each installment is divided into sections such as “My Year Zero (6 Years Old),” “My Life in Captivity (11 Years Old),” “My Life In Exile (15 Years Old),” and “My Zero Year (18 Years Old)” among others. The fragmented structure propels the reader forward, adding an element of immediacy and chaos to the narrator’s encounters; as each section opens into a new time and place, the reader must adapt quickly if she is going to keep up, just as the narrator must do if he is to going to survive the obstacles that Jackson lays out before him.
Jackson’s voice is gripping. (Full disclosure: I have had the pleasure of knowing Jeff Jackson through a book club we both attend in Charlotte, NC.) He gambles on his readers to go along with the narrator’s varying points of view. This ever-changing voice reflects the narrator’s self-awareness and the violence that is being done to and around him. In one section he refers to himself only as Reptile-brain, which speaks to the emotional numbness that the narrator has finally reached towards the book’s end.
From feral-child-infested woods to cities wrought with decay, Jackson’s descriptions are alarmingly horrific and yet beautiful. His worlds offer a glimpse into the future, where the gap between society’s haves and have-nots has widened, leaving characters to fend for themselves in destitute landscapes. In one scene, the narrator and some other children are burning a body they have found floating in a river.
The corpse is completely alight, an incandescent effigy, starting to flake off in swirling sheets of gray. The putrid smell continues, lifted by the flames and carried in the smoke toward the firmament. Ash rains down like confetti on Nycette and Daniel. They are coated from head to toe in flecks of burnt skin, but they hardly seem to notice, staring up at the sky, tracing the soul’s journey home, marveling that something up there might be looking back at them. Their upturned faces are beatific and shining.
While much of the book is tragic and dark, Jackson skillfully threads glimpses of hope through language and imagery. The ability of art to inspire is one of the book’s themes, as shown when the narrator befriends a group of teens who are on a quest to rediscover a forgotten rock star, a man whose music has the ability to elevate the listener to a state of euphoria. Finding him eventually becomes more important to the narrator than his own safety: he follows the rock star into a dangerous neighborhood, hoping to hear him sing. But even this moment is doomed, as the former rock star, singing at the hands of an abusive master, turns out to be ruined, just as everything else in the city seems to be:
The sound comes choking out in convulsive yelps. The children burst into peals of laughter. This is the punch line they’ve been awaiting, but it’s no joke. A tormented expression strangles Kin Mersey’s features. He begins to weep while continuing to play. Drool collects around the edges of his lips. There’s a tragic, desperate intimacy to the performance. It’s so overwhelming that I shut my eyes.
In the next section, the narrator has moved on to another journey, which will lead to new depths of devastation, leaving the reader cringing and yet wanting to read more.
The book ends with the narrator sitting down to write a version of his own story, where he reassembles the events of his life and tries to give them a happier ending, or at least one where he is no longer the victim. The narrator’s awareness of himself as the author of the text adds an element of meta-fiction, particularly as the narrator describes himself in the novel’s opening: “There’s an empty notebook in the bottom drawer of my desk. I begin by placing it on a flat surface. I fold it open to the third page.” Jackson has admitted that his own childhood journals inspired much of the book. In the author’s note he writes, “This novel is based on the journals I kept growing up […] sometimes it’s been difficult to tell my memories from my fantasies, but that was true even then.”
Books like Jackson’s are why we need small presses. This is a book that perhaps a larger press wouldn’t have gambled on. But it’s refreshing to see an author craft a novel according to his own vision, and it’s reassuring that there are presses out there who trust their readers’ intelligence enough to publish books like Mira Corpora.