Fairly or not, Millennials are a maligned generation. They are narcissists, the stereotype tells us. They have no work ethic. They were ruined by helicopter parenting. They each received a trophy at the end of soccer season — even the losers! Thus, the great crisis of Millennial as they reach the true, long-postponed adulthood of their thirties is the realization that they might not be as special as everyone has been telling they are. That they might, in fact, be just another slob condemned to an unrewarding career in (God forbid) corporate law.
With his debut collection, Prodigals, Greg Jackson explores this terrible Millennial epiphany over the course of eight stories. Drugged-out thirty-somethings attempt to track down a financier in Palm Springs in the hope that his patronage will validate their life choices. A tennis star hides out in the French countryside, doubting his own existence. A documentary filmmaker mourns his potential lives as he and his psychiatrist try to outrun a hurricane. A film school dropout attaches himself to a pair of otherworldly sisters who seem to hold the secret to personal significance. Everyone is searching for the thing that will push him into fulfillment; it isn’t enough just to have a creative streak. As the dropout explains to a friend who doesn’t want to believe him: “…pretty soon it dawns on you that everyone has ideas, and we’re all just jerking off, mourning the falsehoods of youth or whatever — because we’ve all been taught, right, every last one of us, that we have some unique something to offer up to the world. But c’mon. Let’s be real.”
In short, everyone is special in this collection, but special in that way that makes it easy to speak of them collectively. As the narrator of the blistering opener, “Wagner in the Desert” (as compelling a diagnosis of Millennial angst as any I’ve encountered), explains of his cohort: “We listened to U2 and Morrissey and Kylie Minogue post-ironically, which is not to say, exactly, sincerely. We donated to charity, served on the boards of not-for-profits, and shepherded socially responsible enterprises for work. We thought we were not bad people. Not the best, a bit spoiled, maybe, but pleasant, insouciantly decent.”
In “Epithalamium,” a newly divorced woman regards her peers with unconcealed disgust: “The groups were always the same…putative adults who because they ate mushrooms once in a while and bore the tattoos of some lapsed rebellion thought they deserved medals of non-conformity, or abiding hipness…Really though, no one was passing out medals in the end. People all knew that, didn’t they?” Of course, of course. And yet, if there aren’t any medals, what exactly is it that they’ve all been working toward?
Some might argue this idea of specialness — of a “unique something” — is a phenomenon of the upper middle class. (After all, poorer Millennials were mostly reared with the same unsentimental Darwinism as past generations.) It is the upper middle class, however, with which Jackson is primarily concerned. Working people, when they appear in these stories, are generally relegated to the margins: wedding caterers, park rangers, off-season townies, those New Yorkers too resourceless to escape an approaching superstorm. The heroes here are the people with capital (or with relatives with capital). There’s a unapologetic bluntness to his presentation. He doesn’t try to make these wealthy characters the subjects of satire. Nor does he ask the reader to like them, or even relate to them. Their flaws and graces are well-documented — their guilt regarding their privilege (or the rejection of that guilt); their altruistic instincts and hypocritical tendencies; their educations; their drugs. They have money, yes, but it’s not as much money as their friends have. Nearly everyone, it seems, paints.
The most broadly relatable characters in the collection are Amy and Jesse, two Southern girls attempting to escape their evangelical hometown in the masterfully executed “Amy’s Conversions.” Even here, though, the lesbian Jesse watches as her unrequited love Amy transforms from atheist to anarchist to co-opted normie, forsaking the revolution for a chance at marriage and middle-class stability. “I wanted to be happy,” Amy tells her old friend. “Isn’t that awful? Isn’t that just awful? I wanted my little happiness, like everyone, and Sundays to read.” For Amy, the opportunity to not be special comes as a tremendous relief.
This pursuit of happiness may hold the answer to fulfillment, and yet happiness may be an even more elusive state than specialness. The quest for either is apt to turn a person’s gaze inward, back to the home from whence he sprung. As the title of the collection implies, these are characters who have (sort of) rejected the lives meant for them, who are seeking to find an alternative way of living, free from the problematic sources of their privileged upbringings. To become self-created, self-actualized, to live in harmony with the world.
Of course, this is all so much easier to conceive of than to implement. These stories seek to capture the moment when their protagonists begin to doubt the way forward and turn to peer back toward home. Jackson writes his characters as stuck between the world they were meant to inherit and the one they were hoping to find. (Here, too, we see a Millennial archetype, for what was the Prodigal Son if not the first boomerang kid, swallowing his pride and moving back into his father’s basement?) Jackson asks the reader if either option holds any value anymore, if either world is even still available to us.
Jackson is a virtuosic talent, and his distinctive, maximalist prose style alone will make Prodigals one of the more memorable debuts of 2016. The nucleus of his influences seems to reside deep within the last century, and his stories exhibit few of the tricks one associates with the MFA workshop. There are imperfections, yes. Not every piece lands smoothly, and the author is prone to dense, philosophizing paragraphs that will enthrall or repel readers based on their personal tolerance for abstraction. Some passages and voices are so manneristic that they teeter, at times, into revivalist parody. The final story, “Metanarrative Breakdown,” is emblematic of Jackson’s strengths and weaknesses both: it is a lengthy, messy piece that achieves instances of staggering beauty and bewildering esoterica, delighting and frustrating the reader by turns. In aggregate, however, this collection succeeds in addressing a generation’s internal crises with remarkable comprehension and insight. In its best moments, it makes a persuasive argument for the unique something of its author.