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By Jeff Jackson
Two Dollar Radio
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
Mira Corpora is an astonishing piece of work: the rare experimental novel that also features rocket pacing, the coming-of-age story riding in the wake of a million others that still feels fresh and new, the story that wears its shock and awe on its sleeve yet still manages to stun, the debut novel featuring angsty teenagers using drugs that somehow feels authentic. Here's what you need to know: It's gripping; it's interesting; it's good stuff.
Take, for example, the angsty/suicidal teenage narrator. This year, I have read what feels like a hundred of these novels, all them debuts, and all but one of them from small indie presses. I won't call out the authors by name, but suffice to say they all have big problems that arise because reading a book featuring suicidal narrator generally involves listening to a lot of what amounts to empty hemming and hawing. I suppose the author's design in most of these novels is for the reader to firmly align him or herself in the suicidal narrator's camp, listing all of the reasons this poor young person has to live, while the suicidal narrator drones on and on insufferably about should he or shouldn't he kill himself. Well, in Mira Corpora, the word suicide is never mentioned. But then we have this scene. Mr. Jackson's narrator--also named Jeff Jackson--is at this point a 15-year-old urban street person turned sex-slave/pet. A well-heeled German immigrant named Gert-Jan keeps the Jeff Jackson of the novel prisoner by dosing him on a daily basis with with a fizzy neon green pill, but one day young Jeff palms the pill and pantomimes a swallow. The next day, he does the same, and an unnamed plan begins to emerge. "My hands seem to be scavenging for something in particular. All the while I listen to the clanging sound of feet on the circular metal steps. I have no idea what I'm preparing to do until I climb onto a chair and fling a strand of twine over the chandelier." There you have it. Up until this point in the novel, the idea of suicide hasn't entered our narrator's mind. And yet a moment later he's hanging by his makeshift noose, and a moment after that he's crashed to the floor with the chandelier still tied to his neck and ceiling rubble all around him, and he drags the whole mess behind him as he staggers to a picture window from which he plans to jump. Obviously, this isn't the only way to approach suicide in a novel, but it's so superior to the many recent treatments I've seen the subject given that it got my attention. Whereas many debut novels seem filled with the author's fantasies of anguish, here is the real deal, or at least a close facsimile. Here is an author--as advertised in the "Author's Note" at the beginning of the text--who seems to be speaking from experience.
And that's not all that got my attention in Mira Corpora. We meet young Jeff as a six-year-old orphan, and then are reintroduced to him as an eleven-year-old living with his abusive alcoholic mother, who he tells us appears to reclaim him every so often. The best sections of the novel come after Jeff has run away. We are introduced to a backwoods settlement peopled entirely by teenage runaways, where a dead body is burned at a funeral pyre, a band of the escaped monkeys from a foreclosed amusement park wanders the landscape, and lecherous gun-wielding truckers wait in ambush. Jeff visits three "oracles," whose appearance in the novel seems to echo Homer's sirens, their sweet song a precursor to death and corruption.
Jeff's quest takes him next to the city, where he shuttles "between a cardboard refrigerator box in the alley next to the Emerald Mountain Chinese restaurant and a wool blanket on the concrete floor of the municipal shelter." One day, the mailman hands him an envelope containing a cassette recording of a legendary and elusive indie musician. Jeff realizes the cassette tape is a gift, and it excites him. He borrows a Walkman from a fellow street person. Mr. Jackson describes the urban landscape beautifully. "A few homeless have bothered to climb the chain-link fence that protects the partitions of dead grass from the public. They lie on the ground like neglected sculptures, blackened by the elements." And, "The ground is covered in fresh, grayish-green splatches of pigeon shit." And, "The wind swirls some grimy black condoms and supermarket fliers at my feet." While young Jeff is finally listening to the transcendent garage rock on the tape, he's approached by a roving gang of Luchos. The Luchos tell him to hand the tape over. Jeff refuses. They encircle him and close in. Fight or flight instinct takes over, and Jeff lunges at the head Lucho. He knocks him to the ground, and clamps down on his nose with his teeth. This stuns the gang of Luchos. "His nose is squelchy cartilage in my mouth," Jeff narrates. "I can feel it start to give. So can he. More screams. More cursing. [...] With a savage jerk, I rip my head to the side. His nose is in my mouth. A chunk of rubbery gristle. [...] Everything halts for a moment as El Lucho Jefe gives a heart-shuddering, high-pitched scream to the heavens. I spit his nose on the ground." With the nose on the ground, Jeff and the Luchos are swarmed by stray dogs. Jeff flees and ends up on a rooftop above the park, where he listens to the cassette tape again. "From the first quavering notes," he narrates, "I can feel again how everything has changed."
So can the reader. What's changed for us, is that we're no longer in a story that resembles any other we've read. We're knee-deep in a propulsive novel that's not only a cut above the average bildungsroman, but is just objectively good by any standard.
There's much more here that I haven't touched on--the relationship between the "real" and "invented" Jeff Jackson, the novel's sometimes challenging but ultimately linear structure, and the wonderful way that Mr. Jackson draws attention, again and again to the words on the page themselves. In the age of e-readers, the book as object is very much alive here. When Jeff is struck by the uneasy sensation in the last line that his hand might "stab straight through the page", the possibility feels all too real. Mira Corpora will amply satisfy readers looking for both depth and entertainment.
Out of 10: 9.9, or 10 for readers who like their fiction on the dark, strange, and less than perfectly accessible side