Jeff Jackson. Mira Corpora. Columbus, OH: Two Dollar Radio, 2013. 186 pp. $16.00, paper.
Acclaimed playwright Jeff Jackson has written a novel, Mira Corpora, starring his adolescent self, who escapes an abusive home to roam through a surreal and lawless wasteland filled with teenage hobo camps, haunted amusement parks, and pill-popping oracles. By leading his fictional surrogate through this wild, fictional world, Jackson hopes to blur the lines between his memory and his imagination. Obscuring them is essential to his novelistic enterprise, as an introductory author’s note explains:
This novel is based on journals I kept growing up. When I rediscovered these documents, they helped me confront the fragments of my childhood and understand that the gaps are also part of the whole. Sometimes, it’s been difficult to tell my memories from my fantasies, but that was true even then. Throughout I’ve tried to honor the source material and my early attempts to wrest these experiences into language.
In an interview with Tin House, he further explains that, while writing he “was less concerned about the character sharing [his] literal experiences than making sure there was an emotional honesty underlying everything.”
Jackson’s ambitions for his novel call to mind Alasdair’s Gray’s novel, Lanark, which juxtaposes its hero’s emotionally fraught real life with his counterparts’ journey through a surreal dystopia where real-life pain is eventually healed. Is this what Jackson means when he says that emotional honesty underlies his novel’s fantasy? Mira Corpora entertains this possibility in its early stages. Before memory is abandoned for fantasy, stark depictions of the domestic sphere evince the trauma that informs the narrator’s journey:
Somewhere between my shoulder blades there’s a burn the shape of a clothing iron. My mother enters the room with a jar of salve…. Once the bandage is secure, she turns on the bedside lamp to better examine her handiwork. My mother starts to sob…. [A]fter a few minutes, I reach out and rest my hand on her shoulder. She slaps at me. “You little shit!” she shrieks.
This and other memories of child abuse make the narrator’s subsequent flight feel both emotionally honest and vital for survival. They also feed the reader’s expectation that, by escaping into a green world, the narrator will transform; that his trauma and repression will be inverted in the surreal world; and that expression and healing will blossom from his wounds.
Ironically, the ravaged, dystopian world the narrator flees to is no greener than the one he escapes. He returns from his journey with only more wounds, so that mourning his late mother proves an Olympian feat. Unable to summon compassion for his mother, he feignedly celebrates her death between eruptions of involuntary grief: “I stamp down the grave until it blends seamlessly with its surroundings…. I crack open a fresh celebratory jug of something or other. It’s probably morning when I find myself weeping in the middle of the woods…. I plunge my hands into the hole and…pull out the silver [cremation] urn.”
Clearly, Mira Corpora does not share Lanark’s sense of emotional triumph. This is not to say that defeat cannot also be honest. If confusion and defeat are the mental states that Jackson wishes to honestly represent in his novel, the domestic scenes bookending the narrator’s journey depict them with honesty. The journey is another story, however.
Throughout his travels, the narrator infuses his present-tense reportage with affect and bravado. A prime example is his experience with a bootleg cassette mysteriously mailed to the address-less cardboard box he sleeps in. Listening to the tape is an epiphany, “like being turned inside-out and finding the story of your life written on your inner organs…like having your blood leeched to remind you that you have blood.” His devotion to this tape is adolescent in its zeal. It becomes a source of solidarity between him and a band of fellow teen vagabonds; later, it inspires a manhunt for the tape’s reclusive author. Yet, the narrator never elaborates on the tape’s redemptive power. Has being eviscerated cleansed him of inner turmoil? Or has it increased his turmoil, engendering rage and wanderlust? For that matter, what is the story of his life written on his inner organs? As the narrator emerges from each consecutive pitfall appearing more detached than before, the reader increasingly suspects that he is hiding from these questions—hiding the fact the he does not know the answers. This is not emotional honesty.
Still, a wiser, more honest narrator or author looking back on his adolescence could expose these concealed emotional truths. This is a bildungsroman after all, albeit one occasionally obscured by flourishes of fantasy. The narrator’s fraught homecoming contains the potential for an emotionally honest reflection. As he struggles to mourn, he could, in the author’s words, confront the fragments of the past. Instead, he conceals them further. Like his mother’s cremation urn, his emotions are buried, in this case, by art: “Slowly I screw up my courage. I want to write some version of what’s happened to me, but I have no idea what sort of story might spill out.”
À la A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Mira Corpora concludes with a fragment of the narrator’s early writings. This surreal sketch bears no relation to the narrator’s experience aside from the conspicuous image of an orange tree he saw on his journey. Rather than providing psychological insight or motioning towards emotional closure, this frivolous creative act is meant to seem heroic. If there is triumph to be found here, it is fantasy’s triumph over memory. But if Jackson’s imagination has silenced his broken heart, where does that leave his alleged emotional honesty?