The playwright and the novelist may try to share the same skin, but historically, they haven't made a good fit. The signature case would be Henry James, all but bankrupted by his work in theater. Going the other way, David Mamet has published two novels that generated nowhere near the excitement of his plays. So just picking up Mira Corpora, the debut novel by the New York dramatist Jeff Jackson, you fret for this still-young talent. He's with the Collapsible Giraffe company, a group that combines imaginative experiment and philosophic inwardness. The Times listed their Botanica among the "galvanizing theater moments" of 2012, and Jackson and company have shared an Obie. They'll mount a new piece this spring.
History be damned, however: In Mira Corpora the switch of genre proves no obstacle. Episodic yet suspenseful, smeared with gutter detritus yet glittering with right-on apercus, the novel delivers both jolts to the spine and food for thought. It's a nightmare gallop out of childhood that never arrives at the dawn of maturity. Rather, this coming of age comes undone. Throughout, no motif recurs so often as erasure.
One gripping chapter goes so far as to erase the protagonist's mind—even though he's the narrator. A demanding sleight of hand, limited first-person risks obscurity, but Jackson pulls it off by making clear, from early in the chapter, that the central consciousness has been beaten up and heavily medicated. His hero "Jeff" (more on the name later) is a sex slave at this point: a 15-year-old with "barely corrupted flesh." The episode turns on Jeff's attempt to escape his abuse, but the tension of the moment depends on his damaged faculties; he operates on a "Reptile-brain."
This rough treatment is in keeping with the rest of the novel, a rat's-eye-view of childhood, and with the growth experience overall: initiation by eradication. In Mira Corpora the concluding incidents deliver no epiphany, but instead take its homeless orphan, now 18, back to what the chapter title terms "Zero." As a final gesture, Jeff scribbles in a half-destroyed notebook, but his imaginings present another horror, a murder story that may itself go to pieces: "stab straight through the page." Translated from Spanish, the title Mira Corpora suggests both "see these texts" and "see these bodies"; it links the blank page, which some would consider a place of possibility, with the stripped corpse.
Yet remarkably, in the reading, the book often feels like fun. The reader's pleasure matters to Jackson, he's claimed in an interview, and in the novel he takes care to parcel out the hard knocks in a way we can bear, in six swift chapters. These begin with Jeff at age six, his "Year Zero," a pleasing complement to the final "Zero Year." Thereafter each stage of the picaresque finds the narrator a bit older and in a different space: "in Captivity" at age 11, or "in Exile" at 15. Like the paired zeros, every title proves illuminating; "Exile," which concerns Jeff as sex slave, has him in exile from his own right mind. Indeed, all half-dozen episodes, though they never fail to generate that speed and prickle we call suspense, take time for moments of comedy and lovely turns of thought. Even when Jeff's six, slathered with a honeyed gunk and tied to a tree, his limited perception takes him to fantasy, and his vocabulary to a poetic identification across species:
Once a butterfly lands on my elbow, purple wings still as its body twitches. It seems to be stuck in the tacky paste, its tiny feet frantically pumping up and down. I can almost feel its heart screaming.
The most entertaining chapter comes "in the Woods" at age 12, and features a forest squat run by tween-agers ("Liberia"), a loss of virginity in a treehouse, some make-believe mumbo-jumbo for the pyre of an actual drowning victim, and then, about halfway into the chapter, monkeys broken out of a zoo and gone feral: "Without seeing them, I can feel their presence. The small faces, hairy paws, arched tails." From there the episode moves on to the rituals of three "oracles," grown women in another woods squat. Overall these adventures make a great piece of "manic pacing," as Don DeLillo put it, in his eye-opening endorsement.
This encounter with the "oracles," however, once again leaves Jeff in emptiness. Their fortune-telling potion renders "everything ... blank." In that blank there's another opportunity of escape for the narrator (a way out of the tweeners' campground, specifically), though in this case too he can only discern it with a "Reptile-brain." He must stumble, in other words, from whiteout to whiteout, in a series of sprightly disasters, with intriguing parallels. Such a setup risks feeling claustrophobic, and if I were to criticize the novel, that's where I'd begin. Even a dark fairy tale can suffer too tidy a closure.
About halfway through the text we learn the narrator also shares the author's last name. He's Jeff Jackson, none other, and so the very voice of the novel functions as another image for the blankness on which we all inscribe our identities. Interesting, but at the same awfully cozy—the snug relationship between artist and artifact again circumscribes the imaginative space. When mundane figures like police or lawyers turn up in these pages, they can seem out of place, mere narrative conveniences. When the final chapter delivers us to adult language, and addresses adult complexity like probate law or family dysfunction, a few sentences don't rise above bland summary. Speaking of his alcoholic mother, Jeff recalls: "She devised scarring punishments with oven burners, space heaters, and curling irons. But it was painful when she abandoned me, just the same."
But such clunky business is the exception. The rare exception, and one of the outstanding counter-examples would be Jackson's handling of what his narrator endures as a rent boy: "There's a peculiar throb, reminiscent of a finger plucking the granule of a hard pit from the center of peeled grape." Such poetic indirection helps set this novel apart from other tragedies of lost American children. The masterpiece in that vein remains Russell Banks's Rule of the Bone (1994), but Bone is driven by a social conscience, and with that, a furious fidelity to the nickel-and-dime dregs of capitalism. Jackson's inventions, on the other hand, include bundles of cash that pop up out of nowhere. More's the miracle, the windfall feels inevitable, like the double wedding at the end of a Shakespeare comedy. Mira Corpora can make you believe that every budding novelist ought to apprentice as a playwright.
John Domini's latest novel is A Tomb on the Periphery. A selection of essays and reviews, The Sea-God's Herb, will appear soon on Dzanc Books, and Dzanc will also bring out his next book of stories MOVIEOLA!. See johndomini.com.