“Mira Corpora,” the debut novel by Charlotte-based playwright Jeff Jackson, brings to mind a description Alfred Hitchcock once applied to surrealism. In an article titled “Why I'm Afraid Of The Dark,” Hitchcock staked his claim as a surrealist by describing his typical thriller as a “perfectly unbelievable story recounted with such hallucinatory logic that one has the impression this same story could happen to you tomorrow.”
I wouldn't compare Jackson’s novel to a Hitchcock film, but that definition of surrealism is apt in describing “Mira Corpora.” Although it takes the reader on a deeply strange journey, at no point does the narrative tip completely into fantasy. Writing with conviction, specificity of detail and emotional pain, Jackson makes you feel as if the story could be happening to you.
How does he pull this off? For one thing, his protagonist is named Jeff Jackson. This doesn't mean his story should be taken as autobiography, but it raises intriguing questions that can’t easily be answered.
Furthermore, Jackson adds an additional layer of immediacy by writing in the first person and present tense. Here’s an early scene in which he's confronted by his abusive mother:
“It's impossible to tell what she's thinking. She doesn't realize I haven't had a real meal in days. I start to peel one of the oranges with my fingers, digging my nails into the rind to create a seam that I can tear. My mother slaps my hand.”
The chapter in which this occurs, “My Life in Captivity (Age 11),” is filled with premonitions of escape. For the narrator, home is but a way station - a larger, mysterious world waits just outside.
“I'm almost there. I can feel myself becoming swallowed by the darkness. With every step, I'm waiting to disappear.”
“Mira Corpora” tracks Jeff from adolescence to young adulthood, and it’s arguable that he never fully emerges from the darkness that swallowed him. Seeking refuge with strangers but always on the move, he’s drawn to unnatural places.
At the age of 12, he enters the wilderness (literally), having heard “stories about a tribe of teenagers who set up their own society in a remote part of the woods.” Unfortunately, this turns out to be no sylvan paradise but a place of confusion, assaults, shifting alliances, bonfire funerals.
The novel’s episodic structure has its purpose: Jackson is less interested in continuous time than freeze-frame moments of high intensity. This section, “My Life In The Woods,” concludes enigmatically, with skinhead oracles and drug-induced visions.
Jeff reappears a year later in a vast unnamed city, existing feral-like in alleyways and parks. Presented with a music cassette of talismanic power, he embarks on a quest to locate the reclusive performer featured on the tape. But darkness is never far away. At age 15, he falls under the sway of a wealthy and depraved benefactor named Gert-Jan.
In an author’s note, Jackson explains that much of “Mira Corpora” is “based on journals I kept growing up.” The result returns us to Hitchcock’s surrealism, existing someplace between dreamscape and ominous reality. And there’s also a parallel theme, which Jackson has woven deftly into the narrative. It has to do with writing – the act of writing – and the never-ending struggle to create.
“I want to write some version of what’s happened to me, but I have no idea what sort of story might spill out.”
“Mira Corpora” even concludes with the possibility its author’s hand “will stab straight through the page.”
Cheers to the independent press Two Dollar Radio for making this book possible. And to Jeff Jackson: More, please.
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