the destroyer > reviews > Benjamin Rybeck on 'MIRA CORPORA'
(September 2013, Two Dollar Radio) “These days, a lot of [avant-garde fiction] is very academic and cloistered and basically written for critics and college teachers and PhD students.” So complained David Foster Wallace to Charlie Rose in 1996. Where are we in 2013?
For the most part, avant-garde fiction is still geared toward writers and academics, and is often about them: novels whose characters, versed in philosophy and literary theory, deconstruct the world (and, therefore, the text) around them. There is nothing inherently wrong with this (nor is this a new trend in the avant-garde), but I do occasionally get tired of reading novels whose protagonists—tortured but heroic intellectuals—feel like idealized versions of the authors themselves, meant to be read and understood only by others in the same cloistered academic universe.
Two Dollar Radio is one of several independent presses trying to make avant-garde fiction something more than PhD chum. Two of its best-known releases are The Orange Eats Creeps, by Grace Krilanovich, and A Questionable Shape, by Bennett Sims. Both are “genre novels”—vampires and zombies, respectively—that bridge the gap between the mainstream and the avant-garde. Then there’s Crapalachia, by Scott McClanahan, which bills itself as “a biography of place” and merges experimental tricks with more conventional notions of “memoir,” landing it somewhere between fiction and non-fiction. Crapalachia is especially extraordinary, a vital missive from the avant-garde that you could also give to your blue-collar dad.
In September, Two Dollar Radio published Jeff Jackson’s Mira Corpora, perhaps the best of their books yet. A debut novel, Mira Corpora is ornamented with a blurb from Don DeLillo, but Jackson avoids many of that other author’s worst tendencies. In Mira Corpora, no character has studied literature. Nobody waxes philosophical about the nature of fiction. When the narrator finally starts to write, he has “no idea what sort of story might spill out”—not an act of erudition, but one of desperation.
The narrator here is named “Jeff Jackson,” but this seems more of an attempt to bait the reader than to romanticize the writer. An author’s note reveals that Mira Corpora is based on journals, a gesture that appears to position the book in John D’Agata territory—a hybrid text assuming a posture of nonfiction in an attempt to pose questions about what reality is or isn’t. Then, one paragraph into the novel, “Jeff Jackson” draws a door in an empty notebook and enters the page. So much for the posture of nonfiction.
This is a novel about remembering, but not in an academic sense. In other words, this is not a disguised dissertation on the nature of memory. As the narrator attempts to recall his life, the reader wanders the same elliptical space. Sections of Mira Corpora begin with sentences like “[it’s] hard to remember how I got here,” and “I can’t remember exactly where I’m wandering,” a disorienting lack of context, the connective tissue of summary narration—which a more conventional writer would include—excised.
But I’m making this book sound more difficult than it is. Mira Corpora may be elliptical but it isn’t fragmented. Jackson wisely avoids a tendency of contemporary experimental fiction—the breaking of a book into short sections, like the narrative has shattered. Instead, he organizes the novel into seven sections, giving each the space it needs to develop its own logic and narrative arc, even if it lacks context.
Consider the first chapter, “My Year Zero,” which begins: “They take me out hunting for strays.” We never learn who they are, or where they are, or why they are. But we know the narrator is six years old, so of course the language—which contains gems about the “slow motion ballet of soundless steps” and the “silent chorus of raised rifles”—is somewhat abstract. Adding to this feeling of disorientation is the form of this chapter, each page containing one paragraph surrounding by white space, as though hundreds more details lurk in those blank spots.
Each chapter involves some kind of captivity, whether literal or figurative. In the first, the narrator is tied to a tree, slathered in food, bait for the stray dogs. In “My Life in Captivity,” he is imprisoned by his abusive, alcoholic mother (a predictable character type in an otherwise original novel); he dreams of rescuing a neighbor girl, but only gets as far as donning his mother’s nightgown to become “an echo of the ghostly girl […] across the street” before making his solitary escape. “My Life in the Woods” finds the narrator living in a forest with a group of teenagers; eventually, he decides to make a pilgrimage to a place called the Dead Village, where an oracle can read his future. Broadly, this is something mythic—the hero’s journey. But nothing is romanticized about this back-to-nature life. The kids find a body of a dead girl in the water and think her beautiful, until they build a funeral pyre and encounter the disgusting smell of burning flesh. A girl named Lydia shows the narrator “the mummified skeleton of a dog [hanging] from a noose.” When the narrator finally has his future read, the oracle hands him a blank piece of paper.
But the fifth chapter, “My Life in Exile,” is Jackson’s greatest achievement, a mini-masterpiece that is as surreal and suspenseful as any fiction I have read. About this section, I want to say very little, except to reveal its final image: the narrator alone in a bus station, methodically detaching limbs from a baby doll “as if the poor creature was made to be dismembered.”
The book doesn’t end there, though I confess that nothing of what follows—though lovely and satisfying in its own way—quite reaches those heights. But I find it hard to complain about this. Mira Corpora is a sustained and exemplary work of avant-garde fiction.
In interviews, Jeff Jackson has criticized literary fiction—the “NPR-ification of literature”—calling it a “sham.” He has compared his own book to a punk rock gesture. “There are certain situations in your life,” Jackson told Creative Loafing, “where the only way to move forward in a positive way is to first destroy the situation you’re in.” But maybe the avant-garde, like the things it purports to destroy, sometimes needs to be destroyed too, lest it remain—as Wallace put it—“academic and cloistered.” Reading Mira Corpora, I was able to imagine a world where experimental fiction need not be written for only one small audience but a larger, more diverse one—a world where avant-garde literature can be exciting and dangerous and challenging, but not impossible.