Strange And Unusual Bodiesby Casey Michael Henry
(Two Dollar Radio, 2013)
Mira Corpora’s title is intentionally unfamiliar. As Jeff Jackson explained in a Bookworm interview, although the title is an idiomatic Latin expression for “strange and unusual bodies,” and suggestively probes Mira’s array of bodies distorted and made unfamiliar to themselves, it was selected mostly for its suggestive “sound” and ostensibly alien aspect; Jackson intends it to remain aloof and non-signifying until one is within the work and allots meaning retroactively. Floating through a text made unknowable from the beginning reiterates Mira’s broader mission and structure as a relativistic, dream-like narrative hinging on associative left-turns. Namely, the book is arranged like an incantation, with ritual-recounting, autobiographical segments titled “I Begin,” “I Continue,” and “I End” interrupting surreal anecdotes ostensibly marking a progression through adolescence, though with each anecdote taking place in a distinct reality—some apocalyptic, some verging into Bataille-like parable. Each repetitive section of incantation also gestures toward the text’s deeper theme of how one investigates trauma as it perennially returns, each time less recognizable. Rather than clarify upon revisitation, the trauma refracts, begging deeper and more complex questions. For instance: what if one actually wrought some enjoyment, or clarification of character, from some despicable deed? If so, would that deed then have value? What if objectification serves as a magnifying glass, or analytic lens? Just because one sees strong evidence of the pain, assault, and subjugation of others, does that mean they actually feel it as such, or that it’s actually occurring? These questions echo through the seemingly endless mirrored chambers of Mira Corpora.
A recently released, previously unpublished section from Mira entitled “The Dying of the Deads" sets these themes into relief, namely by representing a direction not taken in the book proper. In starker, more nihilistically simple sentences—reminiscent of kindred writer Mark Gluth, and arch-patriarch Dennis Cooper—“Dying” portrays less-personal rituals of self-destruction. Jackson adopts the rhetoric of punk music or black metal that takes as its normal métier the discourse of oblivion—a stripping of all emotional freight when describing death and self-abnegation. For example, the two main characters in “Dying,” Isaac and The Kid, nonchalantly describe a local club scene like this: “Some death metal band roars about how living feels like being crucified upside down.” The matter-of-fact nature of life’s torturous aspect, according to the narrators and to the band itself, indicates the de-personalized, and routine, death-quest of the young in Jackson’s world—another leitmotif borrowed from Cooper, though here skewed from Cooper’s traditionally homosexual dynamics, as Bookworm’s Michael Silverblatt notes. Further, the actual theme and story arc of “Dying,” about lost vagrants who must more or less prostitute themselves to gain entrance to a timeless empyrean where the half-dead (either emotionally or physically; these two become intermixed) wander. It is here the two friends try to bring back a suicided third in an attempt to alter past tragedy. In the blank tone of the piece, a potential spiritual medium reflects, “People have second thoughts about what they do to themselves. But mistakes don’t have to be permanent.” Somehow, though, perversely, this impermanence and potential ability to reach back and alter the past is somehow both more abstract and bleaker than simple acceptance. The fact that the two only get one last fuck of their lost beau as compensation for their Dantean quest should indicate the idealized projection of “fixing the past” prohibited in Mira.
Lacking even the possibility of altering past history, the most overriding trope of Mira, as discussed, is the impotence of one’s archaeological need to categorize and understand knots of tragedy calcified by time. The “I Begin/Continue/End” sections of the text reiterate this; each revolves around the conjuring of images—a “door,” a “boy with alabaster skin”—which are negated, via “spit … bleed[ing] …ink,” and good-old eraser The grainy dissolve of almost-recognizable images operates in aesthetic parallel with the mutilated, split photographs of a teenager that open and close the text (supplied by Michael Salerno), leaving the “true story” in the negated “ghostly traces” left behind.
Though different tropes consistently flip and intertwine throughout the text—posters, cassettes, occult symbols, all things “feral”—the most salient is that of fruit. Jackson’s use of fruit recalls the story “Karintha” in Jean Toomer’s Cane, where the eponymous young woman finds that she is “a growing thing ripened too soon” after being rid “hobby-horse” by “old men.” The notion of fruit and premature “ripen[ing]” when damage or sensual intensity occurs too early is ever-present in Mira. The narrator Jeff describes “pluck[ing] the only two ripe pieces of fruit” from a tree in the yard of a girl across the street, described by Jeff’s mother as trapped living with a “sex pervert,” and immediately feels as if this act has sacrificed a kinship with the girl—“maybe she’s angry at me for stealing the oranges,” he thinks. The too-intimate relationship between Jeff and his mother is suggested by her reproaching Jeff for his clumsy attempt at peeling an orange; she deftly carves one with a knife as an example and “places the glistening nude thing back on the plate”—the suggestive shape having “no skin left at all” and left “completely exposed.” When Jeff is abducted and made sex-slave later in the novel (a move foreshadowed earlier but still surprising), an “image of [a] lone orange tree” adorns the bedroom of his incarceration—a “picture of terrible totemic power.” While the fruit symbols recur, the dark question of what to do with fruit once ripened remains unanswered.
The wandering granted by the lacking parental or explanatory role of authority figures leads to the “feral” sequences of children running free in the individual stories, titled in variations on “My ---.” A particularly inspired sequence, entitled “My Life in the City,” takes place in a post-apocalyptic, pre-Giuliani New York, skewing the semi-familiar locale with the symbolism of the occult—winos with “missing kidneys,” people “sprawled on the ground like neglected sculptures”—in a way that only Jackson can do. Tent-cities are monitored by roving “Luchos,” bandits appearing like a cross between Latin Kings and the cannibalistic carnies from McCarthy’s The Road. Jackson’s city occasionally yields more recognizable symbols, now warped; the Basquiat-like graffiti of “a king’s crown with a line through it” is used to summon Jeff from hiding and conscript him into finding a lost post-punk messiah, disappeared after a famous last concert. The occasional vagrant visionaries, like the spectral “Sara” from “Dying of the Deads” who effectively snubbed her seeker’s desire for spiritual interaction with carnality, recur through such vignettes. Indeed, a character similarly named “Sara” in “My Life in the Woods” writes Jeff a blank prophecy on a piece of paper as he stares into her “few curly pubic hairs sticking out like orchid tendrils” while awaiting the damning verdict. The prophecy sets Jeff into gagging paroxysms of what seems to be a fulfillment of Sara’s null hypothesis, yet he still wakes up, seemingly fine—another deathblow crumbling anticlimactically before its potential visionary effect can take hold. This thanatological yearning to stretch oneself over the rack in search of illumination proves another way to unlock seemingly impenetrable symbolic loci’s true meaning. In the introductory “My Year Zero,” Jeff lays against a tree with “a thorough coating of food over his body,” a “mix of syrupy perfume and tangy mold,” trying to abandon himself to stray dogs, yet encounters instead a “familiar” man whose “features remain blank.” The man—perhaps the archetype of the every-assailant—takes Jeff away on his back, foregrounding perhaps the most extended and pointed exploration of self-negation, and capstone to Jackson’s theory of prostrating self-examination: the sex-slave “My Year in Exile” section.
The narrator’s attempt to divine an estranged object of trauma reaches its absolute crystallization in Jackson’s offering his own now “strange” body for examination in the “Exile’ portion. Scourged by a mysterious illness, the fictional Jackson is “operated” on, Saw-style, by the Mengelian caretaker, Gert-Jan, who then conscripts him into a mixed voluntary-involuntary sex slavery (the line of volition is teased). The section is perhaps the most telling and philosophically rich example of Jackson’s aesthetics: an outlying example of the new genre of postmodern horror including recent texts like Blake Butler’s 300,000,000. In Mira, Jackson infuses an old genre with relativistic uncertainty like Paul Auster did with the detective story in his New York Trilogy—here the uncertainty is both bound and made unpredictable by codependent erotic energy. Fulfilling the dictum of the title, the narrator’s own body becomes a foreign or “strange” object of interest for the mutual consideration of himself and his captor. In a sex-party sequence in which the immobilized Jackson lies around like an animate Real Doll for the attendees’ pleasure, his psyche, disembodied, instructs us to “ignore the dead body on the floor.” The rhetoric of fruit bloomed from ill will returns; Jackson notes that under one client “there’s a peculiar throb, reminiscent of a finger plucking the granule of hard pit from the center of a peeled grape.” His soul is drawn out like a fish’s spine.
I’m not sure I can recall any coming-of-age story where one’s defamiliarization from one’s own body is rendered as the rubbery sensation of drugged sex slavery, but such is Jackson’s new discourse. Recalling adolescent sexual memories where one blindly follows the next unknowable segment of impulse, Jackson’s sense of removal and codependence with his sexual sponsor homes in on the odd pain, uncertainty, and reliance of youthful sexuality and amplifies it. The teenage Jackson ignores his higher-order self, sublimating it in telling prose expositions like “these days I’m on a need-to-know basis with myself” and an aborted escape attempt fed through his primal “reptile brain.” That Gert-Jan ultimately flees with the child of the woman protecting Jackson is of no consequence; Jackson’s character lives only off the charge of fear and complicity. Don DeLillo remarked of the book that it is “present tense with a vengeance” and indeed the flashes of discomfiting sexual strangeness in adolescence are made more fearful due to the uncertainty of what comes before or after.
The ghost of Dennis Cooper is of course present throughout, yet Jackson’s distinctness is most pronounced in his reticence to foist his youthful phantasmagoria into entirely separate and clinical systems of Sadean sexual trauma to be observed as they morph and shift. Jackson is present throughout, trying to wrest the mucky strands of memory and the ethereal symbols of affecting incidents into some significant shape. Mira is a bildungsroman perhaps made most moving by this fact: that the book bears not the trace of an absent chess-master moving markers of sexual obsession in preformatted patterns, but rather the fumbling hand of enchanter attempting to divine the nature of his spell-in-progress, caught at a moment of pseudo-sexual ecstasy, between either self-release or self-annihilation.
Casey Michael Henry is currently a fellow at the City University of New York’s Center for the Humanities.
ContributorCasey Michael Henry
CASEY MICHAEL HENRY is currently a fellow at the City University of New Yorkâs Center for the Humanities.