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Literature : Interview

Trauma, gatekeeping, and a bid for the youth cult of decadence.


Jac Lahav. Untitled Praxis, 2014, oil and charcoal on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Jeff Jackson’s intensely lyrical first novel, Mira Corpora, arrived dressed in praise from such authors as Dennis Cooper, Don DeLillo, and David Gates, and made many of last year’s top ten lists. This triumphant reception is happily at odds with the minor-chord timbre of Mira Corpora, which traces an unnamed protagonist as he is shot from the cannon of a mythically violent childhood through various lives of estrangement and intimacy, nomadism and arrival, pleasure and fright. Throughout the book, Jackson’s prose style continually astonishes, tossing up hot sugar-clouds of language that cool into fatal blades. The straits our hero endures—not to say survives—are both impossible and somehow plausible, surreal and all too real in the brightly lit misery-scape that is contemporary America. Our homeless speaker is both everyman and nowhere man, prone to wander and tugged stumbling along by a mysterious inclination toward the hidden and the bright.

Joyelle McSweeney Youth: What is it? Is youth a character trait or is it an occult force animating the matter of your book?

Jeff Jackson I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but I like the idea of youth as an occult force in Mira Corpora. The narrator’s tender age definitely informs the reader’s experience. And although the novel is written in present tense, it’s actually narrated in recollection. It begins with the ritual of walking into the page and then sacrificing a young boy. It’s what the narrator has to do in order to conjure his story. Throughout, he’s trying to recapture the immediacy of experiencing everything for the first time and trying to place the reader in the middle of that confusing emotional space. It’s simultaneously concrete and disorienting in order to be true to the experience of youth. The gaps are as important as the intense moments.

JM Can we be fascinated with youth from the position of the youth cult of decadence or is there only the youth cult of advertising, or are these the same?

JJ The youth cult of advertising seems to absorb everything in its path these days. It’s almost grown into its own wing of Guy DeBord’s Society of the Spectacle. It’s colonized and shaped how we imagine stories about youth—their trajectory, emotional content, and boundaries. Young adult books and coming-of-age stories are big business now. It’s a risk to write about youth because most readers immediately superimpose these popular images and expectations onto your story, whether consciously or not. 

Mira Corpora tries to carve out an imaginative space in the reader’s mind that’s untainted and autonomous. I’m interested in creating stories about youth that resist cultural clichés and can’t be easily digested by what we’re calling the youth cult of advertising. Maybe that’s my bid to get back to the youth cult of decadence, as you say. This effort is probably doomed to fail, but that’s okay. Attempting the impossible is literature’s true modus operandi.

JM Is this novel Songs of Innocence or of Experience?

JJ I’d call it Songs of Innocence in the Key of Experience. Or maybe it’s vice-versa? Or perhaps the key constantly shifts from scene-to-scene. What’s more important was that I definitely wanted the book to have something of the feel and impact of a good song. A loud, yearning, and distorted rock song, preferably.

To me, there’s ultimately something innocent about the narrator writing his story at the end of the book. The story he tells isn’t innocent, but there’s an innocence in the act itself. He’s operating under the idea that transforming his life into fiction might be a redeeming act. That’s a fundamentally romantic notion—though that doesn’t mean it’s wrong, either.

JM There is a lot of violence in Mira Corpora. The boy-narrator’s consciousness changes and alters and becomes debrided in response to the different volumes of violence he encounters. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship of violence and the narrative shape of this book?

JJ The narrator is sometimes drawn to the violence he encounters—like the scene in the woods where he tries to summon a pack of dogs by smearing himself with leftovers. And sometimes he flees it. These are major triggers that propel the action throughout the book. Maybe this is splitting hairs, but instead of violence I think it’s trauma that’s influenced the structure of the novel. The narrator keeps circling around and circling back to the same primal scenes—like the ones with his mother. He struggles to comprehend and cope with them. Sometimes he does this consciously or it’s just part of the arc he’s tracing.

JM Is this book a picaresque? A bildungsroman?

JJ Somebody else can probably answer this better than me. Just as things are constantly being erased in the book, my instinct is to unclassify whenever I can, to point out how Mira Corpora doesn’t easily fit into a category. There are elements of bildungsroman given that the narrator starts young and gets older, but I never thought of the book in that way. The story undermines typical coming-of-age conventions and tries to avoid trafficking in generic self-knowledge.

I don’t see the book as a picaresque either. There is a chain of episodes, but everything is underpinned by a progression of images: masks, dogs, oranges, tapes, paintings, etc. These are threaded throughout and change in each scene, gaining significance with each appearance. Some folks have described the book as linked stories, but it’s definitely designed to work as a whole. You’re losing a lot of the content if you choose to view each section as separate. I’m happy calling Mira Corpora a novel, but that’s probably as comfortable as I get.

JM Can you talk about the way violence and voice are related/imbricated in this book?

JJ Sure, I tried to be aware of how the violence was impacting the voice throughout. This happens most dramatically when the narrator falls in with Gert-Jan. In order to cope, the narrator’s voice literally detaches from his body. He describes what’s happening from various oblique angles, sometimes as if he barely recognizes himself. I think that’s fairly common in abusive situations, though I haven’t seen it represented this way in fiction very often. There are also certain violent situations where the narrator’s tone becomes cooler. He withdraws into a state of confusion. I suspect there are times when the temperature of the narrator’s voice is lowering at the exact moment when the reader’s temperature is rising.

JM The sublime, with its simultaneous peaks and declivities, is experienced as violence by he or she who encounters it. Is violence the signature of the sublime, or just the signature of life’s laws of predation?

JJ I don’t think violence is necessarily a signature of the sublime. Ultimately, I don’t think there are any hard-and-fast rules about experiencing transcendence. For me, the sublime unmakes any attempts to describe and contain it. We’re certainly marked by our experiences with it—and you can say there’s a violence in the way that marking happens, but that violence is of a different sort. It’s a violence that unmakes the way we typically understand violence. You almost have to create another word for this. But then, really, I don’t want the language of the sublime, I want the experience of it.

JM The title reminds me of Ecce homo—behold the man—the genre of painting which shows the scourged Christ. Is your book a kind of Ecce homo?

JJ The title was appropriated from a French experimental film and it’s an idiomatic Latin expression that means “strange and unusual bodies.” There’s a sort of rapt wonder about bodies in that phrase, instead of a horror of scourging. Though if we’re talking about the body of Christ, then there’s a rapt wonder to the scourging—so it probably fits in that way. I definitely wanted the reader to feel a presence on the other side of the text—behold the man?—and give some of the pages an almost flesh-like feel.

JM I know you’ve done a lot of work for theater, been influenced by film, and, I’m guessing, by music as well, given the role of bands, rock stars, and cassettes in this work. Can you discuss the influences that constellate around your writing?

JJ In terms of theater, seeing performances by the Wooster Group and Richard Foreman was like discovering entirely new continents. I wish I’d been able to see key works by Reza Abdoh, Shuji Terayama, and Peter Brooks—they’ve been inspirations as well. I’m also a huge fan of Wallace Shawn’s plays. Some of Caryl Churchill’s work is wonderful. Heiner Mueller’s texts remain bracing challenges. And of course there’s Genet, Beckett, Pinter, and so on.

Cinema and music are both lifelong passions—more than theater, I have to admit. I teach a class in American Independent Film and it’s been a pleasure to introduce students to John Cassavetes’s films. I hope all my work has some of his DNA in it. Werner Schroeter’s early films, which manage to be simultaneously static and operatic, campy and sublime, are a current obsession.

I’ve run a website dedicated to avant garde jazz for the past seven years: Destination: OUT. My collaborator and I focus on the rich African-American strain of the music, though our appreciation has grown for the European, Japanese, and South African scenes as well. I’ve been lucky to see pianist Cecil Taylor in concert many times—his overwhelming and joyful performances remain a touchstone for what it means to be an artist. The level at which musicians like Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Anthony Braxton created music in the ’70s and ’80s is breathtaking. They’re giants.

I’ve written music criticism off-and-on for years and appreciate lots of different genres. The Velvet Underground are the alpha-and-omega of rock to me. Everything good comes from the big bang of their four albums. Punk was another life-changer. I also love James Brown and soul. Brazilian music from bossa nova to the psychedelic Pernambuco scene. This is another endless list. I actually did two music playlists—on Largehearted Boy and Electric Literature—around Mira Corpora that offer some more concrete examples.

JM Can you discuss some of the canonical, non-canonical, or new canonical writers and artists with whom you’ve felt an affiliation or drawn encouragement?

JJ Vladimir Nabokov. It’s foolhardy to try and match his prose, but his ingenious structures are an inspiration. Julio Cortazar—for his offhand profundity. Neither of them are as canonical as they deserve to be. Are Flann O’Brien, Bruno Schulz, Jean Rhys, and Celine considered part of the canon? Kathy Acker, J.G. Ballard, Danilo Kis, and Alexander Trocchi? Harold Bloom stresses one of the primary qualities of great canonical writers is their strangeness. Too often wild authors like Melville and Dickinson are normalized by teachers.

JM With my own students, I feel excited to introduce them to contemporary writers with which they might feel an affiliation, but also to canonical writers they can re-read, who can serve as their armor or their ammunition. Do you think it’s important to establish new canons, new landmark authors around whose texts authors can orient themselves? Or is canon-building a task for each author or artist, every time they make art?

JJ I’m fascinated by the whole issue of canons—this topic could be its own separate interview. When I was younger, I held the postmodern line that the very idea of canons should be dismantled, but I’ve gradually come to believe in them. Our society is being dumbed-down. Middle-brow work is routinely pawned off by critics as great literature. Universities in my area teach The Hunger Games and Twilight in literature classes to make their courses “fun” and “relevant.” Ultimately, this is political. The far-right is successfully pursuing policies to create a populace who lack the ability to be active readers and interpretive thinkers. Cultural gatekeepers and teachers who keep challenging work from people because they’re afraid they can’t handle it are playing into the hands of the right. It’s more important than ever to establish high artistic standards. These days, it’s more radical and worthwhile to take the Great Books Curriculum at St. John’s College than to deconstruct bestsellers (a course offered when I was an undergrad). We need to extend the cult of literature, not dig it a more comfortable grave. It’s possible to both stretch and excite students. And of course, the best teachers still do just that.

But while I think canons are important, our current one desperately needs to be shaken up. Many figures now considered marginal—Machado de Assis, Raymond Queneau, and Jane Bowles spring to mind—are much stronger writers than some of those deemed central. These are also the sort of writers who can ignite a genuine passion for reading in students.

For young authors, I think it’s important to be familiar with the canon of great literature. If you’re hoping to create work that will last, you need to know where the bar is set. And why would you want to deny yourself the pleasure? In practical terms though, writers need to grab inspiration wherever they can. It’s true that the more great books you read, the more likely you are to find lasting inspiration. But there are no hard-and-fast rules. Certain canonical authors might provide the inspiration you need, or it might come from contemporary writers. It could also come from music, film, visual art, or dance. Or video games. Or drugs. You have to be ruthless and honest with yourself to figure out where you can find the tools you need to do your work.

Joyelle McSweeney is the author of six books of poetry and prose, most recently Percussion Grenade (Fence) and Salamandrine, 8 Gothics (Tarpaulin Sky). The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults, a book of poetics, is forthcoming this winter from University of Michigan Press. Her play Dead Youth, or, the Leaks won the first Leslie Scalapino Prize for Innovative Women Playwrights and is forthcoming in November from Litmus Press.

Tags:
Coming of age
Fiction
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