By Kevin Marchand, Connections Intern
Prodigals: Stories by Greg Jackson
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
Writers like Greg Jackson continue to prove that the short story form is not dead. In his forthcoming debut collection, Prodigals, Jackson has strung together eight mind-shattering stories, a number of which formerly appeared in such publications as The New Yorker, Granta, and Virginia Quarterly Review. With sentences that drive on for half a page, and a lyricism you can almost taste, Jackson’s characters navigate the deceivingly mudded waters of today’s privileged elite. Out of the eight stories, six are told from the first-person perspective, and frankly, these narrators leave nothing unsaid. As readers, we are privy to every moment of their spiritual and philosophical unraveling, and we accompany them as their relationship to reality becomes more and more fragile, their disequilibrium increasingly jarring.
The terms of the ensuing ride are set in the opening sentence of the first story, “Wagner in the Desert” (previously published to much fanfare in The New Yorker). “First we did molly,” the narrator explains, “lay on the thick carpet touching the pile, ourselves, one another.” At this point we know to buckle up, and Jackson doesn’t disappoint. He keeps the pedal to the medal in every story, barely leaving enough room for breathing. Indeed, by the end of most these stories, it can feel like one has just run a marathon. So in the event of profuse sweating, don’t be alarmed—you are not alone.
Jackson demonstrates a fondness for picking his characters up by their ears and plopping them down in settings they did not entirely ask for, with people they do not necessarily want to be with. And, predictably, this technique tends to create immediate tension, a tension Jackson sustains line to line, page to page. In perhaps the most obvious case, “Epithalamium,” the protagonist, Hara, a youngish woman in the midst of a semi-mutual divorce, arrives at her beach house to find a stranger—a college-aged, free-spirited young woman, named Lyric—living in her home. Hara wanted time alone, and now, she’s got to deal with the presence of a young woman who could not be more different than her, and in turn serves as a constant reminder of all the aspects of Hara’s own personality that she is hoping to avoid. With his unique characters and his dazzling use of language, Jackson holds us rapt as the situation continues to escalate in the most unexpected ways.
In the final story, “Metanarrative Breakdown,” the narrator describes a feeling that over the summer he has “been on increasingly intimate terms with . . . A vertigo of disconnection.” If I had to pick a prevailing theme that carries through from “Wagner in the Desert” to “Metanarrative Breakdown,” it would have to be this: disconnection. Although almost all the characters in Prodigals are financially well-to-do—or at the very least, comfortable—they are all spiritually bankrupt. And this, it seems, is the point Greg Jackson is trying to make about our current predicament. It is becoming increasingly difficult to connect, really connect—to feel fulfilled. In “Tanner’s Sisters,” Jackson’s narrator announces, “I don’t think I’ve ever been present with another person as deeply as I was in that moment.” For him, this is everything; for each of Jackson’s characters, this is what they long for. Yet, in most cases, they fail. Frequently, it is a challenge to pin down precisely why it is that these characters can’t seem to connect, but it’s all too clear that their hold on life—their notion of existence—is dauntingly and increasingly “tenuous.”
These eight stories that make up Prodigals are remarkably unsettling and shockingly beautiful. Philosophically uprooting and spiritually crucial. Greg Jackson probes the very depths of our existence, highlighting the ever-lingering sense of discontent that’s always waiting to strike, shall we let our guard down and look past the hidden beauty of a life that so often appears to be anything but.