Review: Prodigals by Greg Jackson has drama, drugs and cut-throat dialogue

Intellectually charged debut by a very gifted writer

Sat, Apr 30, 2016, 01:00


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Greg Jackson


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‘It went on like this for pages, mesmerising, impenetrable.” A character in one of Greg Jackson’s stories describes finding a manuscript written by his girlfriend. It is a line that could easily refer to Jackson’s own collection, an intellectually charged debut by a very gifted writer. As the title suggests, the characters in Prodigals are not everymen or women. The stories concern elite individuals who are looking for meaning in their mostly existential worlds.

Their fellow humans are often collateral, there to be used or along for the ride, as with a female therapist in Dynamics in the Storm, who braves a 12-hour car journey in a hurricane with her manic client: “There’s a pitch you live at, Ben. It’s not a pitch I can live at all the time.” As he hurtles over a draw bridge, barely able to see out the windscreen, Ben’s road safety attitude leaves a lot to be desired: “People are bullets, fired.”

Philosophical pondering is the backbone of the collection, but does not detract from the drama. Each of the eight stories engages, but the strongest are at the beginning, with humour, cut-throat dialogue and drug-fuelled escapades gripping the reader from the off.

The opening line of the opening story, Wagner in the Desert, sets the pace: “First we did molly, lay on the thick carpet touching the pile, ourselves, one another.”

Planning to have a baby, the narrator’s friends want one last blow-out, a “baby bucket list” of drugs they want to do before everything changes.

Jackson captures the chaos of drug taking with characters “screaming life truths across six people in a taxi”, twitching compulsively, or arriving at a party of strangers and pouring “half a bottle of Aperol into a Solo cup because – well, let’s assume I had a reason at the time”.

Ever-present, drugs are secondary to the atmosphere of intellectual discussion they foster. Grand awakenings and moments of enlightenment are shot through the collection, often with deflated humour. The insufficiencies of memory, the difference between house and home.

In a later story, the deliberately disjointed Metanarrative Breakdown, the narrator and his friend Gaby discuss “the prime fabric of meaning” while off their heads on “a crack rock that was probably meth”.

As the collection goes on, the stories become more experimental and introspective, less pleasing in some respects after the character-driven vibrancy of earlier pieces.

The standout story is Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy, a macabre tale set in the French countryside of the Auvergne. En route to Rome, the narrator and his girlfriend Vicky stop off at the home of former international tennis star Leon Descoteaux.

An old friendship between Leon’s wife Marion and Vicky, themselves talented tennis players, leaves the narrator wondering what it must be like to be part of an elite: “I saw someone who moved with particular beauty or grace and the animal part of me responded.” He gets to learn in a most surprising and intense story that looks at how talent and victory can corrupt the soul.

From Maine, Jackson lives in Brooklyn and has been a writing fellow at the University of Virginia. A winner of the Balch and Henfield prizes and a finalist for the 2014 National Magazine Award in Fiction, his short stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, and VQR. His worlds are made up of creatives, hyper-educated, highly-stimulated individuals. Comparisons have understandably been made to the writing of Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, but there’s also an ultra-modern, American feel to these stories that aligns them to writers such as David Foster Wallace and Gary Shteyngart.

Jackson shifts from the male intellectual in his thirties to a range of believable characters, as with Hara in Epithalamium, a cynical and prickly woman who retreats to a seaside cottage to nurse her wounds after a divorce. As she bickers with the locals, her fears reveal themselves: “The terrifying possibility, absent the correlative of another person, that you were not at all the composite of your past, but merely the confused nerves of the present, ever-supplanting moment.”

Amy’s Conversions has another convincing female voice, a young woman moving away from her religious background to discover her own sexuality, all the while haunted by the ghost of her best friend and first love.

Tales within tales within tales show Jackson’s skill with form and structure. Tanner’s Sisters centres on the power of storytelling, when an old acquaintance of the narrator spins a yarn about his involvement with a pair of sisters.

It is the older sister of the pair, Rhea, who is author to that mesmerising, impenetrable manuscript, whose opening line is as good an indicator as any of the myriad and mind-blowing ideas put forth by this brave new writer in an enthralling debut: “Imagine you speak to fallen angels in a dead language invented by statues.”

Sarah Gilmartin is an arts journalist