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Burning Bodies and Playing Dead with Jeff Jackson

An Excerpt from Jeff Jackson's New Novel, 'Mira Corpora'


Trailer for Mira Corpora

I don’t know if it’s more confusing, funny, or depressing when people get their asses in a tear over whether a work of fiction was based on something that really happened or not. It’s like most people can’t be entertained unless the object of their pleasure is a thing that they can see themselves in and relate to. For me, the point of reading was never to learn about myself or even really about the world, but to experience something I couldn’t find in either of those places. To find something that actually extended the possibilities of both. I guess that’s why I tend to avoid art that seems too clearly set within the realm of self investigation, tending more often to be drawn toward work that finds ways to obscure fantasy and reality into somewhere weird. 

Before Jeff Jackson’s debut novel, Mira Corpora, even begins it defines itself in contradiction. There is the typical disclaimer for works of fiction: “All names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s lively imagination,” but on the next page a note reads: “This novel is based on the journals I kept while growing up… Sometimes it’s been difficult to tell my memories from my fantasies, but that was true even then.” Such is the first of several enveloping mechanisms at work in the novel, the main body of which consists of seven parts, each following the life of a narrator who shares the author’s name.

The narrator’s life seems both wholly real and wholly unreal. As we follow him from location to location, set at ages six to 18, we find him pushed as if from one owner to another—a child among packs of dogs in a dark forest; in a house with an abusive, knife-wielding mother; in a village of occult squatters where death seems lurking; through teenage obsession with cryptic music and forced experience as a sex dummy. Throughout it all the narrator searches for something that is his, but finds only more connections to further worlds with nothing of him in them.

There are few coming-of-age-esque novels that don’t make me feel like I’m being lied to, manipulated into caring to the point where I can’t care at all. Mira Corpora is one of those few. It subverts itself and what it came from so many times that by the end you feel like it could have existed no other way. 

An excerpt from Mira Corpora

We find the body at the bottom of the river. It has floated downstream and been snagged in the shallows by a dam of fallen twigs and branches. A teenage girl, lying there submerged, bobbing peacefully in the gentle current, strands of long chestnut hair mixing freely with the underwater ferns and kelp. The first thing we notice: She wears a nondescript pair of fraying jeans and faded purple T-shirt. Second thing: None of us recognize her. Third thing: A rope is fastened smartly around her bulging neck.

It’s a clear case of suicide. Or maybe murder. Daniel figures the girl came to this remote sector of the woods to end it all in solitude, dangling herself from a branch over the river. Isaac thinks she was hiking into Liberia when some truckers intercepted her, maybe raped her, definitely strangled her. Nycette refuses to offer an opinion. She rolls herself a joint with trembling fingers and puffs away with fearsome determination. In her penetrating French accent, she keeps repeating the word “heavy.”

Nobody bothers to ask what I think. I stare at my watery reflection as it floats superimposed over the image of the girl. She’s flawlessly conserved in the cool current. Her lips a perfectly serene shade of blue. Her pink tongue protruding between her teeth, just so. Her eyes halfway open and unfocused on something they couldn’t see anyway. The expression on her face would seem sexual, except it’s too fixed to suggest any kind of desire. She looks beautiful.

The four of us hover on the banks of the river, everyone afraid to speak. Isaac finally announces that people at camp need to be warned in case the truckers strike again. Daniel counters that everyone is paranoid enough already and it’s irresponsible to panic them. They look to Nycette to cast the deciding vote, but she throws up her hands in exasperation. In the background, I pace the points of an invisible triangle.

It’s a stalemate. We leave the girl in the water and stare at her undulating corpse as if it’s an aquarium exhibit. Nycette anxiously braids and rebraids her blonde dreadlocks while getting profoundly stoned. Daniel repeatedly pops the cartilage in his oversized nose, the only part of him that doesn’t conform with the suave pretty-boy image. Isaac sits cross-legged on a tree stump, wearing an expression so serious that his features seem squeezed into a single dot at the center of his bald head. I anxiously skip rocks several yards downstream.

Isaac is the one who breaks the silence. “So tell me this,” he says. “If we do keep it a secret, what the hell are we going to do with the body?” There’s another long pause punctuated by the plinking skip of stones. It’s Nycette who eventually answers. She exhales a fat plume of smoke. Her golden eyes are shining. “It is very simple,” she announces. “We will burn it.”

It turns out Nycette has done some reading about the rites and rituals of the Incas. According to what she remembers from a moldering anthropology text, the only honorable way to send off the dead is via funeral pyre. The flames release the soul from the cage of the dead person’s body. Set it free to travel to the afterworld. Greet its maker with a purified slate. Something like that.

Isaac rolls his eyes at Nycette’s spiritual talk, but this is obviously the perfect option. She reminds us that it’s small-minded to demean the spiritual traditions of esteemed ancient civilizations. Daniel suggests we start gathering kindling moss and fallen branches right away and reconvene tonight. He seems pleased about our secret and makes everyone swear a blood oath to return alone.

The last thing we do that afternoon is dredge the body from the bottom of the river. We wade up to our shins, stoop into the current, and each grab a limb. A cloud of silver minnows bursts from beneath the corpse and swarms our feet. We lift on the count of three. A one and a two and—. Waterlogged and rigor-stiff, the girl is heavy as a slab of stone. We heave her onto the grass. Her inert body looks as incongruous as the sculpture of an anchor displayed on shore.

When I return that night, the fire is already a thick column of light. Daniel stokes the white-hot embers and slots several plank-like pieces of wood across the top. “This is going to be good,” he keeps repeating to nobody in particular. He pulls his black mane into a ponytail and promenades around the blaze, surveying it from every possible angle. It’s unclear whether he knows what he’s doing or is simply excited to be in control.

Nycette smokes an extra-thick joint. Her pupils are tiny buoys of blackness in a sea of glitter. She stands over the body, confidently preparing the spirit inside for its journey to the heavens according to a set of half-remembered precepts. “We name her Mama Cocha,” she says. “We give her the name of the Incan sea mother.” She solemnly drapes her own shell necklace around the girl’s swollen throat. It almost covers the purple ring of clotted bruises.

Isaac stands with his back to the fire. The rippling shadows make his features flicker like an old tube television caught between stations. “You’re really okay with this?” he asks me. There is something unsettling about the ceremony, but I don’t want to break rank with the group. So I shrug my shoulders and act as if none of it really matters.

Time to put the body on the pyre. Isaac refuses to touch it on the grounds that he’s decided this whole idea is totally sick. So Nycette and Daniel hoist the corpse between them. They look queasy wrapping their fingers around the clammy, bloated limbs. The fresh air has accelerated the decomposition process. The body has pickled and the skin has started to suppurate. The mottled flesh is inhuman. They awkwardly swing the corpse back-and-forth to gain momentum. They toss it atop the fire.

It rolls off. The body lies face-down on the ground. Daniel and Nycette pick it up again, trying not to seem distressed. They get a firmer purchase on the arms and legs. Choose a better angle of approach. Pitch the body with more force. But it takes three more tries before the dead girl lies on her back atop the pyre. Her empty face stares up at the blinking stars. Flames conflagrate beneath her body, separated by only a few wooden planks. It’s a breathtaking sight. The girl looks almost majestic. I think that claptrap about the spirit might be true after all.

Then the stench. As the flames blacken the boards and catch the corpse, they unleash a consuming odor. A mixture of the raw and the curdled: Overripe fruit and mold spores; singed hair and meat rot; fresh blood and smeared shit. There’s a perfume-like undercurrent, a sweet tang that’s briny. It’s the sort of smell you can only fully register in the back of your throat as you start to gag. I smother my face with my shirt and retreat to the edge of the clearing.

Isaac screams: “Somebody take the body off the fire.” He hops in a mad circle around the flames, trying to leap close to the pyre without getting burned. Panic blurs his features and there’s a horrified glaze to his eyes. “C’est impossible to stop,” Nycette says. “Her spirit is still trapped inside.” And it really is too late. The girl’s body is completely charred. She’s a glowing cinder.

I shimmy up a tree to escape the smell. This is my first funeral. As I watch, part of me wants to obliterate the experience from my memory but part finds it exhilarating. I can’t take my eyes off the blaze. It’s several minutes before I realize what’s missing: None of us are grieving. Daniel grimly stokes the fire, determined to finish the job. Nycette chants a round of basic incantatory stuff, trying to splice into some primeval spiritual current. Isaac curses us all and flees into the woods.

The body ignites. It ruptures into a mass of flames, followed by a sickening pop. “There she goes,” Nycette shouts. The corpse is completely alight, an incandescent effigy, starting to flake off into swirling sheets of gray. The putrid smell continues, lifted by the flames and carried in the smoke toward the firmament. Ash rains down like confetti on Nycette and Daniel. They are coated from head to toe in flecks of burnt skin, but they hardly seem to notice, staring up at the sky, tracing the soul’s journey home, marveling that something up there might be looking back at them. Their upturned faces are beatific and shining.

While Nycette and Daniel are fixed in their private rapture, I leap down from the tree and slip into the woods. I need to be alone. I spend the night curled under a canopy of ferns in a clearing upstream. No matter how many times I tell myself to stop thinking about the girl’s face submerged in the cool blue current, the horrid pop of her body won’t stop echoing in my ears.

In the following days, the other kids in camp avoid Daniel and Nycette. Both their bodies give off a rank and fleshy odor. Even the canines aren’t sure how to deal with the smell; their carrion instincts are scrambled and they can’t decide whether to make a move. Nycette and Daniel are too pleased with themselves to care. They’re often seen together on nightly strolls talking cosmology in the meadow. A pack of dogs always trails a few paces behind, their noses vibrating.

Buy Mira Corpora here.

Previously by Blake Butler - What Celebrities Eat at Golden Corral

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