August 2012

Jessica Henkle


The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets by Kathleen Alcott

Loving someone since infancy -- it's the stuff of dreams, but for Ida and Jackson, it's reality. Introduced as babies, the two form an instantaneous bond that only becomes fiercer as the years barrel past. As Ida puts it, "The majority of our lives we were an exhausting display that others looked on, confused and ashamed to be watching." The "others" include Jackson's younger brother, James, the boys' mother, and Ida's father. These characters make up Kathleen Alcott's debut novel, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, and what a stunning debut it is. With language as sharp and rich as the story, Alcott probes the ties that bind us to family, both the ones we're born into and the ones we create, and questions just how much strain those ties can take before they snap.

Narrated by Ida, the novel encompasses twenty-plus years of personal history, and it isn't told chronologically. Rather, the narrative jumps around in time, giving the reader a taste of what it means to participate in this convoluted life that Jackson and Ida share. Despite the story's slippery nature, we never lose our footing. With the first sentence, Alcott grips her readers by the hand and carries us through all the rewinds and fast-forwards with the kind of skill that makes it look easy. The novel begins, "Our parents liked to say that the first time Jackson and I met, we concentrated our focus so intently, grew so still, that they worried our little bodies might have forgotten we'd exited our watery beginnings, neglected the duty to breathe in and out." From page one, we're aware the ride will be rough, and so can brace ourselves for the hills, valleys, and hairpin turns ahead.

During their childhood, Jackson, James, and Ida form a ragtag unit and are rarely, if ever, apart. Though the boys are the two linked by blood, it's Jackson and Ida who are the most attached. Ida says, "Officially, I'm Ida, though Jackson has called me I as long as I can remember. The symbolism is sickening." Ida and Jackson's lives overlap so excessively that there aren't many experiences they don't go through together. She practically lives at the brothers' house, spending most nights on the floor between their beds. It's there that Ida first witnesses Jackson and James walking and talking in their sleep -- and not just talking, but talking to one another. These nighttime narratives reveal a secret world the boys share -- one that Ida can't access -- which only makes her cling to the brothers all the more.

While James stops sleepwalking at twelve, Jackson doesn't. As Jackson ages, his somnambulism gets more and more intense, leading to violent, unconscious outbursts that often leave Ida with bruises. Upon waking, Jackson is apologetic and disgusted -- and not just with himself. Ida says, "I remember that look. Though he wouldn't come out and say it, Jackson believed I had something to do with it, because why else would I go on forgiving him?" But for her, not forgiving him isn't an option. She says, "We'd shared everything since the beginning, and I couldn't see how his nightmares weren't mine." It's precisely in trying to share Jackson's nightmares that Ida begins to lose him and learns there is a dividing line between the two of them after all.

Much about this novel shouldn't work, from the way it's told to the almost fantastical act of Jackson and James's night murmurings and wanderings, down to the fact that Jackson and Ida's bond thrives as long as it does. Yet, when brought together, these elements not only work, but work so well that we buy every word. It is a rare writer, indeed, who can pull off such a feat, and Alcott has created a gem in Ida, who is at once a willing participant in this strange universe she's built with Jackson and is also acutely aware that it is, in fact, very strange. There's something unnatural about their intense brand of love continuing beyond childhood, and Ida knows it. She says, "It's this fierce, often pathetic mourning of love so innocent, which for good reason cannot exist in adulthood, that drives people to buy those posters of two six-year-olds pursing their lips on a beach about to kiss, or sharing the sound of the ocean coming from a seashell." Ida and Jackson's relationship is precisely this kind -- the kind that shouldn't escape the clutches of teendom. No wonder it starts to go sour.

Heartbreaking, honest, and wholly engrossing, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets dredges the depth of love that divides us, unites us, and folds in on itself until we're nearly crushed under the sweet ache of its weight. As a child, Ida reveals a fascination with ghosts, which begins with a longing for her dead mother. She says, "Ghosts: I knew plenty about those, having made a lifelong practice of reaching for my mother, standing in the room where she took her last breaths and whispering benign details about my day into the coffee cup my father said was her favorite." This reaching out for what's been lost echoes throughout the rest of Ida's life, but how can she sever bonds that formed before she even learned to speak? Alcott's book will dig into the heart of anyone who's ever wanted too badly, felt too deeply, or sought explanations beyond the tidy definitions that never satisfy. When Ida's father explains to her, at age six, that James and Jackson are not her brothers, she breaks down in tears, "feeling, for the first time the pain in trying to understand the word that should be simple: family. If not my brothers, then what, I asked? And he taught me another word that should be simple: friends." It's never simple, but if complicated is what produces a novel like this one, we should be grateful for the messy, the broken, and the quiet graces they birth, the camaraderie that can find us in even the most isolating of nightmares.

The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets by Kathleen Alcott
Other Press
ISBN: 978-1590515297
224 pages