Released in 2016, Greg Jackson’s short story collection Prodigals signaled the emergence of a capital-S Serious new voice in literary fiction. Only the tag came with something of an ironic wink, seeing how many of Jackson’s story revolve around less-than-likeable upper class characters painted in a less-than-favourable light. As its title suggests, Prodigals has all of the privileged concerns and intellectual clout to be accepted into elite spheres, but appears determined to excoriate its audience as soon as it arrives.
Opening story ‘Wagner in the Desert’, with its detailed and mocking attack on the privileged “modern hustler[s]” like filmmakers and writers, doubles up as an introduction to the type of ‘special’ person Jackson is targeting. These are people “conscious enough of [their] materialism to mock it,” those who listen to acts like U2 and Morrissey and Kylie Minogue “post-ironically, which is not to say exactly, sincerely.” They drive hybrids, donate to charities, sit on boards of non-profits. “We were not bad people, we thought,” says Jackson’s narrator. “Not the best, a bit spoiled, maybe, but pleasant, insouciantly decent. We paid a tax on the lives we lived in order to say in public, I have sacrificed, tithed, given back. A system of pre-Lutheran indulgences. Of carbon offsets. A green-washing of our sins. We were affiliated. We had access.”
The narrator’s simultaneous ambition and guilt shows the great success of collection, its ability to go beyond easy mocking and give the characters and situations a human depth. Greg Jackson is a satirist for sure, but not a peddler of cartoons, and in his nuance opens up a far murkier picture of the elite life—where narcissism is balanced by an equal and opposite force, the ever-pressing, near-spiritual need to justify and validate one’s existence to others. They are not special, and they are all too aware of the fact. If the hedonism of Bret Easton Ellis’s work is a thin, flat surface, then Jackson’s is that same superficial lifestyle stretched taut around a dark void, a lack that is mapped by what surrounds it.
Philosophical attempts to address this void are central to Prodigals, though the (often drug-fueled) epiphanies reached by its characters rarely seem to last—Fool’s Revelations, synaptic firings mistaken for metaphysical meaning. High on something like meth, the protagonists of ‘Metanarrative Breakdown’ discuss “the prime fabric of meaning” with addled conviction, while ‘Epithalamium’ finds a cynical, vain woman come to see her self-image unravel in her loneliness (““The terrifying possibility […] that you were not at all the composite of your past, but merely the confused nerves of the present, ever-supplanting moment”). The narrator of ‘Dynamics in the Storm’ could be said to mistake sexual tension for spiritual significance, driving out of New York with his therapist to escape a superstorm that is descending upon the city. For Jackson’s prodigals, self-obsession is both a curse and posited cure—the lie of exceptionalism gnawing a great hole in the centre of their souls, but also suggesting that they might, just might, be special enough to transcend the human condition.
Prodigals is out now via Granta (UK) and Farrar, Straus and Giroux (US)