Kathleen Alcott’s debut novel The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets unravels our conception of family and explores the foundations we use to build an idea called home. Alcott eloquently muses on the distinction between a family based on shared history and bloodlines on the one hand, and one that is based on shared memories and physical proximity on the other. The difference between the two becomes painfully clear to the story’s protagonist, Ida, as she gets older, as does the knowledge that a shared past isn’t prescriptive of a joined future. The novel is part pean, part requiem for the memories of the relationships that follow us throughout our lives, haunting us some of the time while coddling us at others; and the narrative reminds us that a yearning for home is ultimately just a way to come to terms with who we are.
The novel oscillates between the descriptions of then and the ruminations of now, the individual identity known as ‘I’ and the shared one of ‘we.’ Each fleeting episode is described with the vivid detail of an elephantine memory but ends with a concession by the narrator that her recollections are colored by her emotions, with, “no promise that one person’s memory of a moment or a month will parallel yours, retain the same value, shape the years of living that follow.” Ida first recounts her parents’ story of the first time she meets Jacksonas an infant. Jackson remains her best friend in childhood and becomes her first boyfriend, lover, and partner as they mature. The love story blossoms first through a pre-conscious discovery of the other’s existence and the premature blending of their two identities as one. After their first separation, Ida is already so attached to Jackson that she “refused even the draw of [her] mother’s breast, as if [she] knew that her body would not be [her] family much longer.” Though Ida initially rebuffs her mother in favor of Jackson, she spends most of her life thereafter trying to reconnect with her mother through her relationship with him. Memories of Jackson and her mother both end up conflating pain and loss with affection and understanding, and her attempts to hold on to both after they are gone inflict harm on innocent third parties, most tragically Jackson’s younger brother, James. When Ida’s father takes Ida, Jackson, and James on a hike through a narrow, crooked mountain path, he reminds them to maintain “three points of contact” when the terrain is uneven and scary. Ida finds comfort in the phrase because three points of contact initially exist between her and the two brothers as a safeguard from the adversity of their childhood, but the first break in this chain occurs when Jackson and Ida begin experimenting sexually as teenagers, excluding James from their new found adventure and creating secrets that “don’t make friends.”
The surreal intimacy she feels with Jackson and James begins and ends from the same source–the brothers’ secrets revealed to Ida through their unconscious sleeping habits. James and Jackson’s nocturnal conversations become the catalyst for her search for home, as Ida uses their broken conversations as clues on how to contact her deceased mother. But as they get older, James’ worsening psychosis and Jackson’s developing somnambulism make it harder, not easier, for Ida connect with either of them, and her hopes for finding a familial bond become more desperate. Repeating a habit from childhood, she finds comfort in her proximity to the disturbances of Jackson’s sleep. “I was glad even in the depths of his unconscious, he knew I was there,” Ida recounts. But this is coupled with awareness that they are growing apart during their waking hours.
Ida’s loving description of Jackson early on begins using the present tense but ends with a sorrowful recognition that her current knowledge of him is based purely in the past. She follows this admission by regretfully noting how he used to call her ‘I’, initially just a nickname for Ida, but one that she comes to interpret as an emblem of their lifelong bond, an embodiment of the feeling that the two of them are essentially one. Ida laments the fact that they have parted ways as adults and is unable to understand how someone you shared so much with can leave you. Jackson’s sudden departure then unearths Ida’s most profound questions about choice and belonging.
Ida’s intimate memories and reflections are slowly drawn out through sentimental prose so that we can feel the emotional truth of the story while learning the facts. As Ira narrates, she also pleads with us, begging us to understand why the existence and loss of these primary relationships in her life continue to affect her so deeply. Minute, vivid memories, like holding hands as children, are given the same serious consideration as the ongoing cycles of sex, affection, and abuse. When James is diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, she finds relief in finally having a label for his problem because, for Ida, being able to clearly identify something is another way of finding a home. She is reading the story of her life along with us, imposing a poetic verbal order over the chaos of events, trying to understand as much as to be understood.
The Danger of Proximal Alphabets reminds us that untangling the knots of our lives can sometimes be more threatening than cutting them off completely. Alcott probes the complex reasons we cling to codependent, dysfunctional relationships without condemning the impetus completely or placing blame on individual parties, knowing that it is the dynamic at the points of contact, and not the lines themselves, that cause fission. She shows us how deeply pain can be tied to love, and she takes us on a quest that highlights the mythic proportions of both in our lives. Alcott’s ability, in the end, to intelligently parse out the positive aspects of a painful childhood and still celebrate the comfort they give us makes Proximal Alphabets a worthy coming-of-age novel.