Relative Triangles and The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets

Kathleen Alcott
The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets
(Other Press, 2012)

In her debut novel, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, Brooklynite Kathleen Alcott braves a meditation upon the dark and often sick underbelly of familial relationships, set resolutely in “twenty-twelve,” and pulls off a convincing portrait of a family in this “new age.”  Alcott’s new-age family is (unsurprisingly) decidedly convoluted, with secrets teeming under the surface and children parenting each other with love, grace, and cataclysmic consequences. 

Jackson and James are twins, and Ida (the girl next door) is their surrogate sister. Jackson refers to Ida as “I,” a nickname that speaks to his and Ida’s immense connection from infancy to late adulthood, while he and James are called “J,” further underlining the threesome’s magnetic and alphabetic intimacy.  From childhood, Jackson and James have a strange connection between the hours of twilight and dawn: they talk to each other in their sleep.  Ida listens to them untiringly, desperately curious in her childish and loving wonder. And when parental roles are reversed, absent, or simply not enough, the three children create a substitutable family structure themselves.   

Jackson, James, and Ida create a dreamlike world of their own as only children can. There are drawings on the walls, and mystery investigations, and rowdy explorations—though each of these is tinged with a certain static darkness (one “rowdy exploration,” for example, is a search for Ida’s dead mother). There is no innocence in this story, only adult children and a sense of terrifying realism. All the while, Ida listens to the brothers speak subconsciously in their dreams, sensing the magnitude of their connection and her own place as their sister and savior. 

Alcott’s audience will read breathlessly as they follow Jackson and James into their teenage years and then into adulthood, along with their hallucinatory tendencies, somnambulism, and increasingly strange but realistic night terrors. Jackson and Ida’s impassioned entrance into intimate waters leaves James estranged, and eventually propagates even more disastrous consequences.

As Ida and Jackson journey into the straggling spheres of adulthood as a couple, Ida (once curious observer) turns into Jackson’s martyr and manipulator.  And in dreamlike pages that are oftentimes nightmarish, Alcott’s protagonist eventually lands herself and both her brothers in an abusive, estranged three-way relationship as she attempts to save Jackson from the horrific life he visits in his dreams.

Alcott’s novel weaves a web of betrayal, intimacy, and pain, questioning the lengths to which we will go in our attempts to save others and ourselves. Abstracted yet utterly believable, the novel comments with grace on the dangers of triangulation and, as Alcott so eloquently puts it, “proximal alphabets.” The debut is a haunting tale of what it should and should not mean to be a family.

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