In part one of A.T. Grant’s three-part novella Collected Alex (winner of the 2012 Caketrain Chapbook Competition) a boy named Alex receives a dead body from his parents for his eighth birthday. “My parents held each other and watched as I inspected it. They were so excited,” Alex tells us. “What am I supposed to do with it,” Alex asks as after lifting the dead body’s arm by the wrist, opening its mouth to look at its teeth. “Pick it up, my father said. He picked up the body and threw it over his right shoulder. Like this, he said. Carry it around awhile, see how it feels.”
So Alex does. He carries the body around the neighborhood, walks with it over his shoulder in the woods, takes it to school where the children make up songs about the dead body and poke it before running away holding their noses. He finds that people are more interested in the body than in him. “Sometimes I felt the need to compete with the body for attention … Even at home I felt like my parents always looked at some neutral point between the dead body and me.” Over time Alex learns to care for his dead body, brushing its teeth and bathing it in the morning, feeding it a teaspoon of a special liquid formula every day, setting it in front of the television’s blue glow at night. In the process he develops a strange affection for the body, he identifies with it, wonders how it feels and what it might want.
Reading through this first section is a two-fold pleasure. Part of the enjoyment comes from the strange story itself, deadpan style, A.T. Grant’s commitment to the conceit and how he sees it through to its logical end. What would a child do with a dead body? How would a teacher react if Alex and the dead body were to go down the slide together, leaving a trail of slime?
But a second level of entertainment exists above the first, a guessing game of symbolism and allegory. It’s hard not to imagine different interpretations or meanings for what’s happening as you read, particularly when the prose is so sparse and the background is relatively blank or flat. It’s about death, of course. Aging as well. The burdens placed on us by our parents, yes, that too. The body is a symbol of cultural decay or of the emptiness of our materialism. It is that dead weight each of us carries around, whatever that may be. But like every good symbol, the dead body is all of these things and none of them. Mostly it’s just a dead body that Alex has to deal with every day of his life.
Had the chapbook ended here with this short first section, the story would have stayed in the realm of the strange but accessible. Once you’ve accepted the premise you can sort of sit back and enjoy the ride towards a satisfying conclusion. Instead, part one is followed by two more sections of frustrating abstraction in which Alex is alone in the middle of a small white room (part two) and Alex is alone on a stage with smoke coming out of a hole in his head (part three). In both of these final two sections there is little if any forward progress and little if any interaction with anything much at all. It is as though that first pleasure, the pleasure of the story itself, has been deliberately dropped from the picture, leaving the reader with only the second pleasure of the interpretation game.
Only this time the game is much more difficult. In part two, titled “The Room (The Voice)” and narrated in the third person, Alex is trapped in a small, doorless room “approximately two Alexes wide by two Alexes long by two Alexes high.” There’s not much there:
At the top of the first wall, there is a small square window about the size of Alex’s head. Its glass is very thick. On the second wall, there is a mouth-sized hole labeled talkhole. On the third wall, there is a black cable with a flat disk about the size of an ear on its end labeled hearpiece. The fourth wall is completely blank.
This second part of the book, like the first and third, is made up of small sections, each a page or so long. Every time a new section begins the story starts over with Alex alone in the middle of a small white room and all evidence of the previous section wiped out. Perhaps he finds a piece of chalk on the floor in front of him and draws on the walls only to find the walls blank when the next section begins. Perhaps he tries out the talkhole and the hearpiece and engages with the voice of someone watching him only to be met with silence in the next section. By denying Alex (and us) clear cause and effect and so few external objects to interact with, the claustrophobia becomes almost overwhelming:
There is no weight to hold him down, only walls to hold him in, the smallness of the room. But in the moment when he heard the voice, Alex felt a space inside himself expand. Soon, he thinks, the voice will return. Soon the room will not be able to contain their space.
It’s easy to feel as trapped as Alex does in this section now that almost any semblance of story has been stripped away. Any interpretations are on shaky foundation in the absence of more clues or signals. Instead, we’re just left with questions: Why is Alex in this room? Who is the voice he hears in the hearpiece? Is this the same Alex from part one? And most curious of all, what is A.T. Grant up to?
Thankfully, these frustrations and questions are answered in part three of the book. Or at least if not answered, they find their place in the larger whole. In “The Smoke (The Stage) ((The Star))” Alex is alone on a stage, standing in a spotlight, smoke pouring from a hole in his head. “The light shines into some deep place inside him. The light holds Alex, and he feels strange, like he is no longer in control of his own body.” He finds that his smallest gestures elicit a reaction from a crowd he can’t quite see:
Alex looks out into the dark field beyond the stage. He feels the eyes of the audience upon him. His skin glows. The smoke billows from his head hole. Alex feels his body bow, then he hears his own voice say, Well that’s all for tonight folks. You’ve been a wonderful audience. His voice sounds strange to him, like it comes from a place beyond himself. He does not know where the words came from, does not remember sending them through his voice. Alex is deep inside his own body. He feels his body move toward the curtain.
Audience, performance, body, control, death, life. Only here, somewhere in the dark and comic space between Samuel Beckett and David Lynch, does A.T. Grant locate the real story he wants to tell. Collected Alex isn’t so much interested in that first kind of reading pleasure, the enjoyment of character and conflict that we applaud in part one. Instead it is interested in us, in our investment in the story and the role we play in bringing its dead body to life.
To say any more would take away from “an apex that is at once cerebral and visceral,” in the words of the 2012 Caketrain Chapbook Contest judge Michael Kimball. Your own feeling about the ending of the book (as always) depends on you, the audience and reader. If you are easily frustrated by abstraction and sly metafiction, more interested in being entertained than engaged or challenged, part one of Collected Alex might be the perfect place for you to stop. But if you are willing to sit in a blank room and fight your way out or stand on an empty stage and drop the act, then the whole (slim) book is worth throwing over your shoulder and carrying around for a while. See how it feels.
Collected Alex, by A.T. Grant. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Caketrain Journal and Press. 98 pages. $9.00, paper.
Matt Weinkam’s work has appeared in TINGE Magazine, Monkeybicycle, and The Rumpus and he is an editor for Threadcount, an online journal of hybrid prose. He is currently in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University in Marquette.