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Greg Jackson Pascal Perich

Greg Jackson is an essayist, short story writer and novelist. His 2016 story collection Prodigals sketches in high-octane, hyper-articulate prose a cast of characters overqualified for modern life and grasping at the meaning in it. They are variously at war with each other, afraid of death, having their neuroses outpace their self-knowledge. Some are prodigal as in extravagant, reckless; all of them have something of the prodigal child returning to whatever approximation of home they can find in others. The possibility of communion in a shared psychic reality, a question which recurs throughout the stories, is also important to Jackson’s first novel The Dimensions of a Cave (2023), a “metaphysical thriller” about a journalist, Quentin Jones, who is investigating a virtual reality programme apparently developed as a tool for interrogating enemies of the state.

Interview by Julieta Caldas 
Portrait by Pascal Perich

JULIETA CALDAS In an essay for The Point last year you wrote, “The critic demonstrates that a person, even a public figure, need not be alienated from her authentic private sensibility. In so doing she keeps this possibility alive for everyone else.” This work, the making public of private thinking, is of course also the work of fiction. I’m wondering how you thought about fiction’s capacity to expose this “private sensibility” in Dimensions, especially since the novel deals with topics, like technology’s infiltration of our inner lives, that you also explore in essays.

GREG JACKSON I wrote Dimensions with an eye to what we used to call “systems novels”. These were large-canvased attempts to portray the various levels of reality we inhabit, from the most personal and intimate to the most structural and overarching. The ambition of this type of novel was to show how the levels hang together and how we, as individuals, comprise the systems we live within – economic, political, technological, et cetera – and how, at the same time, these systems order our lives. The point was, I think, to preserve the human scale in an ever more complex civilisation that seemed to have grown far beyond the scope and agency of individual life. On the other hand, literature, whatever its ambitions, is a private experience. There is the private experience of writing it and the private experience of reading it. At its best, it permits these two privacies to communicate with each other. But unlike a confidence or secret, it must pass through the public realm, and this is where the pitfalls for literature lie. If authors, knowing they will be judged in public, can’t preserve the authenticity of their private experience, they become dissembling. This has become more fraught over the course of my career. I certainly worry more about how honest I can be. I think, for literature to retain its power, we have to protect these reports from private experience from the inhibitory spectre of public judgment.

JC The novel seems to hold together those different levels you mention across both content and form. It has a central idea about what it means to inhabit a shared reality, in language or in technology or in our relationships. Is the frame narrative part of your approach to that question?

GJ You always want the various levels of a novel to speak to one another, and I certainly wanted the largest questions in the book to find themselves dramatised in individual stories. For example, the novel is in many ways about the fraught search for truth in a world saturated in technological mediation, but it explores this against a backdrop that acknowledges the impossibility of any universal or perfectly objective truth. The halfway house it proposes is a sphere of shared or consensual reality, which permits a diversity of stories and perspectives to build into a greater whole. In this way, the frame narrative and the polyphony of voices in the novel reprise its themes. The frame narrative is one of Joseph Conrad’s favourite devices, and my novel began as a modern-day take on Heart of Darkness (1899). I have always liked how frame narratives challenge the sense of authority one tends to invest in a narrator or the presiding narrative spirit. They maintain an awareness that the story is someone’s story and that other people in it might see the narrator and the narrator’s story differently. There’s a nice Rashomon effect, which reminds us that if we want to inhabit a reality with other people, we have to marry our different perspectives and understandings in some sort of compromise.


The dynamics of the present-day internet teach us to fixate on self-presentation in ways detrimental to the candour and vulnerability literature requires


JC I liked that you addressed this conceit in the book, when the narrator mentions in the final pages that all this reported speech we’ve read might not have been exactly as described. Did you feel compelled to remind the reader of that? 

GJ I did that because there are details in the book that you are asked to take at face value, but that a very literal-minded reader might bristle at. I wanted to trouble the apparent firmness or facticity of the account, just as a frame narrative adds a layer of subjective colouring. This makes the aura of authorial insistence gentler. I had some of the reviews of Conrad’s early novels in mind. These novels have very long passages – even book-length passages – we are supposed to take as direct, quoted dialogue addressed to a real audience in the book. Certain reviewers found this unbelievable. Conrad responded that mariners of the sort he had been and portrayed did spin just such long yarns. I always thought, Why does it matter? I never cared about the strictest, most literal reality in literature. It’s fiction after all. It’s after a different sort of truth.

 JC I’m interested in your trajectory from the interpersonal dramas of the short story to the sweeping systems novel. What was the impetus there? 

 GJ I love writing short stories, and in some ways I probably prefer that scope, but I had to attempt a novel. Unfortunately, people tell me that I basically have to keep writing novels if I want a chance at a career. There hasn’t been much market for short story collections for a long time, and what little market was left, I’m told, has really dried up just in the last few years. With Dimensions I had it in mind to try something ambitious, with the sense that I might not have the energy to attempt anything as sweeping later on. Beyond that, I had two motivations. First, I had spent part of my twenties working as an investigative journalist in Washington, D.C. during the late Bush years and the work I did then focused on national security and the War on Terror. I always wanted to do something with that material. Second, I had this quixotic idea that at a moment when autofiction seemed all the rage, I would move away from personal writing and attempt something expansively imaginative, an epic of sorts, before I returned to the muted chamber dramas I am perhaps more naturally inclined toward. 

JC What was it in autofiction that you wanted to move away from? 

GJ I thought autofiction was at its best when it dared to display interiority without falsifying it, and I felt like less and less of it was doing that. The world of public judgment today lies ready to pounce. The dynamics of the present-day internet teach us to fixate on self-presentation in ways detrimental to the candour and vulnerability literature requires. We all live within the social and cultural pressures of the moment, and there are lots of incentives not to resist them. I think this bravery has become harder to summon in recent years, and that’s a tough thing for literature. I guess I wish we were all more aware of how easy our postures are to see through. This goes for me. It’s so easy to tell when people are trying to create a certain impression of themselves, and it usually make us like them less. It’s hard not to do, because it gives us a feeling of control – that we are in control of the impression we’re making. To give this up is scary, but essential. I often feel afraid, on the one hand, that I am not achieving this vulnerability and, at the same time, of how people will see me if I do. But this simply comes with the territory.

JC I guess the autofictional “I” can act as a shield, in the sense that any failures of the book’s ideas can be put down to human weakness and therefore forgiven. 

GJ I think that’s right. Another thing it took me a while to realise is that sharing a seemingly personal thing can also be a way of distracting from the more sensitive vulnerabilities you don’t feel comfortable sharing in public. I feel more attuned to this calculated aspect of exhibitionism, or maybe the difference between exhibitionism and vulnerability.

JC What’s your relationship to conspiracy theories, seeing as the subject matter that you’re dealing with in this novel is very live right now? 

GJ I’m pretty far on the anti-conspiracy side of the spectrum. I think conspiracy satisfies a desire to believe that we don’t live in a world where contingency plays such a dominant role. When I was a kid I wasn’t allowed to watch much TV, but sometimes I would happen upon one of those shows about alien abductions or the mysteries of the pyramids. I remember how gripping and convincing they were, but also how afterwards, it was simply impossible to convey their power to someone else. A central idea in Dimensions is that whatever our personal beliefs, we must strive to live in a world of shared stories, of communal reality, or else we wind up adrift on the seas of paranoia and conspiracy. The internet has made it much easier to float away on those seas without having to confront the salutary dissent of the real people we live among. The obligation to return to a reality where people are like, “You think aliens visited our town? Well, what do you propose we do about it? Is this going to change anything about how we act this week?”

JC In Dimensions, the virtual reality programme that Quentin is investigating tests to an intense degree this discord between private belief and the social world. Could you say more about that leap from the intermediating screen into total immersion? 

GJ There is something about TV that I think implicitly suggests there’s a way to get inside the spectacle the viewer experiences – inside the representation itself, not the staging or set or whatever it was filmed on. Of course, this is impossible, but since this longing can’t be met, it hovers in the background as an itch or a tease, and this accounts for the slightly rageful or sickly feeling TV induces. It cannot sate – or even address – the hunger it stirs in us. Nevertheless, the private and immediate lives we return to feel insufficient and marginal after marinating in the world of the screen. If virtual reality promises an even greater immersion in reality – a dream – we choose, the cost may not simply come at the expense of truth, but at the expense of having any real experience of one another at all. It is having to share reality with other people and their stubborn differences that makes it reality and not a dream. We may not just cease to have empathy or to believe in the reality of other people; other people’s reality may become intolerable to us in itself.

JC I’m interested in the mysterious landscape paintings in the novel’s simulation world. Were these always going to be an important piece of its conceptual theatre?

GJ Art of course is a type of representation, and representations are, in effect, simulations, so art fits very naturally in a novel about simulation and virtuality. It occupies a crucial place in the progression of our attempts to recapitulate reality in ever more accurate and immersive representations, heading toward a “simulation” of the totality. I guess the book also suggests that even though art is a type of simulation and thus related to virtual technologies – stories are arguably, for instance, the first virtual realities – art offers a more responsible or constructive type of representation that brings us together, or at least toward one another, rather than drawing us apart.