When new friends ask Ida and Jackson how long they have been together, they give composite, lyrical answers. “Since somewhere between simple addition,” says Ida, “and multiplication tables,” continues Jackson. They agree that their love affair began “before cursive.” Their romance is measured in grade levels, not years; summer vacations not anniversaries. But this intimate, idiomatic sense of time eventually festers into the conflict at the center of Kathleen Alcott’s “The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets,’’ a debut novel that deftly perverts our normal notion of what a family is.
Raised by an affectionate newspaper reporter father in a small Northern California town, Ida is an only child. But just down the block live two boys — Jackson and James — also from a single-parent home — and together the kids forge a new, ad hoc family of three. “My father had to take me aside when I was six,” Ida remembers, “and explain to me that while it might feel like it, honey, James and Jackson are not your brothers, and so it’s no good to be running around calling them that.” A few short years later though, Ida’s affection has become asymmetrical: She loves Jackson more than James, and not just as a brother anymore. “Since childhood,” she laments, “I’ve spent my heart and words and a catalog of tiny, insignificant moments trying to merge with a bloodstream not mine.”
Whatever is uncomfortable about the idea of promiscuous children — “Jackson and I had found adulthood long before our peers” — is only exaggerated when those involved are symbolic siblings. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Alcott’s novel is how casually she introduces a legitimately new kind of creepiness to possible family dynamics. To most contemporary readers, even the idea of a high school sweetheart is foreign. We expect to meet the loves of our lives only after we have more or less become ourselves. To bear witness to anything else feels illicit. The figurative incest between Ida and Jackson becomes almost literal when their parents — Ida’s father and Jackson and James’s mother — move in together and all but marry.
Throughout the years of Ida and Jackson’s relationship, family problems — hers, his, theirs — accrue: drug addiction, mental illness, jail sentences, estrangements. The couple is able to survive it all: They graduate from high school, go off to college, move to San Francisco together. They’re even capable of enduring Jackson’s violent somnambulism, which leaves Ida bruised almost every morning. The arrangement holds together until Ida helps organize an art show of Jackson’s work, all of which is produced, unwittingly, in his sleep. He feels betrayed and exploited, but also justified in finally escaping their insular, shared life.
“The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets’’ is a novel that improves over its pages, primarily because it is told in mostly chronological order, and in general people become more interesting as they get older. As Ida loses her innocence, her perspective becomes more complicated, and the story does, too. Though the primacy of Ida and Jackson’s relationship is precisely what lends their story its sinister feeling, it only really becomes compelling after they are old enough to recognize how abnormal their infatuation for each other is.
Though at times Alcott’s prose is overwritten, and her characters self-consciously quirky (Jackson is, of course, left-handed), she is a skilled storyteller, and her understanding of just how dangerous it can be to love someone worms its way through almost every sentence.Alice Gregory, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in New York magazine, The Poetry Foundation, NPR.org, and The New York Observer, can be reached at aliceagregory@