To the average observer, Ida, Jackson, and James are ordinary childhood friends. They imagine fantasylands, have sleepovers, and run amok outdoors, all in each other’s company. But they don’t stay children forever. In The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, Kathleen Alcott exposes the obsessions, insecurities, and weaknesses of the trio as they grow from closely enmeshed friends into troubled and estranged adults.
Told from Ida’s point of view, much of the story focuses on Ida and Jackson, or I and J, as they call each other. From their earliest meeting Ida sees Jackson as uniquely hers, and Alcott’s simple and poetic prose unveils the seeds of Ida’s disquietingly intimate obsession with him. As an infant she cried when she was first separated from him, as a child she listens to his eerie sleep-talking conversations with James, and as an adult she proudly catalogues for the reader some of his most personal idiosyncrasies. James, Jackson’s younger brother, is slowly marginalized within the friendship into a mere witness to Ida and Jackson’s growing closeness. As they age, Ida and Jackson gradually become a couple and James drifts into mental illness. Jackson’s boyhood sleep-talking has transformed into more disturbing sleep-walking, and Ida’s response to his unconscious actions threatens to unhinge their strangely dysfunctional relationship.
Although quite short, this novel is packed with subtle emotions and extremely human relationships. The characters are all eccentric in one way or another, yet they seem so normal when viewed through Ida’s eyes. Part coming-of-age story and part psychological drama, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets is a thought-provoking and bittersweet read perfect for a cold fall night.