December 22, 2016
For many years, there’s been a handful of books that, at least for me, exemplify what post-apocalyptic fiction should be and what it can achieve in terms of serving as mirrors for human nature when faced with Armageddon: Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon, Blindness by José Saramago, and Alas Babylon by Pat Frank. Now Jeff Jackson, author of the dark, critically acclaimed Mira Corpora, has joined this elite group with Novi Sad, a depressive, gloomy narrative that is as profound and smart as any of the aforementioned classics but somehow manages to deliver the same punch in less than 100 pages.
Novi Sad takes place right after the end of civilization as we know it, although the exact year is never mentioned. There is talk of buildings, cars, and other modern things, but computers and cell phones are never brought up. In the aftermath of the end, groups of survivors try to cope with their new reality. Jeff lives with a group of friends in an abandoned hotel they recently moved into. Of his group, he seems to be handling things rather well, mostly because he has been on the run since he was a kid and is therefore more accustomed to hardship and chaos. As the ruins of the world become a familiar landscape, Jeff and his group deal with each other, disappearances, love, memories, uncertainty, and the rest of the dynamics that come from living with a group of individuals. What follows is a tale of survival, loss, and the need for familiarity and human contact framed by chaos and destruction.
The best way to describe Novi Sad’s atmosphere and bombed-out cityscape is haunting. From the abandoned hotel and the scenes of feral dogs and children roaming the streets to the internal turmoil of the characters, everything in this short novella has a purpose and leaves a mark. Jackson’s prose is an outstanding mix of poetry and economy of language that make each chapter feel like a large chunk of a sprawling narrative despite their short length. The result of this mixture is a book packed with passages that contain a lot of images in a reduced space, and that makes this short read a very satisfying one:
“Even the feral kids have vanished from the streets, replaced by dogs prowling in loose packs, scrounging for half-digested scraps. Storm clouds persistently darken the sky and the rain puddles shine with a metallic tinge. The news grows increasingly bizarre. There are reports of two-headed babies born en masse. Photographs of world leaders hunched in dimly lit underground bunkers. Videos of bankers perched on window ledges, sucking on thousand dollar bills.”
Loss, quiet desperation, and an inevitable sense of agitated stagnation propel Novi Sad forward at all times. There is action, movement, and drama, but the inescapable reality of a crumbled world continuously hangs heavy on the psyche of the group. They talk to each other and move from one day to the next with whatever they have, but their continuing existence is more a reflection of the inexplicable human desire to keep on living than an act that serves a purpose outside itself. As the group dwindles, the relationships between the remaining members simultaneously strengthens and weakens due to stress and sadness. Melancholy is always there, and Jackson has a way of conveying it that makes the reader feel like the entire shattered world is in on it:
“The next morning, I find Blue perched on the end of the pier, red stocking legs dangling over the water. She wears a black wool hat and no make-up. Her pale oval face is more scarred than I imagined. She offers me a faint smile, but says nothing about us being the only ones left. The wind blusters. Storm clouds mass overhead. Stinging bursts of rain blow sideways. The trawler rocks in the waves as it approaches. The crew, wrapped in orange plastic ponchos, must be eager to get out of the weather.”
Novi Sad is full of strange, poetic darkness and thus reads like a companion or sister book to Jackson’s previous novel, Mira Corpora. However, although they share some cohesive elements and a style, this book is a standalone work that does not require the reader to be familiar with its author’s previous work. Furthermore, with its light blue pages and broken images/art, Novi Sad is one of those books that are intent on reminding readers that physical books are cultural products, tangible works of art meant to be handled and enjoyed, and that’s just one of many reasons why this narrative deserves to be read.
GABINO IGLESIAS is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, Texas. He is the author of Gutmouth, Hungry Darkness, and Zero Saints. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Verbicide, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, Marginalia, HorrorTalk, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and other print and online venues.