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Novi Sad: Coming to Terms with Our Post-Apocalypse

by Bryan Reed

September 30, 2016

The best horror forces us to examine ourselves. It uses the fright of an external monster to mirror and magnify our own flaws and insecurities. From Frankenstein to Dawn of the Dead, man ushers in his own ruin.

With his new novella, Novi Sad, Charlotte novelist and playwright Jeff Jackson offers a familiar setup for fans of genre fiction: a gang of young survivors huddled into an abandoned motel as civilization crumbles around them.

But Jackson—who hosts a book signing at SOCO Gallery from 6-8 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 5—sheds the supernatural buffer and melodramatic shocks that a genre exercise might warrant. In his desolate dystopia, the world ends “mid-sentence.” As Jackson traces the world's last desperate days, through its final turning point, and well into its smoldering denouement, the apocalypse he conjures feels far too close for comfort. The limited run novella (Kiddiepunk, $24) also features Michael Salerno’s striking artwork, which, like the Serbian city of the book's title, serves as a stand-in for the horrific destruction humankind inflicts on itself.

If the world doesn’t erupt in cataclysm, which one suspects our anthropocentric imagination demands—we assume we deserve to go out with a bang, so to speak—one must wonder how that slow dissolve would manifest. Without the option of burning out, do we cling to the world we once loved, or do we fade away complacently alongside it?

The survivors of Novi Sad aren’t the heroic rebuilders of civilization or tenacious warriors we might imagine ourselves to be, or that more conventional genre fiction might rely upon. If they’re searching for anything, perhaps it's closure, or an actual end-point at the world’s end. More often, it’s a chemical escape. They resign themselves easily to the new status quo, reluctantly holding to routines and a “fraying sense of loyalty” to each other and “to our sense of ourselves as the sort of people who are loyal.”

Novi Sad cover by Michael Salerno

When we meet them, through the tellings of an often insecure narrator, also named Jeff, the world is already crumbling. Jackson describes “miles of flooded landscape,” viewed, at a distance, on TV. At the motel, in “the heart of annihilation,” he describes “cratered sidewalks, sprawling rubble lots, tenement buildings shorn of their facades.”

The group’s de facto leader, Hank, a charismatic if unreliable chief, foretells the impending apocalypse, but can’t predict the following anticlimax. When it arrives in the middle of chapter one, in the form of “a piercing whine” that “shakes the tectonic foundation of the entire block,” it feels inevitable and largely inconsequential. Jackson’s protagonists are “neither ecstatic nor terrified, neither indignant nor relieved, we’re simply overcome by an unexpected swell of wonder.”

It’s not until after the apocalypse, and the disappearance of Hank, that Jackson’s band of survivors begins to gain nuance. We discover that Jeff, whose history points to a long time living as a loner and nomad, is eager to join the group less out of loyalty than inertia. And as the bonds of loyalty that once united the group begin to fray after that piercing whine, Jeff’s observations of the rest of the group color their characters more than any expository dialogue.

After Hank goes missing, the fractured group convenes daily at the docks, searching for closure among the bodies of the dragged-in dead. “The report of how we’ve spent our nights is stamped across our faces,” Jeff says. “We can read the status of Lena’s relationship with her sugar daddy, Markus’s leveraged dealings in the black market, Rupesh’s standing at the underground casino. My own mental state is broadcast by the shifting layers of dirt embedded behind my ears. Only Blue is hard to decipher. Or rather, nobody cares to pry too deeply into the catalog of incisions and abrasions that multiply on her body with alarming frequency.”

By the end, the group has splintered and Jeff seems uncertain even of his own identity, as he quietly plays along with Muriel, a newcomer who mistakes him for Hank.

Ultimately, though, the setting plays a role as important as any of its inhabitants. Jackson’s dystopia feels frighteningly present. The floods: a possible effect of climate change? The city reduced to rubble and the world ending in a flash: the result of nuclear war?

We live in an age that seems to teeter on the verge of destruction. Each year is hotter than the last record-breaking year; the floods and storms and wildfires more intense. Geopolitical tensions and distrust threaten to split society at its seams, while a demagogic Republican presidential nominee seems terribly at ease with the prospect of nuclear war. (One of too many examples: In an interview with Fox News host Eric Bolling, Donald Trump said, “The last person that wants to play the nuclear card believe me is me. But you can never take cards off the table.”)

Novi Sad’s scarily unremarkable apocalypse feels like a playing of that hand. Natural and man-made disaster working in horrific collaboration. It never feels far off or fantastical. It’s more terrifying for its understatement.

In his other works of fiction, Mira Corpora—to which Novi Sad is billed as a “sister book”—and the short story “The Dying of the Deads,” Jackson plays eagerly with dream logic, giving his prose a sense of surreality. That same dreamy atmosphere permeates Novi Sad. The bombed-out ruins of the imagined city don’t claim any overt ties to reality. Still, the novella feels much more grounded than Jackson’s previous work. Its imagined end-times are all too easy to imagine.

As we should expect from a well-crafted horror story, Novi Sad forces us to confront our own listless acceptance of the world and to wonder how much we’ll cling to and fight for our civilization, or how easily we’ll let it slip away. More, it begs us to ask how soon we’ll do it.

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Tags: Jeff Jackson, novella, Novi Sad, Mira Corpora, Kiddiepunk, Michael Salerno, SOCO Gallery, Trump, nuclear war, global warming, horror

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