Novi Sad, by Jeff Jackson
99 pages – Kiddiepunk
In Novi Sad, a novel by Jeff Jackson, a group of kids moves from a basement squat into a derelict motel in Novi Sad, the center of an unnamed town: “It’s the worst area in the city, known for its cratered sidewalks, sprawling rubble lots, tenement buildings shorn of facades. Residents have been fleeing for months.”(17) It’s described like a war zone.
The members of the group put on brave faces. Then one disappears, and his body is dredged up from a river. And another one leaves town. The leader of the group, Hank, also disappears “running off the roof of an apartment building… into the void.” (95)
The feeling amongst the group is that they are living in “end times” (23, 30), and they have the “tragic premonition that even the end of the world is coming to an end.” (34)
The narrator walks through the confusion of the city casually, as if in a dream. He watches his group fracture. He’s declared to be Hank by Hank’s lover — a woman none in their group knew about. He’s beat up. He continues to move through the city as if these are merely matters of fact.
But a summary of the novel doesn’t do it justice: “Commentary is pointless when confronted with refugee footage of pedestrian-choked highways and interstates. Thousands of bodies surge across suspension bridges and commandeer the streets, impervious to traffic signals and roadblocks…. These images serve as the flickering wallpaper that colors the margins of our days.” (24)
It’s better to start by noting that the characters all receive short biographies at the end of the book. However the narrator, Jeff, doesn’t receive the same character biography as the others. Rather, the font changes, and we instead read a bio for the author, “Jeff Jackson.” (99) Except for Jackson, who has no photo, character portraits consist of faceless black squares.
In the story, Jeff and the black squares go through their daily routines, but one has the impression that the whole city functions much as they do: people finding small rituals, no matter how morbid — such as checking every day to see what body has been hauled in, out of the river. In Novi Sad, this is parallel to going to market.
“The sailors lay the floater on the pier. A palpitation shoots through our lungs that might be described as a sigh of relief. The shriveled body is too old…. We slip away while the crew unloads the more mundane cargo… We walk through the old fish market, which has been razed flat except for a few wooden stalls heaped high with cod. A crowd of children stand under a sodium lamp, their fingers prodding the piles of white bellies.” (42-43)
The routines of looking for bodies, or going to the market, are an analog to what Jackson ironically says in the author’s “Appendix,” at the end of the book: “I used to obsessively amass pictures of the people who passed through my life… I’ve included some of them here as a reminder of the real lives behind this fiction.” (85)
The act of amassing photos is akin to any other routine that helps us remember what makes us individuals — the things that drive us as well as where we look for confirmation. In Novi Sad, the author claims to have done this to remember what is “real.”
But both the reality and the individuality of the characters’ behavior is demonstrated to us through the characters’ actions, rarely explicitly, and never actually through photos. For example, when the novel describes fliers on telephone poles which depict images of disfigured people.
“That afternoon we patrol deeper into the city and stumble across a series of homemade fliers. They’re tacked on telephone poles and pasted across traffic signs. At first, we think they might represent missing persons. The photocopies offer detailed snapshots of individuals with savagely mutilated features…There’s no other information. It’s unclear whether the fliers constitute a memorial, warning, or rebuke.” (27-28)
In addition, “Dollar bills have been stapled over them, obscuring the wounds. It’s odd that nobody has taken the money, but something stops us from reaching for it as well.” (48)
Whatever the motivation for the fliers or the money, the “something” that stops the characters from taking the money is probably “memorial, warning, or rebuke.” Yet this isn’t recognized as such, and is nowhere spoken.
One person gives money away and they refuse it. Another person is publishing disturbing photos they find more a curiosity than an object lesson in moral revulsion. The self-awareness of the characters appears to be limited to their physical actions, and we see this externalized in a decayed city as well as routines that reinforce senses of self.
Where the dialogue between the novel and the person of the author is perhaps best contained is the “Author’s Note,” at the beginning of the book: “My dreams keep returning to a city under siege… It’s not long before I spot my friends there. Their shadows pass through the rail yards and skim the edges of rubble lots. And soon I locate myself running behind them.” (11)
One way to interpret this is literally: the story is a dream of the author’s. And the novel resembles a dream in many ways: characters show limited self-knowledge or control, and exterior stimuli do not yield the reactions they would in normal situations. Another interpretation is simply: Jackson tells us about his dream; what follows is a story with some similarities — the “fiction” about the “real lives” in his dream.
Of course, the novel can be both dream sequence and “just a story.” I’d say that both suggest each other as well as exclude each other. One of the many pleasurable things about Novi Sad lies in the fact that it rarely names what it is, but instead implies.
In a scene where narrator Jeff is watching another character, Blue, undress, we see a demonstration of Jackson’s willingness to slip in and out notions of privacy, personal property, and fixed points of view.
“She’s not wearing a bra. She slips out of the blouse and lets the fabric fall to the floor. She sits calmly exposed. Her naked breasts luminous and full. It takes me a moment to notice the cigarette burns encircling her large dark nipples. Compass points of precisely seared flesh. Blue continues to stare into the mirror and I have the uncanny sense that she’s examining herself through my eyes.” (52-53)
When, late in the novel, Jeff is taken by Hank’s lover to be Hank, he says that they are “plugged into the same illusion, lost in a shared space, a dream within a dream.” (77)
Seeing oneself through another’s eyes, lost in a dream within a dream and ultimately mistaking ourselves for ourselves: what is “real” in this case may in some ways be only another form of “fiction.” We, readers, are characters as much as the neighborhoods we all live in are also Novi Sad.
To compare, a very different novel from Novi Sad is Dream of the Red Chamber, written by Cao Xueqin and posthumously published in 1868. In 2013, before Novi Sad was written, Jeff Jackson the author helped produce it as an interactive play. The novel begins with the lines:
Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real.
And this might be another way to think of Novi Sad.
Matt Turner (b.1974, Omaha) is a writer who lives in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Recent writings of his can be found in Hyperallergic Weekend, Dispatches, Jacket2, and in the anthology Resist Much, Obey Little (Spuyten Duyvil). Poetry, reviews, and translations are forthcoming in Seedings and SET. His translation of Lu Xun’s 1927 book of prose poetry, Wild Grass, is forthcoming from Shanghai’s Seaweed Salad Editions.