Novi Sad, Jeff Jackson‘s haunting followup to his debut novel Mira Corpora, begins in a familiar place and rapidly defies expectations. In it, a group of friends take refuge in an abandoned hotel in a city and wait for the world to end. What follows involves a constantly shifting interpersonal dynamic, blurred identities, and an upending of what one might think constitutes the end of the world. It’s a powerful story told atmospherically, and it’s aided in this by the artwork of Michael Salerno. I talked with Jackson via email about the creation of this book and its relationship to his debut.
Novi Sad is set in a city around the end of the world, but the end of the world is a very peculiar one. I was curious about how much of the nature of the end of the world you had planned out: it comes off as a tangible event, but also as one that’s less overtly apocalyptic that one might expect.
From the start, I was interested in exploring how the world often feels like it’s on the brink of ending, but it never actually does. I’m not saying things aren’t dire and certain historical situations haven’t been catastrophic, but our belief in an all-consuming apocalypse has been around a long time. For instance, the initial readers of the Book of Revelations thought it predicted end times that were just around the corner. There’s something not quite final in this final threat of the end of the world.
On some level we might even want the end, but it’s never going to come in the absolute way that we might imagine. So I was interested in how these doom-struck characters might act once their world ends. How do you navigate that situation and live in that reality? It’s not necessarily a new idea. As the great jazz musician Sun Ra once said: “It’s already after the end of the world.”
The city of Novi Sad itself becomes surreal and tangible over the course of the book. Were there any real-life (or literary) places that inspired it? I found myself thinking of the city in which Kevin Brockmeier’s A Brief History of the Dead is set, as well as the strange cities that show up in may a Steve Erickson novel…
After I had drafted most of the material, I was reading about the actual Serbian city of Novi Sad and was struck by how many times it had been reduced to rubble in various conflicts over the centuries. It’s always stubbornly rebuilt and survived. There was also a terrible pogrom there during World War II where a thousand Jews were massacred in two days and their bodies dumped in the river that runs through the city. Some of that troubling history already seemed to have echoes in what I’d written, so leaned into them and lent the city’s name to the devastated neighborhood where the kids camp out to await the end of the world.
Some of scenery of the blighted city in the book might’ve been unconsciously inspired by the years I spent living on the edge of pre-gentrified DUMBO which was filled with decaying warehouses, semi-abandoned residences, empty cobblestone streets, odd ventures that seemed to flourish like night-blooming plants. I loved it there. I wasn’t thinking of anything specifically literary, though I admire a lot of Steve Erickson’s work. And I’ve been meaning to read A Brief History of the Dead – now I need to put that near the top of the list.
The narrator of Novi Sad shares your name. Did you see this as a way of inserting yourself into the narrative, or was it more akin to J.G. Ballard having “James Ballard” be the narrator of Crash?
Closer to Ballard. At the start of the novella, the narrator tells you that he’s transposing his memories of his friends to this somewhat surreal bombed-out landscape because it’s easier to talk about them in this heightened context. So it made sense to show my hand and identify myself as the narrator. Or at least lend him my name.
By the end of the novel, you begin to delve into questions of identity and perception. Was that something that you had in mind from the outset, or something that came up as you revised the book?
This was something that slowly crystallized over a number of drafts. In the third section of the book, this woman Muriel seeks out the narrator who’s now living alone in an abandoned hotel. There’s an odd performance that plays out between the two of them. I realized that they’re both creating and contributing to a drama that neither of them entirely understands. In many ways, it’s a strange sort of ghost story.
How did Michael Salerno’s artwork influence the piece? How did the juxtaposition of images and text in the book itself come together?
Michael actually based his artwork on my text. I asked him to create artwork for the project and originally we assumed he’d focus on the portraits of the characters that appear in the Appendix. But once I’d finished the final draft, we both quickly concluded those portraits shouldn’t be shown and instead he should create a series of images that complement the text without actually illustrating it. We have very similar aesthetics and impulses, so everything he made perfectly evoked the world of Novi Sad. He did a fantastic job designing the book so the placement of images enhances the overall flow and never interrupts the rhythm of the text. The collaboration was intuitive and frictionless.
A review of the book that recently ran in Electric Literature referred to Novi Sad as a companion piece to Mira Corpora. Did you always envision the two as being in dialogue, or was that something that developed as you wrote it?
Many sections of Novi Sad were originally written at the same time as Mira Corpora. In fact, they were part of any early draft of that novel, but the material ultimately proved too surreal to fit. Still, the basic material comes from that same universe so the books were always going to be in dialogue. They even share some of the same characters – though they’ve taken on slightly different forms.
There were already lots of images and themes in the Novi Sad material that echoed Mira Corpora, so I simply had to underline those: the decaying settings, bodies found in rivers, dogs, pills, erotic paintings, etc. I also consciously mimicked the meta-fictional structure of Mira Corpora, where I’m a character in the book. Both novels present stories that are being self-consciously reconstructed and refashioned from old memories.
The main challenge wasn’t making the books talk to each other, it was making sure Novi Sad could also stand on its own. I spent many months radically reconceiving this material to transform it into a cohesive story that could be appreciated without any knowledge of my previous work and on its own merits.
Images by Michael Salerno.