Book Review: ‘Jam,’ Or A Sticky Apocalypse In Brisbane

Author Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s comic-apocalyptic novel “Jam” pokes fun at military-industrial incompetence, an over-saturation of hipster irony, and the corporate hive mind–all pretty soft targets for the usually sharp and funny writer. Unfortunately, given its broadsides against such dull unworthies, a lead character who’s a quivering moral vacuum (although that’s not a bad thing in and of itself), and a weirdly languorous structure, this story of the carnivorous strawberry jam that ate Brisbane never really does justice to the absurdity of that pitch.

One of our first survivors to wake up to the slow-moving horror of a city being consumed by its strawberry-scented doom is Travis, a hapless slacker in his 20’s who serves as our narrator for the story. “Slacker” feels inappropriate for Travis, since that conjures up images of willfully lazy layabouts–Travis is, by every indication through most of the story just unable to make any kind of moral decision without a second opinion–even as he’s trying to escape a slow-moving jam-like substance that consumes all organic matter.

That means following the lead of fellow survivor and lifelong friend Tim, who weirdly relishes the opportunity to restart civilization in the ruins of the jam; taking abuse from Don, a testy software developer who doesn’t know if the world is over, but is convinced his game development career will still go on; and Angela, a journalism student who’s determined to get the secrets of the jam from two members of the American military–the ultra-competent “Y,” a musclebound soldier who spends most of his time in the story in a pair of pants crafted out of a ThunderCats blanket and “X,” his handler, a woman who’s some kind of nebulous official with the U.S. military. It’s this brain trust’s hope to make their way across the city and find other survivors, supplies, and safety, along the way discovering a group of histpers who’ve fashioned a cult of irony inside the local mall, and the residents of the mysterious Haibatsu office building.

There’s a lot of material here, some of it potentially very funny. But it’s tough to enjoy the joke when the characters in “Jam” are calling out the absurdity of the situation in which they’ve found themselves. The chapters are broken into the days post-jamming of Brisbane (the story takes place over the span of a little over a week), and there’s a palpable sense of the passage of time–which is to say each day drags as the characters and the readers are trapped for an extended period of time in some smelly environment populated with oddballs and would-be lunatics who might kill them. Of course, that’s part of the joke, isn’t it: that within hours after the end, these terrible little societies will rise up and eat themselves? But where’s the joke: the ultra-ironic hipsters never resolve themselves into something we might recognize from the real world, and they’re pushed to such an extreme that they go from comically ridiculous to simply ludicrous. Ditto, the protracted side-story with X and Y’s terrible inability to lie or Travis’ attempts to protect a pet spider he acquires early in the disaster.

As for Travis, he gets something like an arc and I was almost taken with his attempts to turn himself into his own story’s hero in the final chapters (there’s a princess for him to save and everything). But for so much of the book, he’s such a befuddled blank, that by the third chapter, when he makes yet another dry internal observation about what’s going on around him, you want to give the guy a little smack on the head.

“Jam” is available in print and digitally from Dark Horse Books. Instead of reading it, I highly recommend you watch Croshaw’s brilliant, cutting, and often very very funny “Zero Punctuation” video game review series.

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