Yahtzee's latest will have you loving spiders and hating sandwiches.
All right, so the internet's favourite non-Sterling shaped curmudgeon has released his difficult second album-sorry, novel- to (it would appear) little fanfare. Thus, it was a pleasant surprise when I came across a copy in my local Waterstones.
Naturally I snapped it up before some one far less handsome could be alerted to my growing coos of manly delight and prize it out of my soft warm trouser-hands!
Sorry, just finished it and trying to get out all of my thoughts before they ebb away into the dank, malnourished U-bend of my critical appraisal lobe. Apologies in advance for any wandery, floaty, stream-of-conciousness type stuff within. Ooh an owl.
Now as far as I'm aware the obvious (if not "required") manner of reviewing any of Messr Croshaw's emissions would be through the format of short video (say approx five minutes) with a yellow background, limited animation, speaking quickly with the British accent on full display. However, this won't be happening here as this is a text review and I fear for the safety of the world's few undamaged dead horses.
Naturally this review is gonna be all kinds of spoiler a-go go. So right away throwing up a big ol' SPOILER WARNING for those inclined to avoid such things. I do try to keep things vague but preventative medicine and all that blah de blah de blah. Standard Disclaimers, viewer discretion, you have been warned.
Synopsis! Well it's an apocalypse. Specifically a jam-themed one and the party is going down one morning in central Brisbane. A group of hapless nobodies awakens to find their fair city blanketed with sweet, sticky, flesh-eating preserve (the nature of which is played refreshingly straight) and they-faced with the possibility of being mankind's last hope-must venture forth to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no one has gone before (may be remembering that wrong) all the while trying to avoid being eaten alive-to death!
The Terror Is Spreading!
Right off the bat let's eliminate the negative so we can accentuate that positive. Partly because that's how these things tend to go and more importantly because I feel that the bad is dramatically out weighed by the good on this one; with most of the minus points being fairly simple ones that can be forgiven by the pluses.
As said above Jam is very much an apocalypse scenario novel. It says so right on the jacket and that means that the book follows much of the expected formula for these kinds of things to a tee, without much in the way of great twists or curve balls narratively speaking. The survivors are an assorted mix of clashing personalities; the conspiracy nut, the cynical snarker, the survivalist and the cypher protagonist. Much of the book focusses on their interactions to the new emerging status quo; there are misadventures in a shopping mall, hysterical fanatics and cryptic secret agent governmental types who provide adversarial forces and propel the plot ahead in several small ways. All fairly familiar territory.
For the most part the characters all stay within their designated remits, providing the sort of reactions you expect and going through the prerequisite character arcs. Yes the survivalist capitalises on the situation only to ego trip the light fantastic, the conspiracy nut learns that her digging is ultimately pointless in the wake of such events and the cynic...well remains a cynic but (reluctantly) gains a heart of gold by journey's end.
Right here is where I draw the book's biggest criticisms. On the surface everything is just a bit too well worn, many sequences play out pretty much as expected and the survival chances of major characters can be accurately deduced (even down to the where and when) pretty much from their introduction.
Likewise, the book's moments of satire and pointed observational jabs feel somewhat underwhelming through their being a tad too broad or just a bit too obvious. A mall full of teenagers and twentysomethings all acting "ironically" without any concept of what the word means devolving into a fanatical cult with silly names and nonsensical pandering with a society heavily skewed toward what is "cool" gets branded as being just like an internet forum. Whilst an office building goes stereotypically grass skirt, body paint tribal yet still rigidly adheres to it's initial bureaucratic regimes (down to departmental regulations and management meetings). Each scenario is presented entertainingly enough don't get me wrong, but they just lack that spark of originality that separate them from the kind of set ups you might find in something by Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams. Not a bad bunch to be associated with mind, but Yahtzee could do with finding a bit more of his own voice.
Saints Preserve Us!
Furthermore, and this really is a case of your mileage may vary, but some readers just might not find this one as funny as they were expecting. Oh sure there are jokes to be found and laughs to be had but they definitely feel few and far between in some parts; instead relying on the overall humorous nature of the scenario to pick up the slack, making it less a comedy book but a book with comedy in it. Not strictly a bad thing, just a little caveat emptor for those expecting a wall to wall knee slapper of a thing.
Wheew, now before you guys and gals get the feeling that I didn't like this thing lemme remind you of what I said up there (I mean, I'd hate for anybody to call me a liar here) and move swiftly on to the good stuff.
First up as I'm sure some of you are probably thinking (maybe), that it doesn't really matter if the narrative is a bit old hat you yourself said that this kind of thing is all about the character interactions and the way people react when thrown together in such alarming circumstances. Not that silly old plot. Pfft I say Pfft!
Frankly, in this case I couldn't agree more and thankfully this is the area in which Yahtzee shines.
Yes characters are in many ways archetypes but they are sprinkled with enough interesting quirks and foibles to keep them lively and entertaining.
For example, agent "X" is your typical woman in black, Dana Scully type who Knows More Than She Lets On. But she is saved from being a one note excuse in lazy crypticism (even a word?) by being so appalling bad at hiding this fact from everyone (attempting to keep it from characters to further and further more ludicrous extremes) as well as being constantly undercut by other agents, scientists and even survivors that she becomes a wonderfully embarrassed and flustered personality that makes her simultaneously infuriating and weirdly endearing.
Similarly, credit must go to Yahtzee in his construction of resident cynic (and games developer) Don. Here he shows considerable restraint in not making Don an author insert one-liner machine. Instead his pig-headed myopia regarding the recovery of his "life's work" despite the danger and the good chance that there might not be any "life" to go back to ensures that he never drags down the momentum of other characters or becomes too self aware. Nice work Yahtzee, nice work.
I hold my biggest round of applause however for the creation of Goliath Bird Eater Mary who steals the show with some of the funniest moments in the book, as well as pulling double duty as both a sounding board and pseudo love interest (trust me, go with it) to narrator Travis.
Travis himself is another example of where Jam triumphs. One of the oldest straws in fiction is that a good character-particularly a lead-should always be an active one, never reacting to others and being led around by the plot. He has to be the type that can take charge of a situation, or at the very least make some kind of impact. Travis breaks this rule spectacularly. An unemployed no-hoper Travis drifts from scene to scene often at the behest of other characters, and is by his own admission too nervy and well spineless to ever take a stand. Even after some smaller sequences toward the end he never truly becomes what we would consider a leader of men and doer of deeds-he (alongside damn near everyone) never really has a big damn heroes moment.
Now normally this kind of apathy can be a death knell but here Yahtzee turns it into something brilliant buy using it as an example of what Jam is all about. Which is a book, not about what makes people tick, but about what they do to keep themselves ticking.
Jam is the story of coping mechanisms and the ways (often incredibly stupid) that people will try and remain in their comfort zones. For Travis this is allowing himself to be led-to not let himself be fazed or involved in the situation. Instead he stands slightly to the side, not as a cool headed observer, but as someone just desperate to keep it together. This extends to each and every character we meet-for the central cast their defining attribute is also their main defence against the sheer lunacy and terror of the situations they face in the "jampocalypse" from Don's hard drive, to Angela's filming to Tim's goal of a sustainable future,
Throughout the book we watch as our heroes (for lack of a better term) and those around them do their absolute best to keep it together any way they can and Yahtzee is at his absolute best when he shows us just how stubbornly humans will cling to any shred of control and comfort in trying times. And this stubbornness, and sheer refusal to accept reason is another point in Jam's favour.
Never before can I say that in any apocalyptic or disaster movie, tv show, game or book have I encountered such honest and believable accounts of human stubbornness, insensitivity and sheer bloody stupidity in the face of social collapse as I have in this book. Characters are constantly brutal, cruel, irrational and absurd, rarely (if ever) having the presence of mind to stop and question their actions and those around them. Everyone is caught up in the madness that is survival. Most of the book's middle sections are filled with mistakes and dumb decisions upon dumb decisions upon dumb decisions. Often in ways that could be avoided if they just shut up and listened to one another for five. Frigging. Minutes
. Yes it is infuriating, yes I did want to beat my head against the book's spine at the sheer unrelenting bloody-mindedness of it all but never have I found myself agreeing with the reactions and decisions presented. Not siding with them oh Christ no, but dear sweaty Jesus could I see each and every event happing in real life-even down to the friends and family members who would be the instigators.
This is where Jam excels. It is in it's brutally cynical, yet undeniably accurate presentation of society and the steam roller stupidity of panicked mob mentality. Bravo Mr Croshaw you cynical son of a bitch, Bravo
My final thoughts are simply that, despite some minor narrative issues, Yahtzee shows us that he knows exactly how to make characters that are utterly believable and furiously compelling-often in the worst kind of ways.
Final Score: High arbitrary numbers out of arbitrary number scale.