Due to the current political climate in the United States, I was recently rereading Danilo Kiš’s essay, “The Gingerbread Heart, or Nationalism,” in which he begins by reminding us that “Nationalism is first and foremost paranoia, individual and collective paranoia.” As Kiš moves along he elucidates further on the subject: “Nationalism is the ideology of banality… Nationalism is also kitsch…” On this reread, somewhere in the middle of the essay, I was struck by a parenthetical reference. When Kiš describes his understanding of nationalism as a child, like some petty us versus them game, he notes: “the bloody massacre of January 1942, the infamous ‘cold days’ of Novi Sad, when the cruel children’s game would end tragically for so many beneath the ice of the Danube.”
The brilliance of Kiš is that he connects an event like this with childhood and somehow further illustrates the emptiness and banality of nationalist sentiments. Childhood understanding in the face of horror, emptiness, and banality is also the territory of American writer, Jeff Jackson in his new novella, Novi Sad (Kiddiepunk, 2016). Although the city lends a title to Jeff Jackson’s book, it does so, as he says in the Author’s Note because “Our stories, which I’ve smothered for so many years, make sense transposed on this immolated terrain.” There is also an epigraph to the book by way of definition: “Novi Sad (1) ‘New plant.’ (2) Serbian city that has been devastated multiple times, most recently during the Kosovo War when it was bombed into annihilation, bridges destroyed, communications severed, water supply polluted. (3) Imaginary place.” Novi Sad is a place with a resonance across time, a place of sorrow and atrocity, a place like and unlike any other. In the novella Novi Sad by Jeff Jackson, it is a place for wild feral youth to make a home for themselves.
I first met Jeff Jackson at a reading after I had devoured his first novel, Mira Corpora (Two Dollar Radio, 2014). We soon became Facebook friends—which is somewhere on the spectrum of actual friendship—and when I discovered he had more fiction for me to engage, and that it was material excluded from the novel Mira Corpora, I jumped on the chance to read it. I’m a sucker for the demi-monde he navigates. The thing that is so special about Jeff Jackson’s prose is almost indescribable. It’s exact and precise, naturalistic almost. It feels like the prose of the best science fiction novels, but it’s not science fiction. There is a delicate care to the prose, like that of a highly sensitive precocious child.
Beyond the prose is the world, the demi-monde on which Jackson lifts the veil, and its inhabitants. In the tradition of William S. Burroughs and Dennis Cooper, behold the feral teen utopia. The characters in Jackson’s books are the fallout of late-stage capitalism and culture at its end, feeding upon itself; they are the forgotten. Their lives and loves are among refuse and of refuse. Discarded material waste, products of over-production and empty greed adorn the landscapes of these kids’ lives, along with literal rubble from crumbling infrastructure. Places and things as abandoned as these characters feel—and some of them literally are—and yet it is in these places that new life and community is born. Not all the characters are teens and not all of them are feral, but that is certainly the vibe of the rag-tag crew, everyone damaged in some way.
Another wonderful aspect of Novi Sad, for an artist so concerned with world-making, is the book itself: printed on blue paper, dressed and augmented by Michael Salerno’s images and design. Salerno also designed the haunting cover of Mira Corpora. The first person narrator is feeling out his world and it reads as if he is feeling out the reader as he tells his story and ever so cautiously welcomes the reader into this world. By way of plot here, what do we have? Not much. But what else do you need when the author gives you a new world?
—Jordan A. Rothacker
I. HALLUCINATORY REALISM
THE BELIEVER: Genre designators are usually pretty reductionist and more trouble than they are worth. Sometimes they can help though—not just for marketing people—but even when I’m trying to sell someone on a book I love. This said, how would you describe your work if pressed?
JEFF JACKSON: How about: Hallucinatory realism. But that’s not exactly a genre, is it? It’s tricky because each of my books contains slightly different genre elements. Mira Corpora is described as “a coming-of-age story for people who hate coming-of-age stories.” Novi Sad is closer to dystopian and apocalyptic fiction. The new novel I recently finished, Destroy All Monsters, revolves around music and rock and roll.
BLVR: Do you think of yourself as avant garde?
JJ: I avoid that label, partly because it’s too loaded. These days, calling yourself avant garde feels like a polite way of inviting people not to read your work. It’s like signaling to readers that your book is going to require a lot of effort and offer little enjoyment. Unfortunately, the term today signifies almost the exact opposite of what it did in the 1960s, when it was synonymous with work that was sexy and thrilling.
I don’t think that label accurately fits anyhow. I want my work to appeal to a wide audience and even people who aren’t avid readers usually find it accessible. I am interested in continuing the avant garde project of finding new forms for the novel, but that goes hand-in-hand with providing pleasure to readers. New forms need to be more exciting, not less. In Mira Corpora, I was thinking about Maurice Blanchot’s ideas of literature and writing scenes with teenage oracles and car chases. These things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
I like to create “open texts” that allow readers maximum freedom of interpretation while also giving them a propulsive page-turning plot. That’s an unusual combination and maybe sets my work apart. Most mainstream literary fiction also tends to stage manage readers’ reactions, indicating how they’re supposed to feel at every moment. I’m asking readers to engage more actively, draw their own conclusions, make their own connections.
BLVR: If not that term, at least fit a category or grouping with what you do, whatever we call it?
JJ: If there’s a category I embrace, it’s the one formulated by playwright Richard Foreman: “Elite Art for the Masses.”
BLVR: Is there even a valid avant garde in American letters these days?
JJ: There’s a lot of vital work being done right now in a huge variety of styles and modes. I wouldn’t say there’s an avant garde per se, but there’s no shortage of inventive work that is pushing fiction in new directions. This renaissance is mostly happening via small presses like Dorothy, Two Dollar Radio, Tin House, Coffeehouse Press, etc.
It feels like the indie rock music scene in the 1980s before Nirvana broke. I’m surprised more big publishers haven’t followed FSG’s lead and signed more small press authors. I think readers are ready—hungry, in fact—for more adventurous fiction.
BLVR: I started reading M. Kitchell because of your blurb on the back of his book Spiritual Instrument, and I really loved that book. Is he a fellow traveler of yours as far as literary territory?
JJ: Sure, he’s one of the remarkable writers working now. I admire how he’s pushing the boundaries of what literature can encompass, while also engaging tropes from horror, the occult, science fiction, and architecture.
BLVR: This also makes me think more about blurbing. I was grateful you liked my last novel enough to blurb it. Do you see this facet of publishing to actually be a factor in community building, as in a community of writers?
JJ: That’s a great way to think about blurbs. Sometimes they do help to introduce writers to one another’s work, but sadly more often they still function as a marketing tool to sell books.
BLVR: In both of your books, there is an obvious influence of, or association to the work of, Dennis Cooper and William S. Burroughs. Was it intentional to work in similar terrain? The connection is hard to avoid when writing about youth creating its own off-the-grid communities.
JJ: It wasn’t intentional to work in a similar terrain. One lesson I learned from reading J.G. Ballard was to give my obsessions free reign, to let them play out naturally and not overthink them. I’m honored to be mentioned alongside Cooper and Burroughs. When writing Mira Corpora and Novi Sad, I was thinking about Cooper in terms of the amount of pressure he puts on his prose, how his sentences simultaneously both reveal and conceal, and the hidden structures that animate his work. To be honest, I’ve never thought of Burroughs as an influence, though I totally understand the connection.
BLVR: Beyond those guys, who are the biggest influences on your work?
JJ: Early on, I was drawn to the work of Vladimir Nabokov, Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, Kathy Acker. Not to mention filmmakers such as Werner Herzog, John Casavettes, David Lynch, Wong Kar-Wai. I could go on and on.
But I always think back to the Borges notion that you’re never the writer you want to be. He hoped to write long adventure epics like Robert Louis Stevenson and thought character was literature’s most important contribution—yet he never wrote anything longer than 20 pages and created few memorable characters! There’s often something unexpected and beyond our control about the work we create. I feel that way about my fiction.
Artists also approach their influences in different ways. To use a musical analogy: There’s the Frank Zappa approach of using your influences like a collage artist and letting them appear on the surface of your work. The way Zappa incorporated nods to doo wop, jazz, and classical music in his compositions. Then there’s the approach of his friend Captain Beefheart, who fully digested such far-flung influences as the Delta blues and free jazz until they came out scrambled into new and often unrecognizable configurations. There’s no right way to do it, but I’m definitely more in the Beefheart camp. I try to make sure whatever work interests me gets properly digested before it makes it to the page.
BLVR: You are also a playwright and have staged some really intriguing works, Dream of the Red Chamber come to mind. How is writing novels different for you than writing theater pieces?
JJ: I’m generally not writing conventional plays. Pieces like Dream of the Red Chamber involve elements of performance art and installation art. The main difference is the texts are created specifically for the theater company and they’re oriented toward what works well in performance. They may need to be revised based on what’s happening with the actors, video, sound, or set design. They’re just one component of an overall artwork.
Dream of the Red Chamber, which is adapted from the epic Chinese novel, offered additional challenges because the performance is for a sleeping audience. We had 50 beds in a large space in Times Square and literally invited people to lie down and drift off while the performance unfolded around them. So I was writing text for an audience who often wasn’t fully awake. The traditional theatrical contract is the performers will do something interesting and in return the audience will pay attention. The piece explores what happens when that contract is broken.
III. A HYPNAGOGIC STATE
BLVR: Novi Sad is from material written during the writing of Mira Corpora. How would you describe their relationship? Is Novi Sad a sequel or a revisit? Is there more material of that character, that world, still to come?
JJ: Novi Sad is a sort of sister book to Mira Corpora. It’s a standalone reading experience, so you don’t need to know anything going into it. But if you read both books, Novi Sad contains decaying echoes of many of the themes and images in Mira Corpora: the crumbling landscapes, bodies found in rivers, dogs, pills, erotic paintings. Some characters also repeat and the books share a meta-fictional structure.
I generated a lot of material for Mira Corpora that I ended up cutting, so there’s more stuff in the proverbial drawer. But I don’t have any plans for it to surface. This feels like a goodbye to all that.
BLVR: The world of those books seems to be in our world but not of it. Is this a terrain of the mind or do you have physical experiences that touch on these scenarios?
JJ: I was trying to capture that feeling you sometimes experience right as you’re waking up, when you’re still halfway in a dream but also aware of the world around you. A hypnagogic state, I believe it’s called. I wanted to create a story that felt real, grounded in physical reality, but that still operated with some dream logic. A heightened and hallucinatory realism. “In our world but not of it” is another great way to put it.
BLVR: Is there a political or social commentary of our world you intend through the relief of this other world of your books?
JJ: Given our current political climate, the bombed-out and self-destructing world of Novi Sad has definitely taken on a political aspect. Many readers have seen it as political commentary on how nature and society seem to be unraveling and that’s valid, even though it wasn’t my conscious intention when I was first drafting the story many years ago. But these books are meant to allow for all sorts of interpretations and critics and readers have different insights than me, often sharper ones.
BLVR: You’ve written a lot about film. What does film as a medium mean to you?
JJ: Film isn’t a direct part of my writing process, but I’m always watching movies and thinking about the possibilities they offer—in terms of storytelling, structure, editing, images—that I don’t see in fiction. They’re a big source of inspiration, for sure. I’ve always thought that cinematography in a film is analogous to prose style in fiction.
BLVR: You and I have spoken briefly in the past about Danilo Kiš. One facet of his work (that he got from Jorge Luis Borges) was the use of document-style, or fake documents. In Mira Corpora the character is named Jeff Jackson. In Novi Sad, we behold the same protagonist, at the end of the book there is an Appendix in which are photos and short bios about the characters, “a reminder of the real lives behind this fiction.” What does this extra construction of “reality” serve? Is this an effort to merge the worlds, the world of your books and our “real” world? Does any of that actually matter?
JJ: It’s designed to add another layer of reality to the work. It complicates the world of the book and makes it more than just a diverting fiction. It’s also a way of talking about how the materials of real life are transmuted into fiction and how much they can change in that process. It’s not something absolutely essential to the books, but if you contemplate this extra level it hopefully increases the emotional stakes.
BLVR: A common question you’ve been asked since the publication of Mira Corpora is about truth and reality in regards to a “novel” with a protagonist of the same name as you, the author. Were New Narrative ideals involved in this or do you have your own agenda here?
JJ: In fiction, I believe that the only truth and reality that matter are the words on the page. Events may or may not have transpired from real life, but the words themselves represent the only authenticity. So it’s not about shame and honesty—in fact, honesty is a word whose usefulness starts to vaporize in the context of a novel. In the realm of the imagination, the facts hold no currency.
Any lists of my favorite books, films, albums, etc. could be almost endless. I’ve tried to keep it reasonably short with the understanding that many favorites have been omitted for no good reason.
Fiction: Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov; 62: A Model Kit by Julio Cortázar; My Loose Thread by Dennis Cooper; The Names by Don DeLillo; A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion; At Swim Two Birds by Flann O’Brien; Red Calvary Stories by Isaac Babel; The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie by Agota Kristof; Epitaph of a Small Winner by Machado de Assis; Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino; Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard; The Opposing Shore by Julien Gracq; Corregidora by Gayl Jones; Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr.; Bleak House by Charles Dickens; The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard; 60 Stories by Donald Barthelme; Morvern Callar by Alan Warner; Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys; Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; Locas by Jaime Hernandez.
Modern playwrights: Wallace Shawn, Caryl Churchill, Jean Genet, Sarah Kane, Heiner Muller, Adrienne Kennedy, Harold Pinter, Elizabeth LeCompte; Peter Handke; Samuel Beckett.
Films: Sans Soliel (Chris Marker); Fallen Angels (Wong Kar-Wai); Stalker (Andrei Tarkvosky); Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock); 8 ½ (Federico Fellini); The Death of Maria Malibran (Werner Schroeter); Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren); Gummo (Harmony Korine); The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer); The Weeping Meadow (Theo Angelopoulos); Husbands (John Casavettes); Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton); Tribulation 99 (Craig Baldwin); Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette); Wanda (Barbara Loden); Branded to Kill (Seijun Suzuki); Cold Water (Olivier Assayas); Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola).
Albums: Call the Doctor by Sleater-Kinney; Funhouse by The Stooges; A Rainbow in Curved Air by Terry Riley; Les Stances a Sophie by Art Ensemble of Chicago; Astral Weeks by Van Morrison; Live-Evil by Miles Davis; Blank Generation by Richard Hell & the Voidoids; Gentleman by Fela Kuti; To Bring You My Love by PJ Harvey; The Black Saint and Sinner Lady by Charles Mingus; Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen; Ege Bamyasi by Can; There’s a Riot Going On by Sly & the Family Stone; Trilogy de la Mort by Eliane Radigue; Tender Buttons by Broadcast; Anthology of American Folk Music compiled by Harry Smith; It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by Public Enemy; The Raincoats by The Raincoats.
Fellow travelers (at least in spirit) working in similar literary terrain: Blake Butler, Otessa Moshfegh, Brian Evenson, Kate Zambreno, D. Foy, Porochista Khakpour, Gregory Howard, Janice Lee, Mark Gluth, Bhanu Kapil, Michael Seidlinger, Juliet Escoria, Matt Bell, Amber Sparks, Joyelle McSweeney, Michael Kimball, Lucy Corin, Scott McClanahan, Gabriel Blackwell, Cassandra Troyan. There are lots of others I’m leaving out. It’s hard to think of another time in American letters where there have been so many interesting writers around at the same time. If more people were reading them, you might even call it a Golden Age.
Jordan A. Rothacker is the author of the novella, The Pit, and No Other Stories (Black Hill Press/1888, 2015), and the novel, And Wind Will Wash Away (Deeds, 2016). He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature and a MA in Religion from the University of Georgia. He lives in Athens, Georgia.