by Yahtzee Croshaw
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Jam / B00A7H2E3W
I loved Yahtzee Croshaw's first book, Mogworld, and I went into Jam expecting to love it and I *did*, so at least I'm both consistent and predictable, lol. (And I'm already on tenterhooks hoping that Jam will come out on audiobook soon so that I can listen to it for a second read-through.) But let me also just state upfront that Jam is not going to be for everyone (though nothing ever is), and then I'll get to why.
Jam is essentially a zombie apocalypse story with the zombies replaced by man-eating jam. Our point-of-view character wakes up one morning to find that his city was covered with three feet of jam while he slept and now it's up to him and the remaining few survivors to paw through the wreckage while navigating the rooftops of a ruined city. And this whole setup reminds me of one of Yahtzee's Zero Punctuation reviews -- I think it was one for Left 4 Dead -- where he theorized that as long as an author can re-create the tension and horror of the zombie apocalypse, you can replace the zombies with koalas and you'd still have a zombie story on your hands. And that's what Jam essentially is: a proof of concept that is delightfully grim and utterly original.
If you've read Mogworld, you'll already be familiar with Yahtzee's style of writing: Jam is semi-serious, but with a strong undercurrent of parody and sardonic wit. Most of the main characters are recklessly stupid and detrimentally self-involved with their personal preoccupations to the point where they routinely prioritize trivial impulses over their basic survival. And in some ways, the villains are differentiated from the protagonists ONLY by a matter of degree: when everything goes all Lord of the Flies a few days after the apocalypse, there's a strong implication that the villains just spiraled down a little faster than the majority of our protagonists.
What keeps the novel from being a bleak indictment of humanity (unlike your usual Lord of the Zombie Apocalypse novel) is the humor that saturates every page. The protagonists bicker amusingly with each other as they work around each others' shortcomings, and with dialogue that had me cracking up on numerous occasions; the villains are cartoonishly evil even as they shrewdly point out the flaws of the protagonists; and the apocalypse surges on around the confused and deeply distressed point-of-view character as he tries to adapt to the total destruction of everything he's ever known. It may not sound like a laugh riot, but it has the same delightful gallows-humor of Mogworld and I loved it: it's like if Douglas Adams wrote a zombie apocalypse with Arthur Dent as the POV character. And also there was jam.
Having said all that, Jam isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea. Many of the protagonists really are (or eventually become) flawed, sexist, racist, stupid, and/or evil to the point where some readers aren't going to appreciate being forced to stick with them to the end; to continue the above analogy, picture Zaphod Beeblebrox slowly devolving from a sexist misanthrope to, well, significantly worse. The characters are frequently called out on many of their flaws, both by each other and by the narrative, but always in a humorously sarcastic way that doesn't really make way for catharsis or improvement. For myself, I found the dysfunctional dynamics of the group incredibly compelling to the point where I finished the book in a day (and enjoyed every minute of it), but I also recognize that dark humor surrounding dark characters isn't going to be for everyone. (Relatedly: if you require your zombie apocalypse novels to be inhabited by sensible characters, this isn't going to satisfy.)
[SEMI-SPOILERS] Speaking of, Jam continues the Mogworld tradition of bittersweet endings where things are nominally fixed but still deeply, terribly broken. Now, granted, this is a zombie apocalypse novel and those are pretty much *guaranteed* to have bittersweet endings unless it turns out to have been a dream all along, but even allowing for the genre and the "sweet" part of the "bittersweet", there's still a profoundly sad note underlying the ending. As a reader, I didn't find the end dissatisfying, but ... it's not something that will sit well with everyone. Again, you'll probably be the best judge for yourself as to whether or not gallows-humor and tempered cynicism will be your thing or not. I offer no judgment on readers, either way. [/END SPOILERS]
I genuinely enjoyed this book and (as mentioned) tore through it in a day simply because I couldn't set it down. The premise is delightfully original, the POV character is deeply sympathetic, and the main characters are flawed in that very special way where they would be utterly insufferable in real life and yet are amusing to follow in a novel just so you can see how badly they will screw things up and so they can all call each other out every five minutes (in a manner which suddenly reminds me of Brian Clevinger's 8-Bit Theater comics, which I also immensely enjoy). If you won't be put off by a little unrealism (in the world) and a lot of unreason (in the characters) in order to carry a lot of delightful gallows-humor, I absolutely recommend this book if only for the sheer uniqueness.
~ Ana Mardoll