Behind the Controller: Jam by Yahtzee Croshaw

Let it never be said that comedy is easy, and if anyone says otherwise, they are, unequivocally, a cretin. Almost every comedian from past or present can attest to this, in more or less flattering words. However, it is the opinion of this writer that comedy in the printed word is sometimes even more challenging than simply telling a funny story with the spoken word. Despite this, British-born Australian writer Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw has made a go of writing comedy books.

His self-chosen nickname might be more familiar to avid gamers, as Yahtzee himself is the author behind the popular web-series “Zero Punctuation,” which offers acerbic criticism of the most recent video game releases delivered in a very witty and sarcastic tone every episode. Interested in seeing if his comedy could translate well to the written word, I picked up a copy of his second book, a piece of apocalyptic, speculative fiction: “Jam.”

Despite my worries of whether or not Croshaw’s style of comedy would be able to stick, I was relieved to see that not only is the book very funny, but it is also surprisingly disturbing to boot. The premise is centered around protagonist Travis, a native of Brisbane, Australia, who wakes up one morning to see that the whole of the city had been flooded by man-eating strawberry jam. Unfortunately, the reader doesn’t have much time to laugh at the absurdity of this, because only a few pages afterwards, Travis witnesses his roommate being devoured by the red, sticky, carnivorous substance.

From then on, Travis and his roommate Tim, who seems a little too happy to be living in a world where civilization has collapsed, set out to look for survivors in their apartment building.

What makes “Jam” a unique read is that while the author does take influence from writers like Terry Pratchett, the book’s style of writing is entirely the author’s.

Eventually, they run into Angela, a barista who is very intent on documenting the jam-pocalypse on tape for every single waking moment. They also run into Don Sunderland, a crusty video game developer who believes that everyone else is a moron except himself. Finally, they encounter a large tarantula that Travis takes in as a pet, much to the chagrin of his fellows. After some unfortunate, albeit comedic, circumstances, the party of scrappy survivors resolve to go the tallest building in the city to survive the strawberry-scented death on the streets. Their journey brings them into close scrapes with the jam, a wacky ironic cult, shadowy American government agents and an office environment turned tribal society.

What makes “Jam” a unique read is that while the author does take influence from writers like Terry Pratchett, the book’s style of writing is entirely the author’s. For a relatively new novelist, the creator does a remarkable job of creating scenes where each of the characters are able to be fully fleshed out, while also getting into some wacky hijinks as they try to morph from everyday people into survivors without any help from trained professionals or the internet. Special mention goes to Tim, who likes to show off how it’s important to adapt to the “new world” but can barely manage in the beginning as he tries to zipline across a city street, screaming in terror the whole time, or Angela who constantly narrates every single event to her camera.

That being said, the fun times don’t last forever. The jam is always a present threat, but the gang also faces human threats, and it’s at these points in the story where the narrative becomes surprisingly tense and unnerving. We witness characters being eaten by the jam, executed by other survivors, fed to the jam by other survivors and some characters going slowly insane. The final act of the book is extremely nerve-wracking. Without giving away too much, Travis finds himself at sea and is forced into the hero role that the book didn’t seem to be building up to until the final act.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that the book is an obvious riff of both zombies and even apocalyptic fiction in some cases. For one, the whole premise is meant to take the idea that people could be prepared for something like the end of civilization and knock it on its head. Some of the characters even state how, prior to the jam flood, they assumed it was zombies, and even claimed they had made preparations for just such an occasion. Moreover, at times throughout the book, the same characters who bragged about how they would easily adapt to this new life end up struggling greatly in the various situations that they thought they would be best suited for.

In terms of what gripes I had with the book, there are at least a few. For one, it sometimes feels that Yahtzee stumbles a bit when describing the city landscape when characters navigate across the various bits of urban terrain. Other times some of the jokes fall a bit flat, but this is largely to be expected with most works of comedy. Lastly, the main protagonist feels a bit flat. I know that Travis is supposed to exemplify this timid everyman, but it would have been nice to seem him step up to at least be heroic more often, instead of just being a device to tell the narrative.

Regardless of all this, “Jam” is still a great read and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a new style of comedy novels!

Kelly Baker is a fourth-year student majoring in English with minors in journalism and film criticism. KB819687@wcupa.edu

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