What happens when the end of the world sneaks up on you? Many a narrative of civilization in ruins cites an inciting event—a war, a natural disaster, a pandemic—as the root cause of devastation. These are narratives where characters can point to a date on a calendar and say, “There. That was when everything changed.” But life isn’t always like that: sometimes change can come without any warning. Sometimes there are no portents of war; sometimes there are no gradually increasing reports of a strange medical condition. Sometimes something terrible just happens, and a society is forever changed.
The beginning of Simon Jacobs’s Palaces is, as the openings of many novels are, an introduction to the style in which the book will be told and an explanation of its milieu. Here, though, it’s something else: the first part is a brief interlude that feels more like the end of an earlier work, a post-script to a story that’s already reached its end. At the book’s center is a couple, John and Joey—though they’re more commonly referred to in the book as “I” and “you.” They’re part of a music scene in a college town, and then they aren’t; soon in to the book, they’ve moved to a larger city, ditched their phones, begun squatting (“our aspiration is to the appearance of abandonment”), and settled into a life there. And then things turn ominous.
The details of city life are tactile and often unsettling, albeit in a relatively realistic manner. Consider: “A sickening wind blows across the city, and with it the unmistakable smell of baking garbage.” That’s one person’s dystopia and another’s summer day. From the point in which the couple moves to the city, Jacobs shifts away from outright specificity: the city goes unnamed, as do many of the subsequent locations. This exists in a sharp contrast to a number of flashbacks to the couple’s younger days, where places have clear names and there’s a more tactile sense of rootedness. It’s similar to the approach taken by Mohsin Hamid in his novel Exit West, a conscious blend of details revealed and left to the imagination. Here, it’s evocative of many things: the dislocation that one can feel living in a new place versus the familiarity that one has for one’s hometown and old college-era haunts.
There’s another narrative function for this specificity (or lack thereof) in Jacobs’s novel as well. It’s a sign of a shift out of outright realism. In the flashbacks, things are knowable: there are punk shows and small towns and a sense of identity. There’s a familiar connection to the world around us: Joey’s brother was a solider killed in Iraq, and his death resonates throughout the novel. But once the couple arrives in the city and opts for rootlessness, all of that certainty falls away.
Is mere anarchy loosed upon the world? It sure is. The couple returns to their apartment to find themselves displaced, forced out by a sinister man who declares, “This city belongs to the kings now.” They board a train and head away from the city, not necessarily sure of the train line providing them with an escape.
Things get weirder. The two of them appear to be the only people on their train: “No one boards, no infantry arrive.” When they reach the final stop on the line, the train loses power; John notes that it “seems to become a husk.” That sense of absence becomes pervasive: as they walk away from the train station in search of something, Joey observes that “there’s no sign of anyone. It’s like everyone vanished.” After a while, they find a series of abandoned houses and take refuge; slowly, they attempt to regain their bearings and gain a foothold in the strange world in which they now live.
The source of the chaos around them is never really explained: it could be a war or a supernatural occurrence. You could shelve this in the rationalist camp, along with Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus and the final section of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, or you could place it among the more surreal: Steve Erickson’s Shadowbahn, Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital.
The lack of an overt answer as to what’s happened with society isn’t really the point here, though—it’s more that it sparks a sort of magnification of John and Joey’s previous isolation and search for resourcefulness, albeit in a dramatically different context. It’s as though some minor deity saw their wish for a particular way of life and granted it, at once blessing and cursing them. John says as much as they begin exploring the world into which they’ve moved:
…the world in its present state has somehow been catered entirely to us, this other vanishing pair, a synthesis of everything I’ve ever made disappear, riddled with the consequences of a utopia that we ever asked for, or ever imagined wanting.
This helps to explain the novel’s structure, where John and Joey’s pasts are never too far removed, even as they move further away from them in both space and time. Slightly before this rumination, John muses on the idea of profiting “from someone else’s misfortune in ways that we don’t always explicitly recognize at the time.” This can certainly be read as a kind of recognition of societal privilege—which, given that this novel is about a couple who choose to live on the fringes of society, rather than having no other options, certainly makes that the elephant in the room.
And yet, the implicit “we” that exists via Jacobs’s use of the first and second person puts the lie to the idea of seceding from society: as long as you have one connection with another person, there’s some sort of society present. Palaces utilizes aspects of speculative fiction and horror as its story unfolds, but its questions are thoroughly primal. Even as it anticipates a terrifying future of widespread desolation, its concerns hearken back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. What do we owe one another? Who are we? And to what extent is our identity wrapped up in the people around us? Whether he’s outlining a harrowing vision of a sparse tomorrow or providing a lived-in perspective on a small punk scene, Jacobs has unsettling questions on his mind, and the disorienting narrative of Palaces is the means by which he’s asking them.
Palaces is available from Two Dollar Radio.