Sometimes a perfectly constructed literary mood and atmosphere leave no room to breathe. We marvel at the way it’s been built, but the tightness of its framework feels claustrophobic. Such books are immaculately curated stories but living within them won’t truly enrich us. Perfect construction, a hurricane-proof framework, and a spotless shine on every page can, however (and perhaps ironically), be a little too perfect.
In Simon Jacobs’ debut novel Palaces, the audacity of ambition overwhelms the demands and patience of a genre novel. What is that genre? It’s hard to tell. John is an unreliable narrator who takes us through the pages as we read him addressing his girlfriend Joey. They’re refugees from a punk music scene in Indiana. After a brief prologue setting up a scuffle that’s common in their world, we flash forward 18 months. John and Joey have been on the run and are now in an unnamed Northeastern city. They’re in a ghost town, what we can assume was once a vibrant city, as they spend the bulk of their time entering and exiting identically decorated palaces. John keeps looking at Joey and noticing things:
“I’m staring at the blackening tips of your fingernails, your scalp… thinking about haircuts… about showering using a sink.”
This is how the story starts, but there’s no real development, nothing on which we can pin our interests or hopes. Jacobs shifts from the past to the present day where he places his characters in their lives as squatters, always on the run. Things become untenable, so they board a commuter train. They get off at the last stop and enter an even more dangerous environment, a hollowed-out former city filled with unoccupied mansions, palaces to the past. Not only is John unreliable, he’s also simply unlikeable, and his observations quickly grow tiresome. There’s a sense of disorientation that starts and never alters in Palaces. The land is filled with sickening winds, wasted kids, and milky-colored water. As John and Joey wander through museums, we get a stronger sense that these characters are fashionable punks wearing their tattoo sleeves and Mohawk hair long after their expiration date:
“When I’d first laid hands on one of the objects in the museum, it felt like crossing a million invisible barriers, committing some unholy act…”
John enjoys coming upon what he calls “baroquely pornographic” scenes, and Jacobs seems to enjoy flavoring his sex scenes in such a way, but every moment is choreographed within an inch of its life. John is the master of this novel, the voice speaking to Joey in the second person, and he tells her “Your commentary is constant…” The problem is that we don’t really hear much from her. They get on that commuter train and head to its final stop, all the while allowing for flashbacks from other people, other moments in a life abandoned that will never be resurrected. There are incidental characters we meet in flashbacks, like Candace and August. There is Vivian, the young girl they come upon in one of the mansions, the only other person who seems to be alive (yet deeply traumatized.)
The problem is that it’s hard for us to invest much concern or interest in these characters because they never really come alive. In his quest towards creating and sustaining a mood of alienation and detachment, it’s hard to fully understand who these characters were before this apparent post-apocalyptic world, and in the present day, when life seems to be just about wandering. Guns and knives appear. John does not know how or why he became “…this insane person, a psychopath…” In the past depicted in Palaces, gun registration does not even exist. This is just one element of an annoying inconsistency Jacobs incorporates throughout his narrative, and it tests even the most patient reader.
There are some interesting moments in Palaces that make the world Jacobs fabricated here almost worth the effort. Take this scene, where John says to Joey: “You magicked a cigarette out of the air and lit it.” John is certainly a philosophizing punk prone to deep thoughts as he tries to set this strange world into a particular context, and Palaces would have been better suited with more of this. The problem is that these musings work better as a theatrical monologue than part of a novel in which the goal is literal and figurative alienation and displacement:
“…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 was everything we asked for, or ever imagined wanting.”
The issue here is that such passages in a novel whose main purpose seems to be that of simply a journey for the sake of itself are more “tell” when we would be better served with “show”. Returning to the narrative (young Vivian disappears, as does Joey) simply puts us back on a purposeless journey with no end. That which is quickly lost gets found, of course, but Palaces has not worked hard enough for us to care about the outcome. Everything comes to a bloody end that fails to leave us amazed. Instead, we are left with an equal feeling of confusion and annoyance.
After the blood and likely deaths, Jacobs, back in Ohio, now, tacks on a postscript. We’re in a tattoo parlor getting a new section to the sleeve. The prologue and epilogue seem to work at cross purposes with Palaces, and in the end, the reader might feel a little cheated. Is it post-apocalyptic genre horror? Is this a narrative from the frontlines of the blank generation as they deal, in their cool detached manner, with being the only people after the war? Palaces has moments of strength and deep philosophical significance, but the result is tantamount to yelling your name in an empty mansion. No matter how strongly you project your voice, the sound will only echo through hallways of empty space and the occasionally beautifully decorated study.