Half way through Light Boxes Shane Jones drops his fiction mask. He pulls us back into reality. He gives us a list:
List of Artists Who Created Fantasy Worlds to Try and Cure Bouts of Sadness
1. Italo Calvino
2. Garcia Marquez
3. Jim Henson and Jorge Borges – Labyrinth(s)
4. The creator of Myspace
5. Richard Brautigan
6. J.K. Rowling
7. The inventor of the children’s toy Lite-Brite
8. Walt Disney 9. David Foster Wallace
10. Gauguin and the Caribbean
11. Charles Schulz
12. Liam Rector
It’s an odd pastiche of talents, but the list fits Jones’ unique style.
Aesthetically, Light Boxes most closely resembles a post-modern bed time story. It takes place in a stark world beset by February. Winter is permanent. Flight has been outlawed. Children are being abducted and buried beneath the snow: “How much can we put up with. How many days will this dreadful season extend itself. Our town is a place of no flight and all snow because of February.”
Then an uprising. Protagonist Thaddeus Lowe leads a revolt. His aim is to undermine February’s tyranny. He organizes his followers, having them build fires to burn away winter’s layers. He has them dress as though the season were summer to spite the dastardly February. February retaliates by abducting more children. The townsfolk take to hot air balloons to shine light boxes from the sky to eradicate the gray of the season. February laments the attacks.
February had suffered through their fake smiling faces, water-trough-attacks, sticks thrown at the sky, prayers and War Hymns. He had seen them covered with moss and endless gray. He had seen them saddened with over nine hundred days of February and he had been blamed for it.
You may be asking: Is February a month or a person? In Light Boxes the answer is both.
The arc of this story is a fantastic one, and Jones uses several stylistic implements for its delivery. By doing so, he is able to pack a large journey into a loose 168 page book.
The chapters are brief. The longest section is a spare six pages, and the text contains several lists. The point of view is continually shifted – think As I Lay Dying. Fonts are played with. Reality and fantasy are woven together. But all of this is done with both subtlety and lucidity so the reader drifts through the tidy pages, grinning as the tale unfolds. The novel can and should be read in a single sitting. And after reading the first couple of paragraphs you’ll know you won’t want a break from it:
We sat on the hill. We watched the flames inside balloons heat the fabric to neon colors. The Children played Prediction.
They pointed to empty holes in the sky and waited. Sometimes all the balloons lit up at once and produced the nightly umbrella effect over the town beneath whose buildings were filling with the sadness of February.
The premise here is strange, but simple. Jones does not attempt to blister the story with literary haymakers. He keeps his language clean and fresh. But he is able to pair techniques to render beautiful images: “Tree branches bowed with snow, their tips tied to the ground with invisible ropes.” Marvelous.
Equally impressive is the design of the book. This is Publishing Genius’ first novel, and they’ve done a spectacular treatment. The cover shows a snow-blanketed prairie dotted with anemic bear-limbed trees. The pages are stark and clean, with plenty of white space for the prose to sprawl across. I wouldn’t normally note the physical aspects of a written work, preferring instead to speak to the craft of the writer, but here the physical text and textual message work together to create a unique reading experience. It’s like holding a patch of February in your hands and dragging winter across your eyes.
That being said, fans of the hyper-realistic will not like Jones. Fans of straight fantasy may grit their teeth when they near the novel’s conclusion.
Jones belongs to a group of writers that dangle between the spectrums. As Jesse Ball put it in a recent Failbetter interview, he belongs “to a much older tradition – a tradition of evoking the world as it is in ambiguity and possibility.” Those who seek strangeness with their truths, however, will welcome this odd and beautiful season.