Shane Jones’ ‘Light Boxes’ (Penguin Books 2010) is an epic told in 147 pages of surreal pleasure, fluid with lucid imagery & deft poetry. It has a gravitational charisma, being especially light & playful in its content, while its darker material also carries a charm of its own. You can fit the chapters in your mouth like flakes of snow & when they dissolve they will have a hallucinogenic effect similar to acid – y’know, if you believe in the transcendent power of words & all. I promise, your heart will be frozen & your heart will be unfrozen, all within one easy reading. Even in scanning the book for this review, I am tempted to reread the entirety of it, & probably shall, but being as it’s the first of February, I want to talk about this. right. now. If you only read one book per month, make this the one, ‘cause Hey! it’s February. Go out & find this book.
“A scroll of parchment was nailed to an oak tree, calling for the end of all things that could fly. Everyone in town gathered around to read it. Trumpets moaned from the woods. Birds dropped from branches. The priests walked through town swinging axes. Bianca clutched Thaddeus’ leg, and he picked her up under the arms and told her to hold him like a baby tree around the neck, and Thaddeus ran.”
The story that takes shape is dreamlike without being vague & surreal without being abstract: the first snowfall of February also brings an order from a mysterious spirit, named February, banning all flight in a community of hot-balloon enthusiasts. The townspeople are cast into unending cold & darkness as February settles in permanently. Children disappear. Spirits fail. Sky-gazers die. And so, prompted by a group of ex-balloonists whom wear colored bird masks, the people launch a war against February.
“In the crop field, four people are found standing with their heads tilted back and arms frozen to their sides. Eyes closed, their mouths stretched open and filled with snow.”
This is a world full of thematic detail, a world of parchments & mint leaves, of smoke & balloons, of bird masks & apologies, of lanterns & snow, snow, snow. Pieces of the dream are perfect in their delight-ability: “Last night everyone in town dreamed the clouds fell apart like wet paper in their hands.” There’s always something equally delectable happening throughout the story! Each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective. Jones plays with bizarre juxtapositions: the adults are often more childish in nature while the children are more determined in their own activities; those with power are delicately insecure while early victims are usually the most empowered players. There are strong moments of horror, as when in response to the towns-peoples’ war efforts, February sends a plague of moss to attack their horses. Seeing the people try, in vain, to claw the moss of the horses is a scene that is forevermore burnt into my head.
summer promo poster (2010)
Many parts are playful in their method & i think this is because ‘Light Boxes’ is, in itself, a sort of light box, a natural deterrent against the worst of February’s forms. Following along, easily enough, we get caught in the movements of ‘Light Boxes.’ We feel the grounding, the grayness. We don’t so much see the flightlessness as feel it. The coldness sets into our bones – who hasn’t felt what it is to be cold? We’re swept up in the fear, the insanity, & the uncertainty unfolding throughout. Vines pour out, in place of blood, reality & warnings are written upon thousands of squares of parchments but we are not much surprised by these realizations. We know we are somewhere strange & unsafe – there are horrors here, yes, but there is also a thick hope. In fact, we’re not necessarily on foreign territory within Jones’ dreamscape. We each know the fight, the battle of February familiar to our souls, & so the mythology within ‘Light Boxes’ feels easily akin, even amongst these imaginatively impossible happenings. The pace picks up & rages with the ferocity of both fires & floods. There is a particularly defiant movement of RISING as the story reaches its climax. And then, the ending is warm & welcoming but comes all too soon.
“I have this nightmare where I’m standing the field of dandelions holding a scythe. The horizon is children marching. Each child holds one of your teeth.”
My only complaint with the story involves the ending, or rather, the resolution. I don’t think my analysis will ruin your read-thru, but you may stop reading here, if you want to feel it out for yourself first – y’know, a blank mind & all. Okay, so…Ahem! In my opinion, the resolution suffers a sudden lack of imagination, even while be surrounded by imaginative details. The actions simply seemed forced, as if Jones, himself, had given up on wrestling with some better method & took a desperate stab in the dark. Maybe Jones found no inspirational method amongst his personal closure with February & so he had to move forward from it abruptly (symbolized by the knife). That’s the way real life is, sometimes, offering us no option but to cut ourselves thru some situation, but I still hold that the resolve could have felt less forlorn, some course less distraught & it is the responsibility of good fiction to find that technique. Granted, Jones wraps the story up beautifully, & while winter does lift & passes into a Utopian summer I’m left still feeling a little cold & a little sorry for February, wondering “why do things have to end this way? why are writers the worst murderers I know?”
“War Effort Member Number Two (Missing His Bird Mask)
Thaddeus was walking in our direction, waving his arms, whistling. A yellow bird mask next to me commented that Thaddeus was wearing a shirt without sleeves and pants torn at the knee.
A tactic against February, I reminded him.
We have lost the tips of our fingers and our toes are black inside our boots. Our beards are brittle with ice, our skin hard and red and cold.
He’s going to freeze to death, said the War Effort member.
When we came upon Thaddeus, he laughed, and gave each of us a great big embrace, patting us on the back and kissing our faces. His arms had black spots where February had attacked, and his legs had ice for skin. When he placed his arms around me he felt like a thousand pounds.
Victory is ours, he said.
You killed February, we asked.
No, said Thaddeus. But look around. I didn’t look around. I didn’t need to. I didn’t have to see the trees burdened with snow, the skies stuffed gray. Instead, I stared at Thaddeus as the snow fell on his bare arms.
What, said Thaddeus. Why is everyone looking at me like that.”
I sensed that some of the disappointment & pain, the depth of certain tragedies, were keenly autobiographical of Jones & I could relate on an explicit level. I felt like I was/am/whatever fighting my own February, improvising my own light boxes. I felt I could not pull myself out of some suffocating depth. This beautiful book stirred me from this challenge, helped me rise, to be at ease with the coldness, & then warmed me with inspiration. I feel Shane Jones used an impressive format to tell this story, as inventive as anything Dave Eggers or Jonathan Safran Foer has ever done. I am thoroughly refreshed by the freshness of ‘Light Boxes’ – it’s just my thing & in my book, Shane Jones is a delicious new talent just as relevant as Franz Kafka. Faux’reals, yo ~
“Note Found in February’s Pocket by the Girl Who Smells of Honey and Smoke
I wanted to write you a story about magic. I wanted rabbits appearing from hats. I wanted balloons lifting you into the sky. It turned out to be nothing but sadness, war, heartbreak. You never saw it, but there’s a garden inside me.”