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Light Boxes by Shane Jones

Light Boxes by Shane Jones
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Book Name: Light Boxes
Author: Shane Jones
Publisher(s): Penguin Books
Formatt: Paperback / eBook
Genre(s): Magical Realism
Release Date: May 25, 2010

In Shane Jones’ compact, experimental fairy tale, the month of February has lasted for hundreds of days. Winter persists, unshakeable. The skies over a small, nameless town have grown cold and one by one the children begin to disappear. All forms of flight have been banned, leading the disgruntled townsfolk to declare war upon February, lead by a group of mysterious bird-masked ex-Balloonists called ‘The Solution’ and Thaddeus, a disgruntled father. Outside town lives February himself, with a girl who smells of honey and smoke.

Simultaneously a surreal recasting of the Persephone myth and a metaphor for the creative process, Jones spins Light Boxes from a languid, sometimes dazzling prose that leans heavily upon its own poetry. Deftly deployed with a charmingly light touch the book is, essentially, a rather loose narrative held together by a series of delightful images.

‘Remember us, said The Solution. And they disbanded, walking, dreaming of flying, in separate directions.’

‘I looked at Selah and […] I thought of a burning sun, an iceberg melting in her folded hands.’

Present too are several startlingly dark images, arrestingly juxtaposed with the light and the poetic, as when February marshals an aggressive moss that overwhelms the town’s horses, swarming over their legs, pinning them to the ground and growing down their throats.

However, there are times when these deft touches miss the mark, when Jones’ concern with the pretty or delightfully childish serves only to sabotage his narrative, breaking the spell of Light Boxes with heavy handed pretence.

‘Sadness sounds like bubbles blowing slowly in stream water.’

On the whole though Jones writes well, particularly in the book’s first half, and there is much to delight in as Light Boxes drifts effortlessly between dashing avant-garde novel and dreamlike prose-poem.

Jones’ experimentation continues into the form of the book, lending Light Boxes a fragmentary feel that oscillates between intriguing and intrusive. Most chapters are one or two small pages long with the heading running into the first sentence. Most often each chapter deals with a single character, though Jones also inserts lists, recipes or single sentences as ‘chapters’. Font and letter size also become transitory things, leveraged to emphasize, or simply to disrupt the reader. Sometimes this experimentation works, as when, at his lowest, Thaddeus’s missing daughter whispers ‘Get up Dad’ in diminutive font, her tiny words the only writing on the page. Strongly reminiscent of the presentation of Haiku, the words are that much more powerful by virtue of the space around them. Another arresting example occurs when the growing air of impending misfortune that pervades the book’s opening chapters is hammered home by February’s first brutal attack, the whole page occupied by only two dark, gruesome sentences at its heart.

Other times, however, such experimentation does not work. In a heavy handed and overly dramatic outburst, one chapter details a ‘List of Artists Who Created Fantasy Worlds to Try and Cure Bouts of Sadness'; a list that includes ‘The inventor of the Children’s toy Lite-Brite’ and ‘the creator of MySpace'; a badly judged and intrusive artifice that erodes much of our patience for the book’s eccentricities.

The plot drifts along sedately, built upon a series of recurring images and ideas. Children. Owls. Flight. Mint leaves. The construction of items and words from fragmentary remains. These ideas are wrapped up in an overriding dreamlike surrealism clothed in many elements of the traditional fairy tale. The town is dislocated, nameless and ‘otherwhere’. Neither do the characters seem obliged to obey the traditional rules of causality. The townsfolk wage war against February by pretending that it is summer, by melting the snow with tea and by moving the clouds with long poles. This childlike optimism becomes a charming counterpoint to the dark, sinister undertones of kidnap and seasonal gloom.

However, Jones is concerned with more than a modern fairy tale. February is not just a bogeyman, he emerges as a writer. Tortured and unhappy, full of self loathing (he says at one point ‘I want to be a good person but I’m not’) February appears to be crafting the narrative we are reading. Here, I think, the book falls somewhat short as the writerly elements are deployed brashly, awkwardly and in a manner that intrudes upon, rather than enhancing, the narrative. The two halves of Light Boxes sit awkwardly together; the deft, graceful, light, poetic fairy tale buoyed by delightful images and an oft-times clumsy and self-referential commentary upon the creative process, and as the book nears its conclusion Jones draws increasingly from the latter so that all that was charming about Light Boxes seems to be smothered by its own artifice.

Undoubtedly the book is strongest at the beginning, when the poetic prose and delightful charm of its fresh and vibrant approach create a sense of expectation and of wonder. That Jones is unable to maintain this atmosphere fully into the later chapters and resolve it satisfactorily is a shame, but scarcely unforgivable, for much of the charm of the book’s opening sections lies in the possibilities it invokes rather than the answers it provides; the expansive, imaginative flight it takes in defiance of February’s ban upon flying. Ultimately, despite its flaws, Light Boxes remains an interesting and intriguing work, and one worthy of your time.

Light Boxes was originally published in 2009 in a limited run of 500 copies, but was subsequently picked up several major publishing houses and by Spike Jonze, director of the Where The Wild Things Are, who plans a film adaptation.

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Rating: 10.0/10 (5 votes cast)
Light Boxes by Shane Jones, 10.0 out of 10 based on 5 ratings
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