Author: Shane Jones
Publisher: Publishing Genius Press
When I was living in Chicago as a college student, the onslaught of winter brought with it a new, shocking unhappiness every year. Everyone who once was friendly migrated inside to hunker down and get grumpier. Any woman I was remotely interested in would put on seven thick wool sweaters that would make her breasts all but disappear. So much time wasted spent wandering from dark room to dark room mumbling words like flu and strep and NyQuil.
One of the things I realized during this time was that the worst part of a northern winter never came when I expected it to; it never came in December or January when everyone was already singing about snow. Without doubt, winter’s coldest time, its most depressing moments, came in February, when the snow and ice had been collecting for months in sharp, grimy piles by the side of the road. The coldest season was Almost-Spring, as the promise of warmer weather hovered so closely, but still remained locked away behind a constant sky of low, gray clouds. Really all you could do was marvel at your malaise, lace up your boots, and get ready one more time to dig your car out of the snow.
Shane Jones’s new novel, Light Boxes, his first, literalizes this feeling of endless winter and uses it as a launching point for a lighthearted fable about resilience in the face of inexplicable and unrelenting meanness. The month of February is a disgruntled god who lives in the clouds and rains his endless gray on the town below him. As the shortest month of the year stretches into the hundreds of days, the townspeople, a collective of balloonists, are forced to face one tragedy after the next: citizens frozen to death in the streets, a rash of child kidnappings, an onslaught of mold, and the outlawing of any kind of flight.
Told in a series of very short, prose-poetic chapters, Light Boxes is a polyphonic novel, and we’re able to see the effects of February’s tyranny through the eyes of numerous people in the town: the jovial sap collector Caldor Clemens, the bird-masked members of the resistance movement, and a professor who invents light boxes in the hopes of simulating summer.
At the center of this chorus of voices, though, stands the figure of Thaddeus Lowe, husband to Selah and father to Bianca. After his daughter is kidnapped, her empty bed nothing more than a “mound of snow and teeth,” Thaddeus takes charge of the resistance effort against February, a decision that ultimately leads to more tragedy and a hero’s revenge quest against protean forces that’s reminiscent of something out of The Faerie Queene.
Thaddeus is sincere and sensitive and smart and full of fatherly good intentions, and his monologues are the best writing in the book. This is especially true when he talks about the better life he wishes he could provide for his wife and daughter, sporadic lyrical tangents where Thaddeus’s desires thrum with affection and true warmth and just the right amount of implausibility:
“I closed my eyes. I imagined Selah and Bianca in a canoe so narrow they had to lie down with their arms folded on their stomachs, their heads at opposite ends, their toes touching. I dreamed two miniature suns. I set one each upon their foreheads. I dreamed a waterfall and a calm lake of my arms below to catch them.”
Taken by February through an escalating series of sufferings and never once offered a substantive explanation for them, Thaddeus Lowe is a bit like Job. His pain brings up the question of why bad things have to happen at all, and his ultimate response, as a man who tries to convince himself and the town that “everything won’t end in death,” is a reminder of how one can confront the cruelty that so often seems part and parcel of the planet’s hard-wiring.
Despite the family tragedy at the novel’s heart, though, Light Boxes is ultimately a fable, a fairy tale, a bedtime story. And because of that, we want it to fulfill certain expectations. Ogres should be ogres, princesses should be beautiful, and endings should be happy. Jones knows this and doesn’t neglect to populate his world with cottages, mint teas, balloons, forests, flickering fires, and the underlying sense that everything will turn out happily by the end.
And like the great contemporary practitioners of the fairy tale—Kate Bernheimer, Lily Hoang, Rikki Ducornet—Jones also has a fantastic eye for the detail of fairy tale, a narrative adroitness that brings together seemingly banal objects and grants them a certain type of cumulative magic. As Thaddeus walks into town one day, he notes, “The air was cold and smelled like apples. I saw a fox sitting on a mailbox. He had duck feathers in his mouth” (46). Or earlier, he tells us about Selah’s soothing bedtime stories: “When Bianca wakes up screaming against February, Selah picks her up and holds her and tells Bianca to think of cloudless skies, a moose letting her hang by one hand from his nose” (23). Again and again in this novel we see Jones’s uncanny sense of cutting the detail off at just the right time. This gives Light Boxes a Calvino-esque quickness and ultimately makes it a narrative world that, in spite of the darkness and tragedy at its center, proceeds with lightness and speed and the spring of the author’s whimsical imagination.