There’s a scene in Daniel Fights a Hurricane, the new novel by Albany author Shane Jones, published this week by Penguin, where the protagonist is buying camping gear at Dick’s Sporting Goods. At the checkout counter, the man ahead of him in line is buying a single 20-pound dumbbell. The cashier rings him up and places the weight in a plastic bag.
“I did that,” says Jones. “The whole transaction was ridiculous. I’m walking out to the parking lot with a single dumbbell in a shopping bag. I find that to be really surreal and absurd.”
That word—surreal—has a ghostly presence in conversations surrounding Jones’ work. Having published a handful of titles with independent presses like Publishing Genius and Fugue State Press, the author, who works for the New York State Senate by day, slowly earned his fantastical style before an indie lit audience that thrives on the strange and challenging. Although Jones hates the word, the whole notion of what is surreal got instantly redefined for him when director Spike Jonze purchased the film option to his 2009 novel Light Boxes and major publisher Penguin Books rereleased the title all over the world.
“You don’t see many mainstream books that are marketed as ‘a surrealist, experimental fantasia,’ ” Jones jokes, while admitting that the campaign for Daniel Fights a Hurricane, which hit bookstores on Tuesday, has played up the novel’s more conventional themes of marriage, friendship, love and loss. Just as the protagonist Daniel Suppleton strives to negotiate his increasingly strange reality with his wife and therapist, Karen, the novel itself was a negotiation of realities between an author inclined toward flights of baroque imagery and incongruous plot elements and a publishing giant simultaneously confused by, compelled with and scared of the manuscript Jones had delivered.
When we first meet Daniel, he’s building a pipeline to the ocean. “It started with pipes,” Jones says. “Living in an old brownstone in Albany, looking at exposed pipes, wondering where they go.” Daniel slowly gathers an entourage including Peter, the world’s most handsome man with the worst teeth, Iamso, a tiny man who can write poems that perfectly convey how the other characters feel at any given time, “the man with the tattoos,” and “the two-second dreamer,” who can fall asleep on command to deliver the other characters their own short dream. Together, they slowly build the epic tube one link at a time; whether it will carry water or oil, they’re not sure. Time is of the essence, though, because Daniel believes a hurricane is brewing. In fact, it’s a fear he’s carried all his life, but to him the storm seems more imminent than ever.
Jones finished the novel before Hurricane Irene struck the area last summer, but he says images of Hurricane Katrina factored heavily in his crafting Daniel’s fear. Like “February,” the villainous month against which townsfolk rebel in Light Boxes, the hurricane here is more than just a weather system. “No one knows what the hurricane is or isn’t,” one character says, and this ambiguity drives much of the novel’s action. Jones says the device of the hurricane gave him a “structure where I can do anything and not feel chained down. It’s very imagery-based. I can play with it in certain ways.” As Daniel and his entourage wander into increasingly strange towns and tableaux, others are drawn into his fear, speculating that the coming storm might be a monster with sharp teeth, angry children, black magic, a hologram, or, as another character suggests, fear itself. Whatever it may be, Daniel’s survival instincts tell him he must fight.
But the fight he’s unwittingly waging is actually with Karen, his wife/therapist, who begins a frantic search for Daniel as he misses appointments and seems to have drifted irretrievably into a world of fantasy and delusion. After submitting the first draft of the book, Penguin insisted that Karen be more present to ground and structure the story in something that might be called “realism.” “When I was editing,” Jones says, “they kept referring to the ‘fantasy sections’ and the ‘made-up world.’ But, in the book, Daniel’s world is 100-percent real. And Karen’s is 100-percent real. The book is a battle between those two. What’s real. What’s not real. How they overlap.”
In this sense, Daniel Fights a Hurricane is traditionally surrealist, despite Jones’ resistance to the tag due to over- and misuse. When André Breton pioneered the genre in the 1920s, it was in order to legitimize the subjective (especially dreamstate) experience in the aesthetic arena, not to subvert the objectively “real.” The belief, like the major tension in Daniel, was that social experience is a highly problematic negotiation between these subjective realities, however byzantine or banal they may be.
“I love Raymond Carver,” Jones says of the celebrated stark realist author. “I read all of his books when I was younger, fanatically. But that wasn’t my reality, for sure.” There’s a certain unspoken orthodoxy, he says, behind those who hew to strict realist techniques, a trust in the ability of language to directly and faithfully replicate lived events. “If I was going to write a realist story about our lunch,” he says, looking down at the half-finished salad in front of him, “something really changes or morphs when I’m using language on paper, these symbols that make a sentence. I could make it as dry as possible and something will still change [from the actual event]. So, if it’s going to be different, why not go all out?”
It’s not a sentiment that a major publishing house takes to readily. “The first draft of the book was much weirder, looser,” says Jones. “It trailed off into Daniel’s section for hundreds of pages.” When he received the edited manuscript from Penguin, the first 20 to 30 pages were heavily marked up, culminating in a mass of red-pen confusion surrounding the sentence “The sky dripped ukulele.” “Then, as [the editor] goes on, you can kind of see her giving up,” he says. “At the end there were, like, no comments. She didn’t change a single sentence.”
It’s possible to view this as Jones winning a creative battle with an editor concerned with marketability and sales margins, but it might better convey the type of experience that every reader will have approaching a story of this nature. As Jones sets up his peculiar conceit, the price of admission for the reader is to dwell in some confusion and ambiguity before the logic of the story begins to suss itself out and build toward dramatic climax. It’s a price that readers of indie lit are used to paying but that few mainstream authors beyond the likes of Thomas Pynchon—whom Jones lists as a major influence—have earned the right to charge.
The best barometer we may have for whether this negotiation was a success is the comments thread on Amazon.com and literary social networking site Good Reads. “I read all the reviews,” Jones admits. “It can be enlightening in some respects.”
It can also be pretty brutal, as the Internet has provided a frank forum for amateur criticism. “Bob from Kansas wrote an early review and was like, ‘This is bullshit,’” Jones says. “I think his name was Carl—Carl from Good Reads has dominated the conversation.”
“This is either irresponsible representation of mental illness/anxiety, or it’s asking too much of me to care about it because it’s subverting the strength of Jones’ writing,” writes “Craig” on Good Reads, and, despite his dismissive tone, raises two good points. Jones’ writing does ask a lot of its reader and, because of the risks it takes, will render itself inaccessible to certain readers. Whether Daniel’s reality might be construed as mental illness, though, is the more interesting question. Our culture, and the literature from which it rises, has a zeal to pathologize experience that falls outside of what might be clinically or democratically determined as normal or healthy. And fiction that explores these states often becomes little more than case studies for the DSM IV. A quick look at a best-seller list is all the evidence you’ll need for the marketing potential of easily summarized mental conditions ranging from depression to autism—not to mention the fantastically lucrative appeal of sadomasochistic housewives.
The aesthetic strength and marketing trouble with Jones’ work is precisely his refusal to succumb to this brand of storytelling, although he’s the first to admit that work like his wouldn’t even be considered by a publisher like Penguin if the company wasn’t capitalizing on easier stories. Similarly, he has little illusion about his creative work functioning as some kind of lottery ticket. Jonze still holds the film option to Light Boxes, but there’s been no further effort to get the film made, as the director who was attached, Ray Tintori, left talks with Jones to go work as a second unit director on Beasts of the Southern Wild. Rather than embark on a reading tour to promote Daniel Fights a Hurricane, as he did for Light Boxes, Jones has opted for an Internet blast. Sites like Flavor Wire, Salon, Tin House and others will all be featuring his fiction and essays in conjunction with the release.
“This is such a weird time. This book is going to come out on Tuesday [across the country with Penguin’s fall catalog]—as if something magical is going to happen on Tuesday,” says Jones. “I think maybe the Spike Jonze thing messed with my head. It’s like, you’re not really a great writer until someone says you’re a great writer. This book is going to come out and I’m going to eat a salad.” Which is pretty surreal if you look at it in the right way.