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Light Under the Clouds

By Josh Potter

Light Boxes

By Shane Jones

Publishing Genius Press, 168 Pages, $14.95

Maybe it’s already too late in the year for us to really understand. Maybe the sun is already too warm, the grass too long, and the canopy of leaves too lush to fully remember, but February—February sucked. When T.S. Eliot proclaimed April to be the cruelest month, he’d clearly flushed from his mind the oppressively cold, dark and lonesome tedium that comes around every year for 28 days at the tail end of winter. It crushes the imagination and makes ordinary people resort to desperate measures. When, in local author Shane Jones’ debut novel Light Boxes, February settles in for hundreds and hundreds of days, the humble residents of a small mythological town decide to declare war.

At first, the situation is not so bad. Thaddeus Lowe, his wife Selah, and their daughter Bianca accept the inevitable shift and the sadness it brings, but it soon becomes clear that snow, gray skies, and shorter days are not all that February has in store. A piece of parchment nailed to a tree declares an end for all things capable of flight, and priests take to carrying out this order. The parchment is signed “February.” As balloons, kites, zeppelins, and books about birds are destroyed, the dream of flight and all it represents is similarly banished.

Long before February ever appears as a personified character in the novel, it becomes clear that Jones’ world occupies a different sort of space than the one our lives move through. Like the spare text that constellates the stark white pages of this slim volume, the story is rendered in simple clean lines, like a schematic on graph paper. While strange, there’s nothing surreal about the plight of “the Solution” and its “War Effort” against February—who’s been kidnapping children and may or may not be a house builder living on the outskirts of town. The quality is more akin to archetypal mythology, where the logic of the world is simple, but the reader learns not to assume anything about the world that is unspecified. The whole thing has a set quality akin to George Saunders’ The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (minus the allegorical comedy), while its quaint, steam-punk historicism calls to mind Lars von Trier’s film Dogville.

The story alternates from the vantage of each family member, as well as that of local townsfolk like the cantankerous Caldor Clemens, the bird-masked members of the War Effort, and eventually February himself, who proves not to be some heartless tyrant, but rather a misunderstood and somewhat despicable everyman whose influence has become tragically confused and misdirected. If this device recalls Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, it’s quickly trumped by a whimsical fabulism that owes far more to Italo Calvino (especially his story “The Distance of the Moon”) and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Coupled with some conventions of children’s fiction, the story opens itself to the preciousness of teacups, wool scarves, hot-air balloons, and confessional lists that characters tuck into each other’s pockets, but these elements are only precious in relation to the stark brutality of ax-wielding priests, shrieking pigs, shattering windows and arson. An absolutely Lynchian moment comes when a group of children are found in the woods twisting the heads of owls.

As the story proceeds, the situation grows more frantic. February has kidnapped Bianca, and Selah ostensibly has frozen to death in the river. While the War Effort tries to push February from the clouds with long poles, the town’s children have established a society and parallel war effort in an intricate system of underground tunnels. Some, like the Professor, have gone the escapist route by fashioning “light boxes” from wood and bulbs that they wear on their heads to bask in artificial summer. Thaddeus, however, resolves that he must find February and finish him.

The later sections of the novel become wonderfully collage-like as the paths of Thaddeus and February converge. The narrative enters and exits each character’s perspective as through the physical holes in the sky that Thaddeus aims to enter, and through which February’s wife, “the girl who smelled of honey and smoke,” drops written messages to the townsfolk.

Without the full-blown intertextuality or self-reflexivity of traditional metafiction, Jones’ characters struggle to literally author their own fates. Just as the mundane trappings of Jones’ world have been assigned confused titles, the characters themselves try to shake the ways they’ve been misidentified. Both the characters within the story and the reader come to understand that reality is written. It’s a textual meta phor, though, for the way intention shapes all that we do, even if it’s misdirected or fails to yield the desired outcome. What’s interesting is the aggregate effect of all these authors and all these intentions collectively spinning an unsettled world. At the helm of all these voices, Jones’ world is strange and unsettled, but most important, it’s filled with an innocent wonder that can flip these two qualities into those which sustain us.

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