Clouds with legs, balloons filled with flame, and a war against February occupy the world of Shane Jones’s debut novel.
Thaddeus Lowe was a 19th century inventor, a pioneering balloonist and, according to novelist Shane Jones, “the most shot at man during the Civil War.” In Jones’s otherworldly debut novel, Light Boxes, of which Lowe is the protagonist, balloons—filled with flame, floating like yellow silk in the corners of a room, or painted on the bottoms of tea cups—play a central role.
At the heart of Light Boxes is a war by a utopian community—against February. February, in the strange world of Jones’s story, is not only a month but also a superhuman entity that alters moods and kidnaps children, a man who lives in a room seen through holes in the sky, and an unshaven post-grad who lives in his parents’ basement. He has declared the end of flight, his faithful priests posting scrolls of parchment to declare that all things capable of flight had been ruined. Birds fall from the sky, balloons are doused with holy water, burned, and buried.
Against this tyranny stand Thaddeus and his followers, a group of men in green and orange bird-masks, top hats, and brown coats, known as The Solution. As protean as February is, so too the tactics The Solution must use against him: moving clouds with long poles to bring back Spring, painting balloons onto dusty oaks, staging an “assault of warm weather tactics” like donning shorts and summer dresses that smell of “cedar and grass clippings” to trick February into thinking it is summer.
Jones makes use of ambiguity and possibility in the fabulist tradition of Gabriel García Márquez, but Light Boxes should not be considered a magic-realist novel. The sidereal reality of Thaddeus and The Solution is not simply one where magical elements are introduced into ordinary settings, like the man vomiting rabbits into flowerpots in Julio Cortázar’s “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris” (though Thaddeus does vomit ice cubes)—in Jones’s novel there are few touchstones to the world as we know it. Light Boxes partakes in the traditions of folklore, archetypal myth, and oral history, a pedigree reflected in its images and descriptions. Clouds have legs and shoulders. They are shaped like a hand and can fall apart like wet paper. Jones’s language leads you beat by beat through short, vibrant, and tactile sentences:
“I pull the sky up and towards me like old wallpaper.”
“I dreamed a waterfall and a calm lake of my arms below to catch them.”
The sensual quality of the writing is enhanced by the book’s design, a collaborative effort between Jones and Adam Robinson, his editor at Publishing Genius Press. Words and paragraphs are blanketed in swaths of white space like a voice in heavy snowfall. When Thaddeus loses his wife and child, all that appears on the pages that follow are short lines like “I’m going to move my hand today,” driving home Thaddeus’s lack of will. Children whisper in small font, and lists are interjected throughout the text:
Short List Found in February’s Back Pocket
1. I’ve done everything I can.
2. I need to know you won’t leave.
3. I wrote a story to show love and it turned to war. How awful.
4. I twisted myself around stars and poked the moon where the moon couldn’t reach.
5. I’m the kind of person who kidnaps.
The imagination and the insistent naïveté is reminiscent of the works of Richard Brautigan. The nameless narrator in Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar tries to describe his name by saying, “You heard someone calling from a great distance. Their voice was almost an echo. That is my name.” Jones’s work has the same resistance to easy comprehension as Brautigan’s, but again avoids Brautigan’s “real world” in favor of the world of bedtime stories. The members of Brautigan’s utopian society, iDEATH, live in a place where everything is constructed of watermelon sugar, but in moments the reader is returned to the familiar: “His mother came around the side of the house and said in a voice filled with sand and string, ‘When are you going to do the dishes?…huh?’” Light Boxes, then, is more “sand and string” than dishes.
Still, Light Boxes is almost inhumanly hopeful, offering insights both genuine and relevant, and distant echoes of our world in a war fought with futile tactics against a nebulous enemy. Jones is less interested in introducing magic into our world than in bringing readers to another world with its own, inherent logic to navigate.