Thursday, 3 June 2010

'everything doesn't end with February'

Light Boxes 
by Shane Jones

I'd love to put this down as one of my independent publisher reads but when I first heard about it the original print run of 500 from Publishing Genius Press had long gone and was already fetching tidy sums on the web (cheapest available now is $199). The interest comes on the back of film rights being optioned by Spike Jonze and the acquisition of the book by Penguin. You can read a really interesting interview with the man behind Publishing Genius Press, Adam Robinson, here - where he discusses the accusation of selling out levelled at Jones in the wake of the book's later success. If it hadn't been for Penguin then I wouldn't have been able to read the book obviously and I, for one, am glad to have had the opportunity to enter Jones' vividly realised landscape. The cover below is the original and gives an idea of that very landscape.

The book's epigraph is taken from The Twelve Seasons by Joseph Wood Krutch - 'The most serious charge which can be brought against New England is not Puritanism but February.' (It can feel much the same in old England too). For over 300 days it has been February and February is persecuting the townspeople. Snow covers everything, flight has been banned and children have begun to disappear. In Jones' imagination February is a season but also, it seems, something rather more corporeal. February lives on the edge of town with 'the girl who smells of honey and smoke' but February also seems to be like some kind of deity, existing perhaps beyond the two holes in the sky, his decrees found pinned up in the woods like the one for example that banned all forms of flight and sent even the birds crashing down from the sky. Thaddeus Lowe, a committed balloonist, becomes the central figure in the War Effort, a resistance movement that goes to war with February in an attempt to usher in the rest of the seasons and bring an end to the sadness and fear that has haunted their community for so long.

We follow Thaddeus, his wife Selah and daughter Bianca for the  most part although there are other characters who take narrative control. The prose comes in short burst for the most part with most sections lasting little more than a page or two and many much shorter even than that.  Jones plays around with his typography changing font size with whispered words and headings made all the clearer. All that white space on the page helps to create that winter landscape for the reader too and in one particularly effective section we get a real sense of Thaddeus's arrested emotions as the text is restricted to just a few words in the middle of the page ('I'm going to move my hand today.')

This is a million miles away from the kind of book I would usually read. Non-realist, poetic, magical, the kind of thing that would usually have me running for something horribly gritty and real - and yet there is something immersive in the experience of reading it. The short sections make it easy to read and hard to dismiss and despite the profusion of images there are several that stay with you. The simple but heroic attempts to usher in spring include the pouring of boiling water over the snowbound landscape, using huge troughs tipped over by teams of horses. February's response sees a plague of moss descend on the town, the virulent growth of which ends up choking those horses and threatening the human population.

I went back to where the horses were.
I knelt down in the cold snow freckled green. I peeled the moss away from their bodies. Their eyes had burst and their tongues were hanging out. Their necks were ropes of muscle and wet moss from the snow that now looked like green foam.
I placed my head inside a horse's neck. Deep inside that web of flesh, among the organs and bone I saw a miniature town that was identical to ours. I saw Thaddeus and Caldor and Bianca and everyone else asleep in hammocks tied to the ribcage. I saw a little balloon carrying horses in a basket. I saw kites pushing clouds into a burning sun. And where the stomach was I saw myself standing on a frozen river. Wind tunnels around my leg lifted my dress and pulled my hair towards the clouds. I could feel the cracking of ice against the bottom of my feet. Fish ate water and screamed for me to come down and have some tea have some mint.

That's just an example of the transformative nature of Jones' world and prose. A wound might weep flowers rather than blood and the clouds in the sky have legs and shoulders. Those chaps on the front of the new cover, wearing coloured bird masks, are The Solution, disgruntled former balloonists who begin the resistance against February that will become the War Effort. The figure of February is an interesting creation too. Playing with ideas of authorial control and authority, February acts much like a creator who has tired of his creation or become lost with it. Almost unaware of the suffering he is causing it is the girl who smells of honey and smoke who begins to take an active interest in the town's welfare and will play a crucial role in their attempts to overthrow February's long reign. Jones' book can therefore be appreciated in different ways. It might be the poetic prose or its rhythm that seduces, it might be the extraordinary pictures he manges to create in your mind, or it might be the conceit of the book in its examination of creation and control. It's certainly a rich text to create a film from so it may be worth keeping an eye on what Mr Jonze has planned (although I believe someone else may be slated to direct it). It's good to leave your comfort zone with reading matter occasionally, even if that means spending several hundred days in the snow. The book's 168 small, square, sparse pages would take just the one day to read through and it's amazing how far it's possible to travel in so short a time.


John Self 3 June 2010 at 07:33  

I had a proof of this and read about half of it (mostly in my GP's waiting room: it doesn't take long) but gave up after I felt it was too heavily on the whimsical side for me. But I can see how it could appeal in the right frame of mind, and I'm glad you got more out of it, Will.

William Rycroft 3 June 2010 at 11:52  

I know what you mean. As I said, it's a million miles from what I would normally read and for many pages I was ready to dismiss it as whimsical and inconsequential. I tried to come back to it with an open mind and found that by focussing on the visual aspects (that make it ripe for film adaptation) I got much more from it. It's hard to assess books you're not used to reading though.

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