Light Boxes, by Shane Jones. Penguin, 150 pp., $14.00.
Last year when I read Light Boxes it had just been published by Publishing Genius Press, a small independent press in Baltimore, and I knew I was reading an extraordinary book. Only a few months later the book was optioned for film by Spike Jonze (whose film Where the Wild Things Are is similar to Light Boxes in many ways) and then got picked up by Penguin. That the book has caught the attention of so many people is hardly a surprise.
Light Boxes is a contemporary fable set in a small town where an endless February has become something of a plague of cold and gray, draining life of color and happiness. Anything to do with flight (including flight itself and flying objects) has been banned and eradicated, and this ban is enforced by a sect of priests who stalk about the town with axes, ready to destroy any violation. The story is narrated through short sections, usually just a page, alternating points of view a la Faulkner in As I Lay Dying. Additionally, author Shane Jones uses various tools to add texture to the already fantastic and imaginative story: a list of missing children, transcriptions of found handwritten notes, the distillation of a report from the priests who’ve been spying on the townspeople, and even different fonts and font sizes.
The main character, Thaddeus Lowe (based very loosely on the self-made scientist/inventor/aeronaut from the Civil War era), is an ordinary man who just wants to live with his wife, Selah, and his daughter, Bianca. The increasingly tense and dreary atmosphere makes this difficult, and Thaddeus finds some relief by keeping a contraband kite that he lets his daughter fly while watching for priests in the woods.
Before long for the reader (but eons for the characters), February has burst beyond its usual 28 or 29 days and does not seem to be nearing an end. Moreover, children begin to disappear: “Evie Rhodes—taken from her bed on February the 127th. . . . Jessica Chambers—vanished while walking with her dogs on February the 312th.” Eventually some of the townspeople are coaxed into action to break February’s stranglehold on their lives. The catalyst for this subversive action is a mysterious group of figures wearing colored bird masks. The reluctant hero Thaddeus says,
The Solution came to my window last night. They had on their bird masks and black top hats. They wore a single brown scarf around their necks. I said I understood the need to rebel and protect our town against February. I reminded them of the tactics used last year.
Most important, they said, think of your daughter, Bianca.
Indeed, one of the missing children is Thaddeus’s daughter, Bianca.
In an effort to deny February’s extended deep freeze, the people declare war on the second month. They attempt to undermine February’s crushing power by acting as though warm weather has arrived, and when that does not work they boil water and throw it on the snow. The titular light boxes come into play as part of a scheme to produce ultraviolet light to help rouse people from their stupor.
Though not necessarily surreal, Light Boxes is decidedly non-realist. The townspeople often see a child’s feet dangling from a hole in the sky, and at one point a plague of moss overtakes the town.
To watch the way those horses died. To have felt the waves of their muscles contracting and shaking under that skin of mushy green. It was too much for me. The floor and walls were covered in moss. The dog was covered in moss but was still alive, and he ran around the home barking green-colored clouds. Thaddeus was tearing out fistfuls from the walls.
Despite the white of the snow, the green of the moss, and the multi-colored bird masks, the most integral color in Light Boxes is gray. This color of vagary and indistinction suffuses Jones’s entire book, and this characteristic is part of what makes the story so compelling. The beginning of the story borders on clichĂ©, yet Jones succeeds by taking familiar plot into misty gray territory.
As the story moves along, February becomes more than a month, more than a name for the cold heart of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. February becomes increasingly anthropomorphic until he is a distant, godlike entity who is said to be responsible for the frigid atmosphere of misery and apathy, as well as abducting the children. One character concretizes it by speaking of “the sadness inside us that is February.” Not much later, we read a “List Written by February and Carried in February’s Corduroy Coat Pocket”:
I am not a bad person. I have enjoyed June, July and August like everyone else.
I’m so confused it almost feels calm.
I am guilty of kidnapping children. I am guilty of Bianca and causing great pain to Thaddeus and Selah and the town.
I want to be a good person, but I’m not.
Later, February is sitting in a cottage with a girl he calls “the girl who smelled of smoke and honey.” It is here that we first see February incarnate, as a very human being whose own sadness is the source of the prolonged gray season:
The girl was telling him that she was tired of being around someone who carried so much sadness in his body. February drew his kneecaps to his eye sockets.
February apologized. He rocked back and forth. When he stretched his legs back out the girl was smiling and running in place. February asked what she was doing. The girl who smelled of honey and smoke said it was to cheer him up.
Jones also uses differing font sizes to brilliant effect. After Thaddeus suffers another terrible loss, he sits in the street, defeated, motionless, emotionally destroyed and numb. The townspeople gather around him and ask what he plans to do next, how the campaign against February will continue, and he calls off all wars against February. Thaddeus withdraws into himself. At this point, each page contains only a line or two isolated in a snowy whiteness, the words almost smothered in silence:
The left side of my body is Bianca, and my right side is Selah. With no body I have no reason to move from this spot.
And Thaddeus’s mind spirals into itself, into strange thoughts, giving the sense that the lines are those thoughts that are not actually verbalized in one’s mind, but are the feelings just before language. Thaddeus continues:
Tell me everything won’t end in death. That everything doesn’t end with February. Dead wildflowers wrapped around a baby’s throat.
I’m going to move my hand today.
I vomit ice cubes.
There’s a ghost next to me.
Get up, Dad.
The last line, tiny and alone on the page, raises the hair on the back of my neck. The font (maybe 8 point compared to 11 or 12) produces the effect of sensing a still, small voice, and it is that pinpoint of an emotional wallop that accelerates the energy of the story on to its inevitably tragic and, somehow, hopeful end.
Shane Jones weaves words and images in Light Boxes with an innocence that is deceptively simple. The book is succinct as well as fantastic and imaginative, at turns tender, funny, incredibly sad, and spirited. I applaud Penguin for publishing this strange and moving book. Light Boxes is the complete package of literary innovation as well as an accessible, engaging, and moving story that traverses human emotion while creating new experiences in narrative fiction.
Josh Maday lives in Michigan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in New York Tyrant, Action Yes, Apostrophe Cast, Barrelhouse, elimae, Keyhole Magazine, Lamination Colony, Word Riot, and elsewhere. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and keeps a blog here.
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