REVIEW: Crystal Eaters by Shane Jones
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While Shane Jones doesn’t name the settings featured in his novels, when I read his work, I picture upstate New York, not far from Albany, where he’s always lived.
It’s a landscape of subtle, resigned beauty, marked by ancient mountains and forests that — in those rare moments when the clouds lift — glimmer in the gilded, northern light.
The area also tends to be economically depressed, dotted with towns whose main streets seem to have been forgotten in the rise of “the city” (aka New York City) that, with a few exceptions, dominates the political, financial, and social culture of the state. The characters in Jones’s stories do not suffer the hardscrabble existence of the frontier, but — like the villagers in Light Boxes, Jones’s first novel, who go to war against the evil month of February — possess a desperation characteristic of those fighting for survival, or at least meaning, which gives them an aura of sadness and heroism that Jones perfectly captures.
Which is not to say that Light Boxes and Daniel Fights a Hurricane (Jones’s second novel) have much in common beyond this sense of geography and heroism. Light Boxes is a shorter, “easier” read, a modern fable in which there’s little doubt who represents light and who represents evil; a book that, despite its sinister moments — the way February, embodied as a man or evil god, kidnaps or murders the town’s children — has a playful or almost child-like quality largely absent from Daniel. Despite possessing Jones’s trademark whimsy (notably in the form of “banana bombs” and “cookie pockets”), Daniel is more complicated and challenging to digest; with a narration that alternates between three perspectives and with dense prose, it’s morally ambiguous, befitting its description of the possible descent of its main character into madness (represented by the hurricane).
Crystal Eaters, Jones’s third, and latest, novel, combines the Manichean appeal of Light Boxes with the psychological insight of Daniel while introducing new themes — both playful and sinister — that showcase his increasing breadth as a writer. The book focuses on a family — a mother, a father, a son, and a daughter — that in some ways could be considered “typical” of many living in upstate New York, scraping by in a town with just two employers: a mining company that produces crystals (in Jones’s world, a natural resource, similar to oil or natural gas) and a jail that houses inmates, most of whom are from the city.
The city is not exactly the enemy here — it ultimately pays for the crystal it needs to fuel its rampant growth — yet by engaging it,
the townspeople have been forced into a Faustian bargain that doesn’t leave much room for long-term hope.
Mostly the city possesses an aloof disregard for the town and the traditions it threatens to swallow; like a monstrous amoeba, its new buildings can be seen erupting just over the edge of the horizon, oozing closer in the span of days or sometimes even hours, while its politicians appear to console the villagers with more empty promises. Here, Jones mostly uses the city for comic relief, effectively mocking its arrogance as he describes what it will bring to the village, specifically “modern living with god, carpeted cubicles, televisions, dishwashers, tooth x-rays, nuggets, yoga…cat-shaped headphones,” and so on.
More serious are the crystals, which come in many colors and serve different functions. They are not only a natural resource, but also an integral part of everyone’s body, so that newborns are understood to have a “crystal count” of 100, which gradually — or, in the case of accidents, abruptly — “goes to zero,” or a state of death. Any living thing, no matter how small, has a count; a dog has a count of 40, an ant 3, a flower 1, and the city is “infinite” while a village is “always falling”; the chapters in the book, appropriately enough, go backwards, as do the pages. A low crystal count can have dire consequences. When we meet the mother of the book, we learn that she’s dying from a terminal illness, and her count is already in the single digits. But without ever succumbing to the cheap sentimentality that so often plagues similar story lines,
Jones manages to capture the mother’s decline in ways that feel heartbreaking but original.
Death is a driving theme of the book, with the crystals ultimately representing that which we so often take for granted, namely the passage of time; in Crystal Eaters, Jones basically invents a language of death, which is no small feat.
Of the two children in the family, the son, now an adult, has landed in prison after forming a gang that experimented with “black crystal,” a very rare type that, when eaten, will induce hallucinations and, according to rumors, may increase a person’s count. In a series of flashbacks, Jones offers insight into what led the boy into such troubled waters, as he struggled to define himself against his overbearing mother and emotionally distant father; again, if the story feels somewhat hackneyed, the language Jones uses to describe it is so original that you can’t help but look at the situation with new eyes. Finally, there’s an adolescent daughter, a typically idealistic and, for this reason, probably the most loveable of the cast, who wants to help her dying mother by giving her some of this fabled black crystal. She’s the one who softens the father and makes him sympathetic when, at other moments — such as when he’s beating his son with a belt — he verges on the monstrous.
What’s important here is that all of the characters have flaws and strengths that make us want to know more about them
; we want to know where they’ve been and where they’re going, which despite the experimental trappings of Jones’ surreal prose is very conventional (and satisfying) storytelling.
It helps that Jones, in Crystal Eaters, returns to a more straightforward (third-person) narrative, alternating between plots involving the mother’s sickness, the father and daughter’s attempts to care for her, and the son’s time in jail (there are also some gang members who want to engineer a “reverse jail break” with the hope of rescuing him). Like Jones’s previous novels, his new work combines the hyper-surreal and hyper-realistic in scenes that perfectly integrate his lyrical but never-pretentious prose. Describing the death of a woman in a traffic accident, he writes, “The villagers stood around slack-jawed and terrified (that’s going to happen to me one day) and watched her expel colors.” Or the son’s memory of killing a bird as a child:
“He found a bird with a broken wing. He stepped on the broken wing with one foot, and stepped on the good wing with his other foot. He moved his toes away from the bird’s body until a bone cracked. … The bird exhaled her final crystal in a circle of knotted smoke.”
What’s new for Jones in Crystal Eaters is his very serious examination of acts of love and cruelty (both often incomprehensible) that seem to mark our lives, particularly where families are concerned (and especially when someone is dying). It’s a book about real people, in other words, and while anyone who’s enjoyed the whimsical or demented beauty of Jones’s previous work will find much to appreciate here, Crystal Eaters resonates with a kind of psychological truth that results in a very harrowing story. It’s his most “adult” book and, for that reason, his most heartbreaking.
by Shane Jones