BOOK REVIEW: Shane Jones’ psychedelic-tinged novel focuses on a family in crisis in a strange village where life spans are tied to a finite number of crystals contained within the body.
Shane Jones’ penchant for surrealism has served him well. His 2009 novel “Light Boxes” blended an archetypal setting with just a hint of metafiction; it was the sort of accomplished balancing act where an ill-proportioned section could throw the whole thing off. Instead, Jones’ narrative achieved a neatly proportioned equilibrium, its unique tone succinctly sustained. This was followed by a short novel called “The Failure Six,” which, as the title indicates, took a bleaker tone; and 2012’s “Daniel Fights a Hurricane,” which attempted to balance outright surrealism with a more realistic framing story.
His new novel, “Crystal Eaters” (Two Dollar Radio, 183 pages, $16), is a return to a more overtly uncanny setting, and it serves him well.
“Crystal Eaters” does possess inherently contrasting elements: There’s a strange and fantastical village where much of the novel’s action is set, and there’s a nearby city where reality seems closer to our own concept of it. At the heart of “Crystal Eaters” is a simple and evocative concept: that everything — humans and animals and the village and the city — contains a set number of crystals, which age and traumatic events cause them to shed. Once you’ve lost those crystals, your life comes to an end. (The novel lists the number contained in various things: Babies have 100; rabbits, 8; mold, 678.)
A crystal mine is also the central industry in the village; crystal is also the cause of addiction for some living there.
Given the peculiar setting of the novel, the presence of uniquely named characters (Pants McDonovan being one memorable example) and groups dubbed Brothers Feast and the Sky Father Gang, it’s fitting that the novel’s core focuses on a more relatable scenario: the tribulations of an estranged family. Remy, the young girl who serves as the book’s protagonist, finds herself estranged from her parents: Her father attempts to take care of his dying wife, while Remy’s brother is imprisoned for his role in one of the gangs that have run afoul of the village’s government. His attempts to break out, along with the family wrestling with the mortality of one of their own, propels the novel forward.
There’s a deeply psychedelic sensibility at work here, blended with the deadpan acceptance of the uncanny: one part Magnus Mills, one part Rudolph Wurlitzer. And the central notion of “Crystal Eaters” has an almost video-game-like quality; the crystals echo the concept of hit points, and the way in which that notion blends with the book’s more dreamlike aspects sustains itself over the course of the novel. More than that, the countdown structure is an unshakable reminder of where this novel is headed. And while some of the looser details can distract, an ultimately sobering work can be found beneath the delirium. It’s a frenzied, sometimes giddy memento mori.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.