After blog inactivity that felt much longer than two near-months, I return! Welcome back to A Bookseller's Blog! Reader, I missed you. : )
Today's two cents concern Shane Jones' latest novel, Daniel Fights A Hurricane. Readers may be unfamiliar with Shane Jones, and who can blame them? His poems and short story collections hail from tiny, tiny publishers or exist only as out-of-print chapbooks. His first novel (Light Boxes) came from equally humble beginnings (a small 600-copy run in Baltimore) but has since gone far (a 2010 reissue by Penguin Books). For a while there, it was optioned to Spike Jonze! Two years later and there's still no Light Boxes movie, but Penguin has published his new novel: Daniel Fights A Hurricane.
This story falls into the category of experimental fiction, and as such its plot is hard to pin down. The premise begins simply enough: Daniel is trying to build a water pipeline and find his missing wife, all while wrestling with his fear of hurricanes. Along the way he meets curious characters: a boy with uncanny writing skill, a fellow pipe worker with many tattoos, a handsome man with horrible dental hygiene, and in other, more realistic chapters, his ex-wife who poses as his psychiatrist. As these other, more realistic chapters show up, we sense that Daniel's journey is a form of instability, and that his “fear of hurricanes” roots deeper than it seems.
Though I've not gone through Shane Jones' inaccessible back catalog, I have a strong sense of his writing style: the man can imagine and describe with the best of them. But the glory of sensation often comes at the expense of relation: our connection to characters is put on the back burner while witnessing his spectacles. This is not to say that his characters are too thin or that his world is too papery: his people and places perfectly fit the tone of a wild fable or eerie fairytale. The difficulty lies in tampering with the fable/fairytale medium, a task which many attempt (every other young adult novel I come across), but which few achieve cleverly or convincingly (i.e., Carter's The Bloody Chamber).
Both Daniel and Light Boxes bear the burden of conceptual flaws. Light Boxes is just about the coolest and most evocative fable out there, but it suffers from the inclusion of metafiction. Writing an author into their own story is questionable, because doing so nullifies that which comes before and dismisses whatever is left: it bugged me in The People of Paper, it bugged me in The Princess Bride, it bugs me here. Stephen King and Michel Houellebecq got away with it because (A) they left it until the very end, and (B) they didn't make a big deal of it. If Light Boxes had been written straight-faced, I would own a dozen copies and hand it out to people on the street. As it stands, I try to keep one in the store now and then.
Daniel Fights A Hurricane commits the same sin in a different dress. Jones' marvelous fantasy world is too quickly revealed to be Daniel's hallucinations: after a few chapters in “the real world,” it strongly implies that he suffers from schizophrenia. I figured it out around page 40, giving me 180 pages to detach from characters, story, and settings that have already been established as imaginary. Daniel also manages to be too confusing, much more so than Light Boxes. Jones' first novel is brilliant in its scope and focus: since everything fits together, its unreality is less relevant than its sheer beauty. Daniel jumps around manically, redefining itself to the very last page. It goes on shuddering and shapeshifting in your mind, as if Daniel managed to sneak into your subconscious just before you closed the book for good.
A number of reviewers defend Jones as a writer of nonsense and weirdness, which is fair. Nonsense writers both classic (Carroll, Lear) and contemporary (Pinkwater, Enzensberger) have managed to pull off wonderful works of weirdness. The difference, I stress, is cohesion and confidence. Enzensberger's The Number Devil can afford to be wacky because 90% of the story is solid mathematics. Similarly, Lear's strict rhyming form allows us to appreciate his bizarre imagery. The same goes for confidence: if you're going to have Adventures, be they Alice's or a Cat-Whiskered Girl's, you gotta go with the flow. Don't waste the reader's time second-guessing your narrative: just go back to having drinks with your dormouse, or donuts with your dwerg friend, respectively.
There is a precious youthfulness to Shane Jones' writing that transcends the pop sensibilities of “twee” or “indie”... he's more than just an endless supply of pretty pictures and weird words. He can bring emotional depth out of his characters, large or small, and he knows how to pace his tale purposefully. But with lack of restraint comes a lack of resolution, and his otherwise impeccable works of fantasy get hamstrung by clunky narrative choices. I hope he doesn't think that he needs to include doubt or insincerity in his narratives in order for them to be memorable or taken seriously … nothing could be further from the truth.