“Not Made to Be God“
A Review of
Light Boxes: A Novel.
By Shane Jones.
Light Boxes: A Novel.
Paperback: Penguin, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard relates her childhood encounter one January with the Polyphemus moth, “…beautiful… one of the few huge American silk moths…,” which her classmate brings to school, still in its cocoon. She and her peers pass it around, feel it jump inside its “spun silk and leaf”; look it up in a book to see what it will be when it emerges. Finally, they put it in a mason jar to mature. The heat of their hands has woken it to its purpose, and it struggles out, “a sodden crumple,” and breathes, still, under their gaze.
“He couldn’t spread his wings. There was no room. The chemical that coated his wings like varnish, stiffening them permanently, dried, and hardened his wings as they were. He was a monster in a Mason jar. Those huge wings stuck on his back in a torture of random pleats and folds, wrinkled as a dirty tissue, rigid as leather. They made a single nightmare clump still wracked with useless, frantic convulsions. (Pilgrim… 62)
The children and their hapless teacher would be benign lords to the doomed creature: they want only to see it become everything it is created to be. Yet by their very attention they consign the moth to a short life characterized by suffering and unfulfilled potential. Despite their intentions, they succeed in ensuring that it will never fly.
Shane Jones, too, has coaxed a creature from its cocoon — his debut novel, Light Boxes, 500-or-so copies of which were published in 2009 by the tiny Publishing Genius Press. Jones promoted his fledgling work relentlessly by every meager means available, till the unthinkable occurred: Spike Jonze (Where The Wild Things Are, Being John Malkovich) optioned it for film, and Penguin Books picked up a second printing for the national market.
Jones recounts a handful of inspirations for this novel — eccentric balloonist Thaddeus Lowe, who “did surveillance on the South” from the skies and was the “most shot at man during the Civil War” (from an interview in The Faster Times ); and endless winters in the Northeast. “I used to joke around with friends in college that February was coming and it kind of took on a persona.” (from the Bookslut interview)
Hence this tale of February, the personification of the month, replete with his own priests, who makes war on humanist everyman Thaddeus Lowe and his town of flight enthusiasts. The snow is endless and flight is banned — balloons fall, references to flight are ripped from library books and burned. Bad enough. But when children start disappearing, including Thaddeus’s own beloved Bianca, Thaddeus begins to consider the invitations of a group of top-hatted, bird-masked resistance fighters calling themselves ‘The Solution.’
“We’re starting a rebellion, a war, said a yellow bird mask, against February and what it stands for.”
“A war, repeated Thaddeus.”
“Yes, a war, a war, a war…” (11)
Jones continues from there, in what David Dark would call the poetic mode, using a language of imagery that aims more directly for the gut than the head. Light Boxes is a whimsical fable with a dream logic: Jones skips from image to image, sometimes without rational connection — owls, scraps of parchment, scarves, kites, honey and smoke. It hearkens to many other literary predecessors. The sudden appearance of a Professor, who explains certain factual elements of the town’s history, reminded me of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town, and indeed this narrative, though fanciful, affects a prosaic matter-of-factness that echoes that drama. The novel’s episodic nature and multiple voices recall Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams or Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea, and it especially shares its gradually rising tension and innocent-but-darkening tone with Dunn’s novel. As February grinds on and the resistance fails to stop his machinations, the townspeople begin to despair, finding it hard even to move.
The intervention of a mysterious ‘girl who smells of honey and smoke’ begins to break the spell. There is some ambiguity as to whether she is an ally to February — she apparently lives and relates easily with him — or an adversary, perhaps a traitor, to his war on the town below. February, too, is given some sympathetic treatment: lists found in his pockets relate regret over his actions against Thaddeus and his friends. Is his malignancy that of a spiteful God, or is he simply a depressed and self-loathing Man?
These clues eventually uncover a metafictional twist that suggest the latter interpretation. February’s intentions, it seems, were originally to bless and not to curse. But Jones dramatizes the problem at the heart of all good-intentioned attempts at Godhood: like Dillard’s grade school naturalists, we are unable to handle or even account for the details involved in new life. Even when we mean only to do good, we do evil, for we cannot control the evil in us and we were not made to impart life to other creatures. Evil works its way out into our best intentions, makes monsters of our creations and perpetuates nightmares. We are not made to be God.
Jones’s image-heavy approach to language works in favor of this theme. Like all poetry, it speaks primarily to the spirit — or the Spirit — in us, so that while we may not be able to make sense of it cognitively, we yet know more fully somewhere lower down inside ourselves what it means when we read about: children in underground tunnels, holes in the sky with feet dangling through, rivulets of blood becoming vines and flowers, mouths crammed with snow, boxes of daylight.
February, both the pro- and antagonist of this tricky little novel, ultimately must reckon with the evil he has done, and though the girl who smells of honey and smoke herself attempts to wring some good from the violence that ensues, neither she nor he, nor Jones himself, can quite keep the tale from spinning uncontrollably into a vaguely dystopian future, replete with “naked babies with flowers wrapped around their throats… walking from the horizon towards us.” (145). The threatening surreality that colors the end of the novel leaves us without resolution: we do not know whether the town will find peace, or simply a different kind of misery. We sense that they, the story, the very novel itself has been irreversibly ruined in some fundamental sense – February has taken away its ability to fly, permanently, mangled its wings and cemented them in place that way. They’ve been given their freedom, but it’s a mutilated freedom: just like Dillard’s moth, released in his crippled body to heave himself “down the asphalt driveway by infinite degrees… still crawling down the driveway… hunched… on six furred feet, forever.” (Pilgrim… 62-63).
Jones’s fable should resonate with many. Its surface action – a good and life-affirming people fighting desperately against a cold and evil religiosity – is easy to project oneself into. That the religious evil turns out to be simply the outworking of that same good and life-affirming impulse should give us pause. Ultimately, the knotty problem at the core of the novel will remain food for thought – both the head kind and the heart kind – long after the reader has closed this slight and deceptive little book.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com