The War Against February: Claudia Smith on Shane Jones’ novel Light Boxes


light boxes

Light Boxes, Shane Jones, Publishing Genius Press

“We sat on the hill. We watched the flames inside the balloons heat the fabric to neon colors. The children played Prediction.” so begins Shane Jones’ Light Boxes, a short novel about war, winter, child abduction, all set against a somewhere-else-in-place-and –time world. Light Boxes is 167 short pages, bound in a book small enough to fit in my rather large purse. The front and back covers are a winter scape, white against white. The book itself is filled with wintery light, teacups, and reminiscent imagery.

The novel centers around a small family; Thaddeus, a balloonist who declares war against February; Selah, his wife; and Bianca, his daughter who is taken, along with many other children in the village who keep disappearing. The story that follows is one that we’ve all grown up and read about before; the child taken, a land frozen, a land populated by villagers and their children who say portentous things. Jones’ world is beautiful in part because it is drawn from a landscape of fairytales and childhood myths. Men drink from teacups painted with tiny balloons. There are kites, cottages, professors – all familiar images and archetypes we read about as children, when we read stories about brothers and sisters tumbling into a wintery world at the back of a wardrobe. Death, as it often is in childhood, is at once fascinating and sinister, and never quite understood.

Light Boxes is a visual book, full of metaphor. When a mother shakes out a bed sheet it disintegrates into a little blizzard; balloons float into empty holes in the sky; vines and flowers and blood flow from flesh. Before I gave myself over to the imagery, I felt a bit as if I were reading myself into a Magritte painting. After awhile, the arresting imagery and metaphor became ordinary, as I settled into Jones’ dreamlike world.

Reading about the war against February, I was reminded of a beloved book from my childhood. I pulled it off the shelves of the library, and I remember that the card inside indicated it hadn’t been checked out in over a decade. The book, At The Back Of The North Wind, a children’s novel by George MacDonald, was published about a hundred years before I was born. It’s about the adventures of a small boy, and the North Wind, who is personified in a beautiful, violent, beloved woman. I was too young to understand all the Victorian symbols, and I still probably wouldn’t know all their meanings if I were to return to that fat book next week. But, like MacDonald, Jones tackles death, forgiveness, love, and futility. February is a personification of something deep within the people who populate the book. And, like MacDonald’s book, I don’t think a reader needs a key to unlock its meaning.

Each chapter in Light Boxes is a sharp, short glimpse. They move much the way flash fiction does, cutting into a larger world. Some glimpses are strikingly intimate, and certain images are repeated throughout; people are often transfixed, mouths filled with snow. Violence is often so delicate and painterly that it sneaks up on the reader lingering as dreams sometimes do.

“A Book of Ubiquitous Movement,” DiAnne Malone examines A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness by Amy Clark, Elizabeth Ellen, Kathy Fish, and Claudia Smith


A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness by Amy Clark, Elizabeth Ellen, Kathy Fish, and Claudia Smith, Rose Metal Press

 

A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness pushes and wrenches its reader through four chapbooks of short short fiction by authors Amy L. Clark, Elizabeth Ellen, Kathy Fish, and Claudia Smith. What remains is a sense of yearning that cannot be satiated by rereading just one story. The collection resurrects the ghosts of the eerie voices and vignettes in Jean Toomer’s Cane, while making new the strangeness found in Joyce Carol Oates’ collection, The Female of the Species.

 

Smith’s collection, The Sky is a Well, is the original winner of Rose Metal Press’ first annual short short fiction chapbook contest. The collection escorts the reader through the rooms of characters attempting to plow through their unique strains of loneliness. Each piece in Smith’s collection represents a steady and succinct movement that bobs about in a sea of woman-ness. The opening piece, Cherry, gives a snapshot of the relationship between two teenage girls:  Theresa “who wants boyfriends” and Delia who gently protests, “this is the last time,” as she yields to Theresa’s sexual advances. In Galveston we meet Marnie, the wise daughter of an abusive father. “’She’s going to call him,’ Marnie whispers” as she watches her mother step onto the balcony after fleeing to the beaches of Galveston away from his physical abuse. In each piece, there is the omnipresence of loss. In a few lovely words, Smith manages to express the craving loss leaves behind.

 

Likewise, Kathy Fish’s Laughter, Applause. Laughter, Music, Applause expresses loss coupled with loneliness. The rhythm of these stories, which comprise the first chapbook in the collection, zips as each vignette jerks through the awkwardness of circumstance. The reader can almost see the jerky movements of the inexperienced videographer in the opening piece, The Next Stanley Kubrick, where a young girl tapes her older brother’s high school career only to realize in a “classic awkward moment” that no one was interested in taping her. Bread, an odd portrait of a family’s loss, begins with the uncle of a dead nephew making a fisherman’s omelet. Waterfall is the story of a daughter who has lost her father to Alzheimer’s disease. Interestingly enough, the daughter’s catering business is called The Good Egg.  The strange energy of Fish’s collection moves into the surreal as in How Elm Trees Die, which explores a young girl’s problem of not being able to keep her feet on the ground and the following story, In School in Sioux Falls, SD, introduces the reader to a girl “known as the fidgeter” who eats glue. Without feeling forced or contrived, each story is neatly connected to the one preceding it. Fish’s juxtaposition of the ordinary with the strange is what gives the collection such beautiful bouts of rhythm. But, even so, the reader may find that some of the pieces may end a few words too soon.

 

Clark’s collection Wanting inspires a yearning that makes the reader want for the characters the very same things the characters want for themselves. Several of the pieces like Options for Women or: what you can do other than going back to your asshole husband are laugh out loud funny as the last option suggests, “Go back to your asshole husband because he’s probably going to be shipped out to Iraq soon anyway and comeback dead.” Though Story for Mark, Who Probably Needs Clarification is quite clever, it may take a few reads to understand that the character meant that she was falling uncontrollably in love when she said, “What I meant was:  there have been many recent developments in my life of which you are only one. Which is to say that I am still not sure if I am like this.” The story What We Would Find Out haunts the reader as it explores the making of a date-rapist…or not.  Clark’s stories may provide the most closure. There are times, however, when the reader may experience the discomfort of visiting friends and overstaying the welcome.

 

Rounding out (or perhaps cornering out ) the collection is Elizabeth Ellen’s chapbook Sixteen Miles Out of Phoenix. Ground Rules, the first piece, expresses the feelings of those who are intimate with writers: “Rule number one, he says:  You can’t write about this.”  It is from this chapbook and the last line of Eastern Standard that the title of the collection is culled. Each piece in Ellen’s collection explores the beautiful and violent pushing and pulling of humans (and sometimes beasts) toward and away from one another. In this way, The Big Gulp tugs at the reader’s senses as it ends in flux with “my right thigh was in your hand. I hovered waiting for your release.” Likewise, the mini-horror, Blood, gives the reader a glimpse at the beauty and tragedy of discovering both the differences and similarities between people: a somnambulist meets a funambulist, two formerly conjoined twins long to be conjoined again, and a woman dumps the truth for a love affair with deception. Most poignant in Sixteen Miles Out of Phoenix is the story of a mother who plays pretend with her daughter where they become “not princesses—but explorers,” when a storm makes all the lights go out.

 

It is no wonder that Rose Metal Press insisted on flinging these four chapbooks together as one for the theme of yearning resonates even as one reads the last page. The reader yearns for more of the energy of words that encompass all of the elements. It seems almost a miracle that these pieces could compliment each other so well. Each chapbook is both ethereal and visceral, earthly and otherwordly. And, although not horror by any means, one may not want to read A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness in a dark and quiet room, save one light, for each story leaves with the reader a strange sense of uneasiness.

 

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Often to her own demise, DiAnne Malone, a teaching fellow at the University of Memphis, is obsessed with metaphor. When not obsessed she doggedly pursues the MFA in Creative Nonfiction. DiAnne has served as Sr. Creative Nonfiction Editor for the University of Memphis’ nationally acclaimed literary journal, The Pinch. Her first publication, “Fits,” (culled from her ever-evolving memoir collection, Digging for the Devil) is forthcoming in the Fall 2008 issue of So to Speak.