Shane Jones’s debut novel, Light Boxes, is a funny little thing. It has gone from being a cult novel printed by an indie press in a run of five hundred copies, to a commercial success with the weight of Penguin behind it and interest from Spike Jonze, who thought of turning it into a film (though it no longer seems to be happening). Copies of the original Publishing Genius edition now sell for upwards of £100 on Abe.
As is often the case with cult novels, Light Boxes messes around with the form to which it belongs. Different fonts are used, and the story is told in fragmentary statements from different characters – nothing longer than a couple of pages. It is a fairy tale of a town plagued by an endless winter, set upon them by February, who has banned flight and occasionally kidnaps children. There is a fairly predictable twist to the tale, which emerges towards the end. Critics tend to fall into two camps – either hating the novel’s self-conscious ‘quirkiness’ or loving its originality, and the atmospheric writing. In fact, it’s funny – the words ‘indie’ and ‘quirky’ are often found together, as though they were to a degree synonymous. Writers try to set themselves apart by investing their work with ‘quirks’, but this almost inevitably gives their work a self-conscious tone and critics as a species tend to be allergic to self-consciousness. Quirkiness itself has become rather pedestrian, a language used by commercials full of home-knitted jumpers and ukelele soundtracks. It doesn’t so much signal difference to so much as identity with a specific group, that of the ‘indie’.
Your appreciation of this novel will depend on the degree to which you also identify with that which is known as indie. There are details in the novel that some people will love and others loathe: balloons drawn on the bottom of tea cups, a character known only as ‘the girl who smells of honey and smoke’ and various other things. Jones pulls his punches: wonderfully nasty images, such as the death by hanging of a particular character, are undermined by resurrections, and the ‘deaths’ of kidnapped children lead only to them living out childhood fantasy lives underground. The weakening menace of February lessens the novel’s impact. In proper fairy tales, the undercurrents of violence and death are real and terrifying. In Light Boxes, such things are mutable: disappearances are not lasting, death is reversible. This sort of thing lends the narrative a dream-like quality, but also makes it insubstantial.
Some people have called this book kitsch; others say it’s genius. The truth is you can read both into it if you want to. There are some lovely lines: “Last night everyone in town dreamed the clouds fell apart like wet paper in their hands.” (Penguin ed. p. 26) and some of the images are beautiful or unsettling, as when the town is invaded by a carpet of moss. But those irritated by the novel will find plenty within its pages to justify their feelings. I can find within myself no emotional reaction to the book at all: I am neither captured by the fairy tale nor enraged by the more twee touches, which itself is a strange effect for a book to produce. I’m intrigued by it, and I applaud Jones’s success, but that’s as far as it goes.
In my head there’s a bit of a connection between Allen Ginsberg and John Keats, though in order to establish this I have to ignore a whole bunch of other dissimilarities, such as that one was an American gay Jewish Buddhist and the other was not, and one died in 1821 of TB at the age of 25 and 4 months and the other did not.
Despite this, I think there are some underlying connections. Both of them have a sort of breathlessness or breathfulness that is evident especially in their letters (Keats) or journals (Ginsberg), although obviously Ginsberg’s writing was directly influenced by Keats’ letters so this isn’t surprising. Both were outsiders; Ginsberg because of his general outlook on life and his sexuality and Keats because of his class and lack of university education. In their writing, both were engaging in a Janus-faced sort of conversation with poetry – past, present and future – based on their deep reading of other poets. Ginsberg’s reading lists in his journals are ridiculous – I’ll copy some in here sometime. Keats was less widely read but arguably more deeply; he really absorbed things, transforming their influence in his poetry.
This is more or less the sum total of my evidence. It’s more of a feeling than a rational argument, but it persists. I’d like to write an essay comparing their poetry, and especially their letters/ journals, except I worry I’d end up disproving myself in the process.
So I’m back, after something of a pause. I went on a joint two-week trip to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in September, and saw so much and did so much that when I got back and started thinking about writing some of it down in here it quite overwhelmed me. I may still write some of it up – I kept a diary while I was away – but I think it’ll be more in terms of manageable anecdotes than a full blown account. I haven’t the time to process the latter, at the moment.
I’ve been reading a book of Karel Čapek’s non-fiction, called Believe In People. It’s mainly his journalism, with a few of his letters to his wife as well, and it’s very interesting. His subject matter ranges from gardening to theatre to politics, all handled in a light, self-deprecating manner that enormously endears you to him. The stand-out pieces are his work on the so-called Čapekian generation, and ‘Why I am Not A Communist’; the former are fascinating portraits of his generation of Central European intellectuals in the interwar period, as well as a brilliant reflection on their lives before the war; the latter a startling deconstruction of the Communist ideology which manages to be both sober and passionately felt at the same time.
Also interesting, for fans of etymology, is his account of the origin of the word ‘robot’. Čapek’s most international claim to fame is as the inventor of the word robot, which first appears in his play Rossum’s Universal Robots. The word has connotations of the Old Slavonic rabota, meaning ‘servitude’, or ‘work’ in modern Russian. In a short article Čapek recounts that he had been thinking of calling the automatons in his play ‘laborators’ or ‘labori’ but when speaking to his brother, the artist and writer Josef Čapek, Josef suggested ‘robots’ instead.
But Čapek’s range extends far beyond that of science fiction. In fact, I would defy anyone not to find something of interest in this collection. And, given this germ-stricken time of year, I think his suggestion of having three-minute coughing breaks in theatrical performances should be implemented at once.