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.