Tag Archives: Novels

There’s a facet of my socioeconomic-generational set’s consciousness that is feckless, effete, unengaged, delusional, and inconsistent: On Shane Jones’s novel “Light Boxes.”

I’ll start by saying I live in Brooklyn, I wear plaid shirts, I ride a bike, I say the word “sustainable” to describe things that I think are cool, I’m from the upper-middle class, I’m white, I go to graduate school, I like Wes Anderson movies, I like indie rockers, I’m a naive socialist, I think about growing my own food, I try to not use petroleum but I actually use a lot, I play guitar and banjo and ukulele, I use a computer all the time, I have this blog, I have other blogs, I like photography and drawing, I read novels, and I read literary magazines.

That is to say: I’m a hipster. At the very least I’m part of a socioeconomic-generational set that looks over its shoulder constantly wondering if it’s a hipster.

I don’t want to write about hipsters, per se. I want to write about the novel “Light Boxes” by Shane Jones.

I want to propose the following : (1) Shane Jones’s “Light Boxes” represents a facet of the consciousness of my socioeconomic-generational set. (2) Shane Jones’s “Light Boxes” is feckless, effete, unengaged, delusional, and inconsistent. Therefore (conclusion), A facet of the consciousness of my socioeconomic-generational set is feckless, effete, unengaged, delusional, and inconsistent.

(1)

The novel was published by Penguin Group (after Publishing Genius Press put out a chapbook of it). Penguin has published many well-known, highly regarded writers. It is a publisher that imbues its literature with legitimacy. The fact that Penguin chose to publish “Light Boxes” should indicate to us that the novel might carry this legitimacy. At the very least, this means the novel should be analyzed and contextualized; that is, used for the extrapolation of truths about the people and the historical moment surrounding its creation.

Shane Jones was born in 1980. In the acknowledgments section, he thanks a series of young writers by name and, more generally, “the world of online literature and independent literature.” Here are the people and the historical moment that produced this book: educated individuals/writers under or around 30 in the year 2010 somewhere in the English-speaking Global North.

That’s my socioeconomic-generational set.

(2)

This is a summary of the story, found on the back cover of the book and on Shane Jones’s website:

“The inhabitants of a closely-knit town are experiencing perpetual February, and that means unending cold and darkness. It turns out that a god-like spirit, named February, is punishing the town for flying, and bans flight of all kind, including hot air balloons and even children’s kites. It’s February who makes the sun nothing but a faint memory, who blankets the ground with snow, who freezes the rivers and the lakes. As the punishing weather continues, children go missing and adults become nearly catatonic with depression, all but giving up hope. But others find the strength to fight back—and launch a war against February.”

Here is why I think the book is feckless, effete, unengaged, delusional, and inconsistent:

(a) There are metaphors instead of analogies, but the metaphors don’t actually mean anything. Opening to a random page, I read the line “Her bed is a mound of snow and teeth.” Why?

(b) Like its metaphors, the book is just a perceptual canvas with no purpose, like the clothing store Urban Outfitters and the movie “Where The Wild Things Are” (which was directed by Spike Jonze, who wants to make a movie out of “Light Boxes.”)

(c) There is constant mention of ‘clouds’.

(d) It made me write this in the margin on page 26: “it’s as if we can occupy a fantasy world of two-dimensional humanity hoping that truth will come to us. we sit and read literature like this as if we’re eunuchs in some feudal court, prancing around with velvet clothes and bells attached to our shoes trying out-somersault one another while beyond the windowless walls of the castle billions of people live dynamic and variegated lives, in many cases suffering at our expense.”

(e) There are lists throughout the book, as though it were a draft.

(f) Some pages have only one sentence.

(g) The sentences all sound like this one: “I vomit ice cubes.”

(h) Thaddeus, the main character, doesn’t react when Bianca, his daughter, is killed. Many similar moments of emotion are skipped or merely sketched.

(i) It’s sort of fantasy, but sort of not. For example: Thaddeus goes to a group of owls and asks them where his daughter is and “remembers that owls don’t talk.” He feels foolish for thinking that they do, but throughout the book ants carry things out of the stomachs of foxes who have ripped them open themselves and bears wear coats with buttons and veins grow from the slit veins of men living in the sky.

(j) The novel is about writing novels.

(k) Is it really a novel? It can’t be more than 20,000 words.

(l) Chapter titles are inconsistent. For example: Sometimes a chapter with the first-person account of a member of the war effort is called “War Member,” but other times these chapters are called “War Effort Member.”

(m) The “evil” villain is a depressed writer that feels guilty for being depressed. There are no other evils than this.

**

Given premises (1) and (2), we must conclude that there’s a facet of my socioeconomic-generational set’s consciousness that is feckless, effete, unengaged, delusional, and inconsistent.

I’m a member of this set, which is frustrating. When I finished the book I threw it on the floor and looked at myself in the mirror and I asked, “Really?”

Regarding Joshua Cohen’s Novel “Witz” (Letter 2)

Dear Joshua Cohen,

You didn’t write back to my first letter, which is fine–almost better–as I’m now reading your novel “Witz” again of my own volition. I’m about 400 pages in.

Why did I pick it up again? A handful of reasons, a few of which I’ll list here:

1) I biked from Park Slope to Williamsburg through a large community of Hasidic Jews. I recalled the scene early on in your book of Hanna in the shower, washing her pregnant belly and recalling her twelve previous pregnancies, excited for her next birth. The scene was heartfelt and well-rendered and I almost choked up remembering it as I biked through the Hasidim.

2) During a late-night conversation about the differences between the modern, the premodern, and the postmodern epochs of humanity, I found myself extrapolating from your imagery of the Israelien family preparing Shabbos dinner, using it as inspiration for an idea I’m fleshing out regarding the premodern. That is, when human action was motivated by God(s) and traditions and rituals as opposed to the possibility of fulfillment of individual desires. I tend to like a book that helps me with ideas.

3) When I put your book down I read and loved Cheever’s “Bullet Park,” finishing it on a commuter train from Grand Central to Westchester. I felt high on literature.

4) After some reflection, I remembered that one of the things tripping me up about your sentences was that I’d lose focus during them and my thoughts would transmogrify into self-centered questions asked in the second-person, like: “Why haven’t you written a book like this?” and then “Could you ever write a book like this?” and then “How come he’s published so much and you’ve published so little in comparison and he’s only three years older than you?” This isn’t the book’s fault, but rather the fault of my own tentacled ego.

5) I went to Cape Cod with my girlfriend’s family and I wanted to take a big book with me to lose myself in.

6) Finally, when describing my predicament over not-reading “Witz” to a friend, I summarized the plot. She perked up and said, “Oh, that sounds interesting.”

So I’m reading it. I’m not actually sure I like it. I might want to like it more than I actually like it. But I’m inside of it and my ego has lessened and when I’m reading it I do feel fulfilled by it. Problems still exist, but whatever. It’s cool. Just thought I’d let you know.

Sincerely,

David Backer

Regarding Joshua Cohen’s Novel ‘Witz’

Dear Mr. Cohen,

I’m sorry. I’m letting go. I got through 200 pages and I can’t do it. I don’t look forward to reading Witz anymore. I don’t look forward to bringing it with me to places. I’m no longer proud to be reading it. I have to put it down.

It’s the style of the thing. The way the sentences are put together. The grammar is yiddishized, which I appreciate, but the predicate and subjects, backwards they are. Which would be fine if the bodies of the segmented worm-like sentences didn’t go on in impassioned lists of unengaging noun-phrases, choking on themselves, on their mundane details, which seem important but aren’t. They take up pages and pages. So when a verb happens, when action occurs, I’m either lost in the list or I’ve lost interest.

When I do understand what’s happening I find myself asking you thematic questions that start with “why,” like: Why kill the Jews? Or more superficial questions, like: Why kill them on such a cliche night as the turn of the millennium? And even logistical questions, like: Why is the subtitle “The Last Jew in the World” present in your Library of Congress title, but nowhere else on the novel itself?

Though the accusation that this book is a Jewish Gravity’s Rainbow has been rejected, it feels to me like that’s what’s happening. I like that idea. I like these kinds of books. I read V. and Gravity’s Rainbow. I read Infinite Jest. I read Gass’s The Tunnel. I like this kind of thing. Plus I’m young and Jewish. And you’re young and Jewish. This should be the perfect book for me.

But I find myself rolling my eyes at it. I’m falling asleep reading it. I rarely feel like I’m inside it and I feel confused when I feel like I am. In a word, I’m disappointed.

Maybe the heat is getting to me in Brooklyn. Maybe I’m not doing something right. I don’t know. I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. You’ve spoken publicly about these kinds of concerns, and you have interesting things to say. I’m flexible. I’m still willing to read it. I want to want to read it. Is there anything you can suggest? Some encouragement? Some promise or hope? Something?

Sincerely,
David Backer