The first, most obvious observation to make about Shane Jones’ Crystal Eaters is that it begins with a countdown. Its first page is numbered 183, and it descends from there, 182, 181, 180, on and on, a timer that makes this novel feel like an unusually rigid experience, temporally speaking. After all, most books are objects that readers pick up and interact with on their own terms, at their own individual paces. Crystal Eaters’ countdown, however, makes the book feel fleeting. While in the midst of reading it, I imagined it still counting down even when sitting on my coffee table, closed—like I would eventually open it again only to find all its pages blank, its time expired.
Crystal Eaters focuses on a village that “survives on myth,” and Jones’ paginated countdown helps immerse the reader in the village’s central belief: that human beings are filled with crystals—100 at the time of birth—which crystals are then lost over the course of a life (bled out, vomited up, etc. etc.), until a person’s number reaches zero, and that person dies. The crystals are multi-colored, and Jones writes of village kids witnessing “their parents vomiting blue and yellow slush into kitchen sinks, toilets, couch cushions, their laps.” Illness in this book is surprising in its glowing, cotton-candy brightness. Almost psychedelic.
Jones’ cornerstone character—named Mom—is an example of psychedelic sickness. Shriveled by illness, Mom spews red everywhere at dinnertime. She’s down to her last few crystals, and she will die soon, a reality with which her family struggles. Her husband—named Dad—is aloof, trying to make the impending tragedy easy for everyone, but ultimately helpless against his wife’s disease. Their daughter—named Remy—believes that there must be a way to increase a person’s crystal count, thus staving off death. “The universe is a system where children watch their parents die,” perhaps, but not Remy: “She’ll save Mom from experiencing the number zero.”
A fourth character, however, expands the novel’s scope beyond the village. This character—Mom and Dad’s son, and Remy’s brother—is imprisoned, and his name is Pants McDonovan. (This may be the key question of my entire review: Do you or do you not want to own a novel that features a character named “Pants McDonovan”?) Pants used to be a revolutionary, waging a war against the unnamed metropolis that inches closer to the village each day (modernity threatening to engulf the village’s way of life). Now, Pants lingers in his cell, eating pieces of his secret stash of “black crystals.” No villager apart from Pants has ever seen a black crystal before; they exist as part of the larger system of myth that Jones suggests through his use of in-text citations, e.g., “His left eye drips crystal (Chapter 5, Death Movement, Book 8),” and, “the city has powers (Chapter 14, Resurrection, City Hospital Myth).” Remy thinks these black crystals might hold the secret to increasing Mom’s crystal count, but Pants, locked away from his family and unaware of the severity of Mom’s illness, uses the crystals in a different way: he ingests them to prompt hallucinations that help him escape the indignities of prison life.
There’s more “plot,” more “characters,” but Crystal Eaters is like a dream—not only in its sense of absurdity, but also in its inscrutability: the longer I type away, trying to explain and define the novel’s hidden spaces and possible meanings, the more I’ll drive both you and myself crazy. Like much of Shane Jones’ work (which includes Light Boxes and Daniel Fights a Hurricane), Crystal Eaters should be experienced as a gyrating, sustained dreamscape—almost like a stoned viewing of a laser light show—rather than described and parsed out in workman-like terms of “story” and “character development.” Once I’ve finished writing this review, I’ll simply hand my copy of the book to a like-minded friend; my eyebrows will be raised in mischief, and I will say nothing.
Jones’ invention of black-crystal-induced hallucinations is ingenious, in that it provides him ample excuses to indulge in disconnected, imaginative writing. During these hallucinations, a “headboard becomes an octopus”; “[t]win horses rise on their back legs and kick holes in the ceiling”; and “turquoise worms” lace the sky, somehow leaving in place of the sun “two red lips, a parting mouth with clouds for teeth.” Elsewhere, Jones’ language is more understated but equally fanciful, as when he describes the encroaching city dwellers as “shadow-bodies grazing on the horizon.” Amongst all this figurative language, patterns emerge. For example, Jones seems particularly dedicated to finding ways to describe heat, which sometimes hangs “like a curtain on a movable track,” and other times is “pinned like a dress in the sky.”
But what finally makes Crystal Eaters such a resonant piece of work isn’t the aforementioned language or strangeness. Despite the surrealism and the playfulness, Jones makes his characters’ sadness simple in ways that even a child could understand. In fact, this novel feels like the work of a seven-year-old with an overactive imagination, who forges a realm replete with magic and whimsy, yes, but also with danger—who builds this realm as a way of fathoming the “adult” world, with its painful realities of violence and illness and death. And at the center of Crystal Eaters is a question so simple, so childlike, it becomes universal: is there something more to our bodies than mere biology? In Jones’ world, a range of colors lives inside each person—in fact, that very rainbow gives the body its power, its life. And although death will one day drain those colors from each person, Crystal Eaters reminds us that life itself is a luminous thing.
Benjamin Rybeck‘s fiction has received “notable story” and “special mention” distinctions in The Best American Nonrequired Reading and The Pushcart Prize Anthology, respectively. His book reviews also appear at Electric Literature’s The Outlet, The Nervous Breakdown, and Three Guys One Book. He lives in Houston and tweets @videosnasty.