A Novel by Shane Jones
Civil Coping Mechanisms, October 2014
118 pages, $11.95
Reviewed by Nick Sweeney
Shane Jones, the author of NPR Best Book of the Year Light Boxes, has had a very busy 2014. Crystal Eaters, his recent novel, is a modern fable that knits an incredible narrative, one that builds off the momentum Jones has made with his previous writing endeavors. Sometimes, we want to continue down the road already laid out for us, especially one we’ve become used to going down. Sometimes, however, we need a change of pace, a scenic route. Enter Paper Champion.
The story begins with Boris and Stella, two inhabitants of the ocean floor, and their many attempts to defeat a nearby underwater volcano. They could easily live in a world with people of a hundred crystals in their life or the God of February raining terror on small towns for their love of flying; they are part of the very fabric Jones has woven thus far. Boris and Stella wrestle the volcano suffering valiant defeat and heartbreak, with Jones conjuring the history of Reggie Miller’s decimation of the New York Knicks on the basketball court and the historic characters of American televised wrestlers like Sting and Hulk Hogan. Our two valiant characters enlist the help of a giant named Octopus and some little men with little men syndrome who have some oranges hoses. Boris and Stella fight for the sake of fighting because the world is in need of the kind of heroes worth remembering. They are grappling against the impossible. At the same time, this isn’t a story about fighting a volcano. It’s about fighting loneliness and failure. It’s about relationships and understanding. Not all losses are defeats, and even then, not all losses are permanent.
“If your friends don’t like you dancing in a jellyfish skirt then they aren’t your friends,”
In a recent interview with The Rumpus, Jones explains the need for risk in his writing, “Style equals personality and you have to strip away the bulk of your influences to dig out the you and place it on the page. And that includes your flaws too. I think I’ve made so many mistakes in my books, but that makes me proud. It feels real and human. The style and logic and images don’t have to always be clean and flawless because clean and flawless can also put you to bed.”
It’s important to see that in this recent endeavor. For Jones, this isn’t about creating a deep mythology for a story; this is about the simple things. There is no trickery here. No big moment where you sit back in your chair and think to yourself this is changing my life. It’s about how reading can be like receding waves, the sound you hear when you put a conch shell to your ear in the middle of the winter to remember what summer was like.
The story of Boris and Stella is like fresh crab when you expect tuna.
Expectations are deadly when it comes to reading something new, especially after Crystal Eaters, Light Boxes, and Daniel Fights a Hurricane. Paper Champions is not the central piece of literary work we may all want it to be, it’s not meant to act as such. New Jones readers may be initially thrown off by the sparseness of storytelling. Those familiar with his work may hunger for the same energy of his other works. Boris and Stella stick with you in a very subtle way, much like the accompanying artwork of John Dermot Woods. They lead you just enough bread crumbs to want more, each page making you just a bit hungrier.
In The Rumpus interview, he tells us that not all of his projects are the same, when discussing some of his previous work, “I like doing little projects like that, raw b-sides for people to find.” Paper Champions is that b-side from a band of your youth and you are surprised to find and feel it stick to the inside of your brain and hear yourself humming along weeks later. You try to explain it to your friends but they think you’re crazy for loving it so much, but it’s not your fault. You listened to it and the author has you. Jones’s recent work, and according to him, among his last, does that. Some will read it because of an acquired taste of what he has concocted before. Some will stumble upon it and might be enticed to read more.
It doesn’t matter really. Shane Jones is in the driver seat and has the entire open road ahead of him. He won’t tell you to jump into that car, but he’ll take you a few places you may never forget. And he gets to choose what music you listen to along the way.