I met Shane Jones in 2009, in Chicago, during the annual AWP conference. Amid the crowded fluorescent labyrinth, I happened upon him manning the Publishing Genius Press table, projecting an aura of calm that seemed delightfully out of step with the usual huckster energy of the book fair. I bought his novel Light Boxes and read it on the plane home, where I was so transported by the world Shane had created that I forgot all about the smells and turbulence of travel by air. I remember tucking the book into my bag and thinking, Whatever this person does next, I’ll read it. Shane and I have stayed in touch ever since.
Crystal Eaters is full of the fabulist inventions that often mark Shane’s fiction—a ravenous sun and “crystal counts,” the idea that we’re born with a hundred crystals inside us, a supply that dwindles until, at the end of our lives, it’s exhausted—but at the core of the novel is a family’s struggle to turn toward one another in the face of unbearable loss. Shane conjures a world that is, in ways large and small, melting down.
Shane and I spoke via e-mail—I was in Andover, Massachusetts, and Shane in Albany, New York—about the new book, fatherhood, death, and therapy.
There are many layers of mythology in Crystal Eaters—surrounding, to name a few, the black crystals, people in the city versus people in the village, the beliefs of Brothers Feast and the Sky Father Gang. “Everyone is eventually fooled into believing in something that doesn’t exist,” you write.
Religion, spirituality, cults—Brothers Feast and the Sky Father Gang are cults—prayer, crystals, myths, folktales, the universe as a system of life and destruction—I’m attracted to these things, and they are players in the book. The idea of choosing something—a value system—and believing in it is very beautiful, even if it’s absurd in the face of death. I’m always surprised when writers say they don’t believe in a god or religion but they believe in creating a world on two hundred pages using symbols. We’re all worshiping something. The city worships things like hospitals and fast food and phones and constant consumption, and I’d say those things are a dangerous kind of worship. I’m more interested in the dirt dwellers, who believe, here, that they have a number of crystals inside their stomachs. I very desperately want to believe in something, and I think writing is a way to dig at this wall. There doesn’t have to be an answer, really. Just the movement.
As far as being fooled into believing in something that doesn’t exist—as a kid, you’re constantly being sold one fantasy or another. Santa Claus, Sesame Street, the police are the good guys, parents know what they’re doing, doctors will help you with medicine, men protect women, et cetera. These concepts slowly dissolve, or are at least kind of remolded, as you get older.
In your essay “Pram in the Hall,” you talk about how fatherhood, the surreal exhaustion of it, pushed you into this headspace that sounds amazing creatively. You talk about looking at the spot where the ceiling and the wall meet and seeing “the seam crack open, revealing a horizon of white light and red lava.” That image seems like one that could exist within the world of Crystal Eaters.
The foundation of Crystal Eaters is a family drama and coming-of-age story, but it’s all taken apart by the logic of the crystal worship and the chaos of the universe. And it does connect to fatherhood and my early experiences with being a father. The book would have been more fantasy and less about family dynamics and death if it wasn’t for the fact that I was working on it while my wife was pregnant. And after Julian was born, I was still writing and editing, sleeping in naps, thinking things like, How do I take care of a human being? Seeing my son born, seeing him grow, pushed me to work harder than ever before. It’s a very personal book.
Mom and Dad are okay parents in some ways, but they’ve lost touch with one child, who is in jail—and with their daughter Remy, their interactions are filled with small failures of communication and compassion. There’s a moment when Remy thinks her crystal count has been lowered from “damaging parents’ words entering my brain.”
There’s an old interview with Martin Amis where he talks about his parents passing and he says that when his father died, he felt a great surge of energy, a real willingness to work and live. But when his mother died, he felt like the air got sucked out of him. Her death left this great big hole and he didn’t want to do anything. When Crystal Eaters is about to close, the family draws in and connects, physically, to Mom. She’s reached zero crystals—she becomes this void that the others can fall into, and her daughter, Remy, is the one who will fill it. We know Mom’s going to die. How do you approach the inevitable? The figure of the mother is the ultimate life force, and to see any mother die is brutal.
That question—how do you approach the inevitable?—seems so central to Crystal Eaters, not only in this context of Mom but with the idea of a crystal count in general—the possibility of knowing how much time you have left. Were the crystals always part of the book?
I work a day job, and part of it involves political campaign work. I was in Rochester in 2010 in some massive campaign office and I started writing down a list of ideas. “Crystal count” was the first thing I wrote in this list of about a hundred things. We’re all haunted by the fact we are going to expire, and what we do against it, or don’t do, defines us. And even in that defining, we know, deep down, that it may be meaningless. It’s like that Thomas Bernhard quote—“Everything is ridiculous in the face of death.” The crystals were always part of the book, but other stuff did change. The original draft had an entire storyline taking place in the city. You got to see everything. That was a bad idea—it made the city seem less menacing, and the way the book is now, you just get glimpses of it until the end, when it really explodes on you.
At the end of Crystal Eaters, both the family and the world at large are collapsing in radical ways, but there’s still a lot of beauty to be found—imagistically, the togetherness of the family at the end. And I don’t mean beauty in the slight, decorative sense, but more like I never lost that feeling of human possibility. What did you want to leave the reader with?
It’s a complicated ending because you have all these connections happening. The family, for the first time, gathers and physically connects around the dying mother. The sun comes in to connect to the earth and the black crystals. But these connections come with an ending. Personally, the idea that the earth is going to be erased by the sun is thrilling. I wish I’d be around to see it. There will be another beginning. Toward the end of the book, Remy tells a doctor that Mom is a red giant because of her red color, from her illness—this is something I learned while watching a relative die, how the skin on the legs sometimes turns into this red shell. But the term also means the future sun. A red giant is always expanding and growing—so Mom doesn’t really die, she lives in the form of the sun. I wanted to leave the reader feeling completely obliterated, carved out, but also inside that carving out a feeling of possibility.
Laura van den Berg is the author of the story collection The Isle of Youth and the novel Find Me, which will be published in early 2015.