Reviewed by Elizabeth Bryer
This is one of those books that comes with baggage. Cult status? Check. Author plucked from obscurity? Check. Endorsement by guy with cultural cache? Check. (The latter was Spike Jonze, by the way, who at one stage acquired film rights to the title.) Light Boxes has certainly reached our shores amid much hype, which makes it easy to overlook the fact that it was written by Jones in his parents’ basement, and that when it was published by small indie press Publishing Genius, only 500 copies were sent out into the world (author and editor felt at the time that they were working on ‘a cool little art project’, nothing more). In other words, this is a book of tenuous beginnings, which makes its rising star all the more remarkable.
Penguin has created an appropriately whimsical cover and the book’s petite dimensions make it feel like a little treasure. The typography changes a lot (when characters whisper, for example, the font size is smaller, and when the perspective is from one character in particular, the section has a ragged right edge). Such variation has always felt a little gimmicky to me. But other aspects of the experimental layout are, to my eyes, a success: a few pages display only one sentence, which is clever because the white space around the type gives the distinct impression of the winter that is the subject of the book. This sense must have been more prominent in Publishing Genius’s edition, the cover of which was similarly spare.
Light Boxes is about a town that has endured the depth of winter (a personified ‘February’) for more than three-hundred days, with flight the latest thing to be banned. Multiple viewpoints describe what happens next in the war against this deity-like creature, with the vignettes eventually leading the reader toward a metafictional twist. The mood is sombre, with characters oscillating among, at the darker end of the scale, grief, despair and anger, especially when the townspeople’s children begin to disappear. But what prevails at all times is hope, which seems almost audacious, given that it is pitted against the might of February.
‘Saccharine’ seems to be the dismissal most often levelled at the work by Jones’ critics, but I enjoyed the occasional whimsical touches (the painting of balloons on the bottoms of teacups, for example; look out for a later reference to this act of rebellion, which made this reader smile). This is a book best read for the experience offered by its visual imagery and the atmosphere Jones manages to imbue in every line. The world Jones conjures constantly surprises with the breadth of imagination it encompasses.
I don’t know if Penguin planned to release this in Australia just in time for our winter but, if so, that was a clever ploy. But now that, after Sunday’s weather, we seem to be safely through to the other side, read this chilling, fantastical first novel in the sure comfort that winter is (almost) a memory. At least until next year.
Elizabeth Bryer’s writing has appeared in Australian literary journals. She has recently started a blog on reading, writing and translation called Plume of Words