It feels good to believe in one hundred.
They walk through the village wondering how many they have left. Everything is hit with sun. Tin roofs glare. Wooden structures glow. The city appeared at the horizon like a mountain range decades ago but it's close now – dangerously close and growing closer by the day – and believing in one hundred is a distraction. A long road connects the village to the crystal mine. A man named Z. mumbles his number and walks by the home of Remy.
Inside Remy's home Harvak the dog is on the table. With each breath his stomach balloons pink skin. His left eye drips crystal (Chapter 5, Death Movement, Book 8) and his count lowers. Remy thinks about lying face down and entering a place where she wouldn't hurt. She pets Harvak's head ten times but nothing happens. She touches a Harvak hair on his leg longer than the rest. When she pulls the hair like a rope attached to an anchor, fingers over fingers instead of hand over hand, the end result is a hole with zero inside. She spins the hair into a wreath. With one finger she taps the hole ten times but again nothing happens. (p. 183)
Shane Jones's latest novel, Crystal Eaters, is one of those novels that defy easy description. It is a novel of growing up, but no, that's not really it, as the focus is not on increases but decreases, as the chapter and page numbers illustrate. It might be just a novel about mortality, but then there are references to urbanization and familial life that do not jibe well with just this. It would be easy to dismiss it as merely a dreamscape, a surrealist piece that doesn't really connect with our quotidian lives, but those connects do exist. So what should we make of Crystal Eaters?
The key, I suspect, is not to "make" anything of it, but to take it in as it is and consider its various parts as possessing an internal consistency that might not be readily apparent. The core of the narrative revolves around a young girl, Remy, who has a sick mother who seems to be on the verge of death. She, along with the people of her local village, have this belief that objects possess a number of "crystals" (this may or may not be metaphorical, as there are real crystals as well) at birth that can be lost through various accidents or just natural aging that eventually lowers the count to 0, or death. Humans are born with 100, dogs with 40, for example, and as the book begins its countdown, Remy's dog, Harvak, has reached his end. Remy spends part of the next few chapters fretting over the accidents that lowered his crystal count before shifting her worry to her mother. She narrates the legend of a black crystal that may have the mythical power of reversing the crystal loss, prolonging a person's life. The majority of her narrative arc focuses on discovering this crystal and feeding it to her mother.
This alone would make for an interesting allegory, but Jones adds more layers to the narrative that deepen it and make it far more complex. Remy's brother, Pants, is in prison for something akin to dope running. It turns out that he has indeed discovered the mythical black crystal and has figured out that when ingested, it does do some interesting things to the human mind and body. Later, as his discovery spreads, the effects are shown in some very interesting ways. Jones in particular utilizes heat and vision descriptors to narrate these physiological changes. This creates an oddly distorted view of what is transpiring, as if the narration were viewed through the prism of a tweaker.
This is especially apparent with the rapid encroachment of the now-nearby city, with buildings sprouting up daily as though they were bamboo. This, along with the belief that the sun is steadily drawing closer to the black crystals that seem to be bursting upwards to embrace it, comprise two village beliefs. Jones revisits these beliefs through character observations about changes in horizontal perspective and in the shimmering quality of the heat as it plasters itself to the villagers. His vivid descriptions enhances the hallucinatory aspect to the narrative, making for a twisted reality that encompasses several elements at once without it ever seeming as disjointed as it should if it were told in a more traditional narrative form.
It is almost useless to discuss elements such as plot progression and character development here, as Jones's narrative plays more freely and loosely with time and space. There is a compression of both that occurs here, similar to that what many experience in their dreams. Readers subconsciously supply many of the details, not so much for events as for what their import might be. The result is a hazy story that contains elements of several allegories: death-fear, familial crisis, drug addiction, climate change, and urbanization dangers. Yet this list really does not get at the heart of Crystal Eaters. For that to occur, the reader herself would need to take it all in and twist it around a bit to suit herself. This may not be what many readers want to do, but Crystal Eaters is that rare sort of story that depends upon active reader contemplation in order for it to achieve its full effect. It certainly is one of the weirder stories that I've read this year, but it is one that I am glad that I read.