Bitmaps and knit blankets both are based around grids, and the graphics that defined early video games look to a modern viewer as sharing a primitivism with folk art. Their geometric designs dictate that pixel art of an animal resembles a depiction that could occur in a woven tapestry. Shane Jones’ novel Crystal Eaters tells the tale of a village whose simplistic belief system is understandable in video game terms: Their folklore assigns every living thing a number, a crystal count, and this image of hexagonal crystal, imagined interlocking, is the engine on which the book builds its everything. Crystals are life, and while every living thing’s number diminishes to zero and death, they are also a material thing, findable outside the body, capable of being mined. In this form, colored yellow and red, they fuel the village’s economy, either melted into an energy source or traded as trinkets. The crystal can be understood as energy, and the book’s world, like our universe, can be understood in terms of math.
The employment of such language – of crystals, energy, and math, in terms almost interchangeable- can be understood as “drug talk.” Even within the book’s mythological confines, there is an idea understood as a myth, that black crystals, if found, can be used to extend life. In practice, the black crystals are a hallucinogen, the ingestion of which detours the story’s forward progress through time and space to shuffle its chosen images into something non-Euclidean, although they also give whichever character is using them the impression that they are being made healthy. But a momentary feeling of infinity only lasts so long, and the clock keeps ticking, in numbered chapters counting down from forty, foretelling mortality in form. By the time the reader learns that forty is the number every dog is born with, the first dog they’ve met is already dead.
Within the consistency of the novel’s system, the sun relates to the earth in a false physics, where it shares the human want: Hot weather is caused by the sun’s being as compelled towards black crystals as everyone else. “For weeks the temperature has only risen,” Jones writes, an escalation in contrast to the living’s subtraction that lends its own oppressive force.
The fear of death, and the search for a black crystal to heal her dying mother, drives one of the book’s protagonists, a young girl named Remy. That the black crystals do not actually extend life, and that the mother secretly is already in possession of such crystals, marks this plot thread something of a non-starter. Remy’s brother Pants, who supplied the mother with the crystals, is a more interesting character, defined by the deep hurt of regret. His incarceration, in a prison where guards use black crystals as a drug divorced from metaphysical significance, places him closer to something recognizably real than the novel’s other characters, and lends political overtones to a story that largely prefers the fable.
But to be bothered by the idea of death leads to nostalgia for the ignorance of youth, and when Jones writes “How exhilarating to be a child. He never wondered then when his body would register zero and all color would leave his body, mouth, eyes,” he explains his fascination with Remy’s character, finding an implicit tragedy in the idea of a morbid child. At another point he writes “The universe is a system where children watch their parents die.” The book, by focusing on Remy, values reminding readers that death is ever in the offing over the reality represented by Adam, that for as long as we live we do so mostly in memories of our past.
The novel is saturated by its own sense of nostalgia. Present in the village are enough comforts of civilization – television, indoor plumbing – to define its roots as the stuff of childhood of someone born in 1980. The city, which looms on the horizon and threatens to destroy it, is cataloged as a list of items that an adult in 2014 might be averse to and associate with capitalism. This includes prison and politicians, “screens” in the context of computers, but also yoga and monotheism. The book’s internalized longing for a suburban sense of childhood purity leads to goofs and flourishes, such as referring to a character known as Adam to his family using the name Pants McDonovan, that are potentially distracting. Reading the novel, and viewing it as, at least in part, a fable for the encroachment of modernity’s supposed civilizing qualities on a more folklore-based society, that imprisons those that resist, I wished that there had not been such a signifier of Irish ethnicity given to its characters. Jones, in positing his fable, seems to project his own upbringing as a universal standard.
What’s more truly relatable is the family unit, and this is the meat of the book. Some of the strongest portions of the book occur when the glare from the crystals abates enough to see these figures in detail. These moments, diving into characters’ pasts, are still focused on imagery above all, but choose as their totems blankets and underwear, things kept closer to the human body, rather than speaking of slush and holograms of horses. Likewise presented primarily as an image is the threat of the city, ever-growing in such a way that buildings come into being while humans sleep. This sort of inorganic growth reflects how the novel itself operates, introducing new characters for the sake of elaborating its fantasy. When the family ends up inside the city, in the realm of adulthood, they enter the hospital to do battle with Mom’s mortality, as the sun sears. The climax, in accordance with the rules of the game, sustains the crystalline gleam, marking the moments I consider “the strongest” as detours, minigames. The overall texture of the book is that of the most edible of all crystals, purified sugar, and like candy it seems more likely to stick to the teeth than the ribs.
– Brian Nicholson lives in Baltimore, MD. He is seeking venues to publish his fiction. He can be found on Twitter at @ownyouryogurt.