Crystal Eaters, the latest novel by Shane Jones, is not about people jacked on crystal meth, but instead is itself a form of drugs. “I don’t do drugs, I am drugs,” Salvador Dali famously said. This is a book inspired by that same sentiment, comprised of such a fantastic and constantly deforming set of characteristics that it feels designed not of this world, but as a way through it.
What crystals are—at least to those surviving in the landscape of Crystal Eaters—is a measurement of personal mortality. Each body and object has within them a set number of crystals, and once those are depleted, you will die. One can only extend their lifespan by gathering more crystals, as if this were a video game about death. Thus, all of the characters in Crystal Eaters are installed from the beginning with a strange sense of desperation and fervor, one quite unlike plain characters on a page. And when we realize that with each page turned inside this book the page number is going down rather than up, it becomes clear that this experience has a half-life like drugs sent through the bloodstream. The window is closing the deeper we press in.
What erupts under this strange and magical premise is hypercolor in its range. The narrative shifts through an abstruse but consistently potent range of styles and perspectives—a young boy named Remy; Remy’s sick mother, whose crystal count is deathly low; a prisoner named Pants McDonovan, brother of Remy; various omniscient voices that crop up through the text like gods—each of whom, in addition to the concern over their crystals, simmers under pressure in the world, as everywhere the heat is high and a nearby city is growing over their village’s landscape. Jones demonstrates a tightrope-like eye for finagling between Pynchon-esque quasi-science-fictional feelings and the book’s physics, allowing almost anything to happen at any time, wrapped in a Wallace-like grip of childlike awe.
The result is a novel that, paragraph to paragraph, is alive with imagination. Black as its subject matter is, the magnetic flair with which Jones turns any dreamlike will he wishes into the reality at hand is as charming as it is terrifying. There is a physics and a feeling to this book that exists exactly nowhere else, and yet seems not so far at all from where we’re headed. All throughout it there is the tone of what it feels like to wake up from an insane and vibrant dream, knowing that within minutes of being awake you’ll have forgotten, and never experience that feeling again. In this way, Crystal Eaters is the rarest of kinds of objects, one that replenishes its readers’ crystal counts by simply being read. Here's a choice excerpt, below.
Dog = 40
Ant = 3
Bird = 10
Mold = 678
Baby = 100
Mother’s tear = half
Plant = 230
Remy = unknown
Cat = 39
Spit = partial
Cloud = 88
Horse = unknown
Moon = 4,000
Frog = 12
City = infinite
Village = always falling
Tree = 480
Fly = 4
Sun = 10,000
Rabbit = 8
Mirror = reflective of object
Dirt = infinite
Pinecone = 7
Lamb = 22
Air = infinite
Flower = 1
Crystal count is depleted gradually over time but can be drastically decreased by events. Getting hit by a truck would most likely erase a baby’s one hundred. If the baby survived, wrapped in a tiny full-body cast, her count would be similar to a rabbit’s. Her count would no longer be a shining triangle of one hundred perfectly stacked crystals inside her body because it would resemble scattered shale.
The village survives on myth.
There is the story of Royal Bob, a myth so old it is easily dismissed today, but a story that is still told. Royal Bob is the first person to find a black crystal. He boiled it down into dark syrup that he sipped for decades. Seen running at night in blue shorts, mouth open, grinning, head tilted back with his gray hair stretching twenty feet behind him, dogs weaving in and out. Royal Bob rarely spoke, never entered daylight, but the myth says he preached several times at night, in a mine tunnel, about the black crystal to the elderly. His body was never found. All the glass tubes were empty inside his home – the elderly slowly walking the halls, picking up the glass tubes by thumb and finger and dropping them into burlap sacks. Some say Royal Bob lives inside the mine where he runs endlessly through the tunnels. You can see his hair. Some say Royal Bob will never be zero because he’s forever filled with black crystal. Some say his soul is tethered to the gravity of all village dirt. Others say he escaped into the city so he could destroy it. But no one knows because a myth is a myth.
The oldest books advise worshiping the crystals excavated from the mine. Today these practices are limited, deemed antiquated and pointless by many. Most crystals, especially red and green, are for selling now. The yellow are melted and poured through machines. Red crystals become knick-knacks displayed on tables and mantels. Few believe in their healing powers. But the mining still continues at a high rate, day and night, because it’s what they’ve always done and they need the yellow (YCL) for their lamps, refrigerators, and generators.
Discussing your count in the village is like discussing the weather in the city.
Count is not a city belief. They want to take over the village. Those in the city have little understanding of the village and are comfortable with destroying it and capturing the crystal mine because it’s all so different from their way of life. The city believes in the new ways of progress, not the old ways of tradition and simplicity. Many use The Bend not only as a curved road to jog, but to look in at the village and wonder why they live the way they do. They bring binoculars and get drunk and stare. Legislation has been passed to install high-powered stand-alone “binocular stations” costing taxpayers fifteen thousand dollars, including the salary of a part-time “binocular attendant” and not one complaint to date has been filed. The city lives like it will never die.
Remy spends hours touching her stomach, trying to predict her count. She wants a hundred crystals shining like a campfire. When she looks at herself in the bathroom mirror she only sees the dark and wonders if she’d be prettier if she lived in the city, had lipstick, dresses, shampoo infused with rose oil, sunglasses that cover her face.
Once, she saw green crystals in the corner of her eye. Four of them hung like beads of water from her eyelid and when she ran downstairs to show Mom they broke into a pea-green pool clouding her vision.
“I swear they were there.”
“I know,” said Mom, inspecting Remy’s eye. It wouldn’t stop blinking. “I’ve seen them before.”
“As a baby they blinded you.”
“The body is small then and the crystals are everywhere. Sometimes, they come out.”
“And now they’re gone?” said Remy. She blinked and touched her eye.
“And now,” said Mom, pulling Remy’s hand from her face, “they’re gone.”
She thinks about her parents, and Brother in prison, and wonders who is closest to exhaling their final crystal. Who will become a husk? Who will become zero? She thinks Definitely Mom. She thinks Then Dad. She thinks Then just me filling up their space.
Mom’s illness diminishes Dad because he is helpless against it and is forced to fall back on vague coping mechanisms of, “She is sick and losing, and it’s natural. Let the process be the process.” He crushes everything inside. Emotion comes in outbursts, the occasional closed eyes and biting-his-bottom-lip while standing over the kitchen sink, washing dishes with the sun seeping in hot and ugly. Remy hates the way he moves through the house – slowly and with caution – as if he knows, selfishly, egotistically, that he’s the one who will hear her last breath.
Dad shouted about count through every wall, floor, and ceiling in the house last night. “Doesn’t she understand you start with a hundred and then you lose them,” he said. Mom sat in bed, covered in dandelion-print sheets and used the spitting cloth to expel the color red. “It’s simple,” he said.
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