Review: Crystal Eaters, by Shane Jones

18220681>>Published: July 2014

>>Finally got around to it: March 2015

“You wanted to see.”

Remy’s shoulders fold inward and her stomach absorbs a hammer. Sharp pieces of crystal trickle down inside her. She’s never seen a body get this far.

Mom’s face has lost meat the skull once held. And Dad was right, something is wrong with her mouth, as if she chewed bricks. Her eyes are glazed and rust-colored. Soon, her left eye will drip crystals (Chapter 5, Death Movement, Book 8). Her nose is hardened ash that Remy imagines if she touched would crumble. Gray hair gunked with shit fans her pillow. Dad repeats Can you hear us? Can you? Are you okay? and Remy thinks Don’t leave me. Smell of dead dogs. Smell of burning. She peels the blanket from Mom’s feet and sees the skin is a darker red compared to her face and neck, and even her veins, once strong and blue, have disappeared beneath this new red shell. A lack of circulation results in the color red drying everything up, erasing the last crystals in the body (Chapter 9, Death Movement, Book 8). The red is moving toward her chest and aiming to stop her heart.

“You don’t have to be here,” says Dad, in a softer tone now that he’s seen Remy’s reaction. “I know you’ve heard this before, from me, from books, and maybe you don’t believe it, but it’s never been disproved. Parents go and their children step into their place. There’s nothing wrong with just letting that happen.”

***

And then there are the books you desperately want to like, though they just never seem to work, no matter how interesting the central conceit first appears.

Shane Jones’ Crystal Eaters is more of an attempt at crafting a modern-day fable than it is a novel. The story focuses on Remy, a young girl living in a nameless village that believes in the crystal count—that everyone, when they are born, has one hundred crystals inside of them, and that through illness, disease, accidents, etc., their count gradually plummets toward zero—toward death. The count never increases; life moves in only one direction. In many ways, the imagined system is similar in concept to the lives in a video game, though considerably less structured.

Early on, we discover that Remy’s mother is dying—her count is almost down to nothing (reflected physically by the book’s unconventional structure—beginning at chapter 40 and page 183, and counting down to the end). Her brother Pants is in prison, and her father is distant. Therefore, it is up to Remy to do what no one else has ever done and find a way to increase her mother’s dwindling crystal count. Meanwhile, the city—the world outside—is encroaching on the village with abject disregard (and confusion) toward the crystal mine and the village’s seemingly absurd beliefs.

As implied at the start of this review, I had a great many problems with Crystal Eaters. The story offers a unique idea at its core, but it doesn’t manage to grow beyond the gestation stage—the concept just never takes hold. Much of the issue rests with the fact that Jones never seems to fully commit to the strangeness of the crystal count culture. The people in the village, as it is described, see and interact with the crystals, though to the outside world it is a baffling, illogical conceit. And even among the outside world there seems to be different levels of acknowledgement—from the guard who tells Pants that the village’s problem is that it believes in rocks and not God (thereby acknowledging the village’s belief in the crystal count) to the people at the hospital at the end, caring for Remy’s mother in her final moments, who appear to be utterly confused by even the mention of crystals.

To take this a step further, the comment made about believing in God versus believing in rocks illustrates an even deeper problem with this book. Jones presents the city at one point as a godless device—evidence of secular humanistic progress threatening to overwhelm an old-world belief structure (development crushing religion beneath its thumb)—but then introduces the concept of God in the aforementioned conversation with Pants, revealing that the crystals are not, as initially assumed, an analogue for faith versus science/technology/progress, but are their own isolated offshoot akin to a splinter group of a larger faith, one nearing the end of its existence. And then, later, when it’s revealed that while the crystals are the very essence of life to those in the village, they also market them to the outside world for use in jewellery or New Age yoga practices. This again shatters the analogue by stripping the metaphor—the crystals—of any semblance of otherworldly impact or effect, turning them into little more than a trinket.

Short of the outside world feeling confusion at the village dwellers, there’s also little to no indication that they are even grounded within the same reality, and that all that is different between them are their beliefs. The village in this story seems to exist in a bubble, which I found frustrating and negatively affected any hope of narrative cohesion. It’s as if the city (the outside world) isn’t so much a threat to the village as it is a character in a different story altogether. What this all means is that Crystal Eaters never successfully marries its metaphor to the story being told. It never goes far enough with the conceit, preferring to leave it as a surface-level idea unwilling to throw enough of its weight in any one direction. It’s like a designer setting an image deliberately off-centre in an attempt to unsettle its viewers, but not going far enough that it doesn’t appear to be a mistake.

It’s stated somewhere near the start of the book that “The village survives on myth, but myths generally have a root to them, a set of rules, and the village in Crystal Eaters doesn’t ever establish its own rule set, rather it seems to exist both in its mythology, but also attempts to have a place in the real world. Jones attempts to blur the lines with things like the black crystal, which is analogous to both addiction and faith-based reliance (providing the illusory effect of one’s crystal count increasing—like someone getting high and believing they are invincible). But the black crystal is a myth within an already loose mythology, and never seems like anything more than a red herring to distract Remy from the reality of her mother’s approaching death.

I feel as though I could have forgiven many of the book’s storytelling faults had I found more to love with its moment-to-moment writing. Here, too, Crystal Eaters falls unfortunately short. I found little to love in Jones’ often staccato writing. Ordinarily I am drawn to writing that breaks with convention, but in Jones’ case what was left out seemed essential. The conversations feel broken and fragmented, as if critical strands of dialogue have been unnecessarily excised in favour of abstraction. As a consequence of this, not one character voice seems different from another—everyone bleeds together in forced, truncated tones stripped of all colour (which is somewhat ironic given the attempt to flood the world with colour via use of the crystals). I also found much of the sentence structure to be distractingly passive and just not engaging.

When all is said and done, Crystal Eaters feels less like a novel, or even a fable, and more like a short story blown out but not filled out. It reads like the first pass of an idea that might have proven interesting had it been more thoroughly/tonally developed (the imagery is too one-dimensional—throw in the word “crystal” and suddenly everything’s weird and metaphorical!). I do appreciate what I think Jones was going for on a conceptual level, but it just never arrived at its destination for me. The book felt, sadly, like an idea executed but not ever realized.

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