Crystal Eaters by Shane Jones
Every moment is a countdown. From the second characters in Shane Jones's Crystal Eaters are born, they're losing crystals. Losing time. "It feels good to believe in one hundred," Remy tells us in the story's first line. Each page of the book counts down, instead of up. It feels good to believe there is time left, that she has some sense of the limited number she's facing. Crystal Eaters dances on the line between fantasy and reality, allegory and legend.
A village myth says the sun will rage war on the earth. This is not a myth. Another village myth says the city will move into the village and crush it, that the city is alive, that it's a creature who eats the small. This too is not a myth. A third village myth says the black crystals are reaching up and pulling on the sun's flames, but no one knows for sure if that's true or not. Could be just a myth.
The line between myth and reality is blurry. Jones wants us to know that it is perspective that distinguishes one from the other.
People in Crystal Eaters are always counting and trying to replenish their life stores. Village-dwellers believe they can do this through the consumption of different colored crystals, each of differing value. The story centers on a small family in the village: its daughter, Remy, runs wild though the crystal mines and wants desperately to save her mother who is dying from a mysterious illness. Her father suppresses all of his emotions as his wife fades away. Remy's brother, head of a resistance movement (glaringly named Adam), is in prison for much of the book, but he might hold the key to longevity in his black crystals. The book uses old motifs -- the search for a fountain of youth, archetypal settings of "the village" and "the city" -- but they feel fresh in Jones's capable hands.
Remy is most conscious of the looming countdown, even naming her dog Hundred as a reflection of the perfect whole number that represents life. She feels her life draining away as a synesthetic experience. When her dog dies, she "[looks] at the blue sheet's shape on the table she pulls herself through every negative moment resulting in a lower number." Like her, other characters remember accidents or emotional trauma in terms of how they lower their numbers. Each living thing has a limited number, as we are told in chapter thirty-seven:
Dog = 40
These are not years, per se. Each living thing's crystal count seems to be a measure of how much it can handle, how many years or traumas it can experience before its light extinguishes. Yet midway through the story we realize that this crystal system is limited to village belief. "The city," Remy tells us, "lives like it will never die."
It is this tension between within and without, between technology and legend, which elevates Jones's story above that of a nebulous fable. The juxtaposition of rural beliefs against the progress and frivolity of the city gives the countdown more intrigue. While village characters are consuming and cutting into themselves with crystals, a struggle to stay alive, city dwellers buy them for amusement.
Tonight's late-night undocumented batch will be sold to the city and used for engagement rings, special occasion earrings, displayed in New Age yoga studios, given to the hospital-sick for positive energy. They have their own crystals, but they don't have these crystals. Some will be sold to parents for their children who play a game called Lyfer, trade the crystals back and forth in a test of who can maintain closest to a hundred, the brightest colors worth extra.
This idea, as well as references to medicine and technology in the city, calls into question the validity of Remy's family beliefs. As readers, we don't know whether black crystals can save them or if this is false hope. Remy's mother bites into one and destroys her mouth. "She tried the black crystal and the sensation is an illusion to a rising number. Black crystal foams your eyes with what you think are crystals stacking inside your body, the pyramid growing, but it doesn't hold." The fact that even the slightest hope for a miracle cure lies in the crystals calls to mind our own obsessions with health, belief, and medicine.
What are our own beliefs, if not like those of the crystal eaters? Shane Jones creates a world where the rapid encroachment of the city, oppressive heat, and toil mean that people turn to belief in numbers. And crystals. They turn to the belief that if they can quantify life, they might be able to harness and extend it. That the city sits in opposition to the village way of life raises questions about how our limited worldview might affect our understanding of life. Ultimately, it's Adam's belief that seems to make the most sense. "He said that the true way to extend one's count was to have others remember you."
Crystal Eaters by Shane Jones
Two Dollar Radio