It’s a novel reminiscent of Don Quixote, some stories in the Christian Bible, and accounts of other eccentrics, but it’s remarkable on its own merits for breaking with narrative orthodoxies while uncovering what is soulful and heartbreaking about its characters. And, yes, it has that hallucinogenic combo of being fucked-up and beautiful. — Jason DeYoung
“The cry of terror called forth by the unfamiliar becomes its name.”
—Max Horkheimer & Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment
“Beauty in novels is important to me,” Shane Jones says in a recent BOMB interview. “I really don’t care for novels that have an agenda, a political statement, a sassy take on contemporary society. Give me something fucked-up and beautiful.” Wistful yet playful, Shane Jones’s novel Daniel Fights a Hurricane wrings out an unsettling story about madness and suffering for love. It’s a novel reminiscent of Don Quixote, some stories in the Christian Bible, and accounts of other eccentrics, but it’s remarkable on its own merits for breaking with narrative orthodoxies while uncovering what is soulful and heartbreaking about its characters. And, yes, it has that hallucinogenic combo of being fucked-up and beautiful.
Daniel Fights a Hurricane is Shane Jones’s second novel. His first novel, Light Boxes (2009), is one of those rare books first published by an indie press (Publishing Genius Press out of Baltimore) and subsequently purchased and reprinted by a “big house” (Penguin Books, in this case). I’ve long admired Penguin for taking chances on gifted writers who don’t fit the mold, and Light Boxes is not standard big publisher fare. It’s about a town—perhaps imaginary—under siege by February, who might be the author of the novel Light Boxes. February is punishing the townsfolk for flying hot-air balloons. The townies, along with a group of rogue balloonists known as the Solution, go to war with February. It’s bonkers. But it’s a deeply felt novel about depression and hope, with characters emoting genuine reactions to their odd circumstances. Along with Light Boxes, Jones has published two other books: A Cake Appeared, a book of poems; and The Failure Six, a novella
While Daniel Fights a Hurricane (Daniel) shares some spirited similarities with Light Boxes, it is a more fleshed-out novel. Daniel tells the story of a husband and a wife—Daniel and Karen—and it splits narratively between two different worlds. One is the “real” world, a reality where Daniel works on an oil pipeline. The other is Daniel’s imagination, an imaginary world slowly taking over, perhaps because he wants it to, as he says, “[it] is haunting, but so beautiful that I want to live [it].” When Daniel is fired from his job, his imagination grows larger, and he further removes himself from reality by living in a tipi in the woods.
Shane Jones says this about Daniel’s structure:
[O]ne part of the book, containing the sections with Daniel, is a tree. The tree is growing straight up into the sky. In this part, I can do whatever I want, I have total freedom in creation. The tree is uncontrollable and just insanely growing. The other part of the book—the one with Karen—is based on reality, and is like vines growing around the tree. The vines and the tree are separate but every once in a while, they cut into each other, and you have this intersection of the parts with Daniel and the parts with Karen.
So let’s start first with that uncontrollable imagination, which become more like hallucinations as the novel progresses.
In his dreamscape, Daniel is assembling a different sort of pipeline from the one he’s hired to build in reality. The fantasy pipeline is meant to go to the ocean to provide water for his imaginary town. Daniel is “responsible for the pipeline” and the town is thirsty; just the other day a baby died. True, you can’t survive on seawater, so one doesn’t know how this is going to help those parched children, so it’s best not to question Daniel’s dreamscape too much. Though sequence and consequence exists, his realm of pure imagination runs primarily on free association and self-suggestion.
Within his dreamscape a number of misfit characters help to build this pipeline. There is Iamso, a poet man-child, who writes poems to tell Daniel how he feels. There is the Two-Second Dreamer, who sleeps for two seconds and dreams for anyone who needs a new dream. There is the Man with the Tattoos, who is covered in tats of Daniel’s imagined town. And then there is Peter, who is also known as the World’s Most Beautiful Man with the World’s Worst Teeth. These characters beg for a Freudian or Jungian reading, especially with Iamso’s eventual take over. (I am so. Get it?) But, in fact, Daniel has this intoxicating feel of endlessness to it, and the novel as a whole contains such a mysterious arrangement of metaphor and contrast that it’s ripe for many readings and interpretations.
Pipeline construction, however, is just an impediment to Daniel’s search for his imaginary wife, the novel’s primary thrust. In the real world, Karen Suppleton is Daniel’s estranged wife, who after years of dealing with his mental breaks from reality, has had enough, and has recently left him. But, in the dreamscape, Helena is Daniel’s wife, and she has inexpiably disappeared.
Throughout the novel, Daniel has near misses with Helena, while other characters see her and point him in her direction. Daniel’s psychosis will not allow him to be happy. In an effort perhaps to regain some dominance over his dream, Daniel decides to “take” a new Helena, yet his imaginary friends (side kicks? minions? gremlins?) concoct a ceremony in which Daniel closes his eyes, they spin him twice, whereupon he opens his eyes and the new Helena is gone: “Go and find her… She’s somewhere around the mountain,” says Iamso. This doesn’t just make for a good way to nudge the plot along, but gets to something at Daniel’s core. If his strongest desire is to live in his fantasy world—a world he finds so beguiling—then he has to remain unfulfilled. As Norwegian novelist Stig Sæterbakken once wrote: “We want to hold onto our strongest desires. We want to remain unfulfilled. We want to be alive.”[*]
Along with this cast of friends, what also keeps Daniel unfulfilled is the Hurricane. Even at the slightest hint of a breeze Daniel begins to worry. What is the Hurricane? “It’s my fear. It’s the fear,” Daniel says. Since childhood, the Hurricane has churned his madness. But it isn’t a storm as we might think of it (though an actual hurricane does appears late in the novel). The Hurricane of Daniel’s imagination morphs, taking on different incarnations. At times it’s a garbage collector, a pack of wild children, a sky beast with claws, a faceless storm that “scream[s] ocean” and breaks “the sky in odd angles”—but no one knows. Mid-way through the novel, one of Daniel’s imaginary friends creates more confusion by writing a list of what the Hurricane might be—“black magic, Godlike spirit, the horizon moving, everyone’s vision of death combined, optical-illusion hologram, mountain growing.” Whatever it is, it is usually a manifestation of something primal and terrifying.
Admittedly, I’m writing about the imagination section in broad strokes. It’s a dream, a hallucination, a fantasy and its velocity is as such, turbulent, moving fast, taking odd turns, sometimes lighthearted, sometimes dark. And it’s quite astounding how much adventure Jones packs into such a slim novel, taking his reader on a frenzied ride through Daniel’s imagination, which includes battles with the Hurricane, searches for lost loves, the invention of graffiti, identity switches, menacing spinsters, a man who calls himself a villain, and on and on, ever surprising:
“My skin sprouted dogs that ran from the beach.”
“The Hurricane throws a handful of mashed-together birds past the bedroom window.”
“I stayed up all night thinking about what’s real and what isn’t. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference.”
As the tree of Daniel’s imagination reaches greater heights, the vine of Karen’s story coils the tree. Karen broods through much of the novel. She sees their estrangement as her betrayal, and she is as tormented by her disloyalty as Daniel is by the Hurricane. She searches within herself for the strength to go find Daniel, to save him from fantasy. As the novel progresses, her plot and Daniel’s become essentially the same. While Daniel is in his dreamscape looking for his lost wife, Helena, Karen is in reality searching for her lost husband, Daniel. It gives the novel a finely tuned double-arced symmetry.
Not just the plots mirror, but imagery reverberates, too. When Karen goes to the grocery, she experiences the marketing spectacle of boom and mist as the spray system in the produce department freshens the vegetables. During one of her soul-searching scenes, she meditates on the bubbles in spring water, while in the dream Daniel nearly drowns in seawater fighting the Hurricane. Even their mental states echo, as they both share moments where they try to grasp their identities:
“My name is Karen Suppleton. And my ex-husband, mind [is] unraveling somewhere in a forest…”
“My name is Daniel. My wife is missing…”
These statements work two ways. First they are a reminder to the reader of the individual plots, but they also give the two plots a kind of cohesion. They are heartbreaking moments, when Karen and Daniel are separately trying to steady themselves within the chaos.
When the two finally reunite, they do not recognize each other. Daniel has been living in his tipi in the woods for some time, hallucinating his heroic quest to find Helena. When Karen approaches him, he sees her though the gauzy fever-dream of a starved man. It’s a story that can’t end happily, and moments later the only “real” hurricane in the book hits and pulls them apart once again. As Daniel has done repeatedly in his imagination, Karen now has to fight to survive the hurricane, ironically named Hurricane Daniel.
For as complex as this novel is the prose and storytelling are sparklingly clear. Jones weaves skillfully between the two worlds, keeping the logic and sense of both. A different writer might have opted for odd or tortured sentence constructions to tell this story, but Jones has wisely chosen to keep things straightforward and unadorned:
I see the Hurricane as a monster who walks on water and bumps his head on the sky. He stops and unhinges his jaw. Underwater villagers put ladders up to his mouth. They climb up with burlap bags of salt slung over their shoulders and empty the knife-cut bags onto his tongue. When he’s had enough, the Hurricane walks again. The ladders fall away, and the villagers dive, splash, into the ocean. Clouds of salt dust fill the air that the Hurricane runs to gobble up, his feet smashing against the ocean in steel-drum echoes.
But Jones doesn’t mind tinkering with font size and presentation. Lists and poems appear throughout the book along with glyph-like drawing which accompany the text. During one of the search party scenes near the end of the novel, an entire page is given over to the word DANIEL which appears six times, each in a different size font, each with a different letter repeated to denote the elongated intonations of Karen’s calls. On the other hand, the font might decrease a few picas when characters whisper. In such an expressionistic novel as Daniel, these visual tweaks never feel gratuitous or strained. Instead, they’re used to great effect as a pianist might play keys softly or righteously bang out a note. Additionally, Jones proves the notion of sticking to a singular point-of-view bogus by collaging first and third person with agility.
As in Light Boxes, there’s something extravagant about Daniel with its unabashed mythmaking, fantastic imagery, and whimsical plot turns. Daniel’s imagination is an electrifying and vast place, filled with exotic animals and pipelines, origami and strange weapons; it’s a place of curious freedom to indulge everything quixotic. Daniel’s story is rich with odd yet sympathetic characters, too, which makes for engrossing reading and doesn’t diminish the fact that it’s imaginary. Though paradoxically it’s all a work of the imagination. The densely twined dreamscape vs. reality puts the story of its “real” people—Daniel and Karen—in sharp relief. Their story—about a man who doesn’t get the help he needs, and his wife’s betrayal and search for redemption—is quite different. Daniel Fights a Hurricane is a trying and conflicting novel, at once beautiful and fun in its construction and storytelling, yet an astonishingly serious and sad story at its core.
[*] Stig Sæterbakken, “Why I Always Listen to Such Sad Music.” Music & Literature. Issue 1, Fall 2012. Tran. by Stokes Schwartz.
Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His fiction has appeared most recently in Corium, The Los Angeles Review, Numéro Cinq, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2012.