Hybrid Interview: Shane Jones
In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. —CRAFT
Essay by J.A. Tyler •
There was something about Shane Jones’s new novel Vincent and Alice and Alice that held me at bay. I’m a huge fan of his work, loved his previous novels, have admired his style for years. So, what was it about this new one? I was privy to an advance copy of his latest release, and I wasn’t in love. Why wasn’t I in love?
Jones’s breakout novel Light Boxes was tremendous: a place where February never ends, where flight is banned, a land of sky-abductions and secret committees, a world of the surreal simultaneously whimsical and gray. Jones’s sophomore novel, Daniel Fights a Hurricane, his first work to have its initial release through a mainstream press (Penguin), shared many of those earlier bouts of poetic and surreal charm too, and carried its own weight of invention. Jones’s phenomenal third novel, Crystal Eaters, published under the indie darlings at Two Dollar Radio, is built around a world where crystal counts determine longevity and magical intricacies define its rampant mining town. It was a knockout, with writing both aggressive and poetic, grounded yet surreal.
Fast forward to Vincent and Alice and Alice, which I read voraciously, then put down at the end not feeling all aglow. The novel shows Jones’s affinity for the dreamlike, introducing us to the dubious feature of a “gate,” a corporate element allowing workers to perceive their best lives while still actually trotting out the mundane existence of their original livelihoods. The gate steps up their efficiency and makes the workers feel nearly untouchable, except for Vincent, who doesn’t really care about the boredom of his work, who instead uses the gate in an attempt to reestablish a blown relationship with Alice. Meanwhile, this “new” Alice let through the gate begins to wander in Vincent’s life, until it seems he’s maybe incapable of keeping a relationship even in an ideal setting, with both Alice’s cooling to him.
I read in a magazine that if you don’t see the person you love for thirty consecutive days they disintegrate. I haven’t seen Alice in one hundred and seventy-eight days. That means all through space she is suspended bone dust, floating arteries, unraveling veins.
Vincent and Alice and Alice is a novel in which Jones takes the real world and adds a fraction of the surreal, a pinch of whimsy, unlike his previous novels, which mostly did the reverse: adding a touch of real to the fantastic. This, for me, is what sets it apart, what kept me from instantly Twitter-flag-waving about it after the first read.
“What’s wrong with you?”
She slumps her shoulders and walks across the kitchen, away from the coming storm now slapping the lilac tree from side-to-side. Here comes Alice, across two hundred days until her body is pressed against mine.
“Sorry for being mean,” she mumbles. “Just had a rough day. Love you.”
“I love you too.” My brain is boiling and my legs are liquid. I put my arms around her and my hands don’t move through her.
Vincent and Alice and Alice is like a horror novel set in an office where no one dies and bloodshed is traded for copy machines and computers. It is frightening. And I realize now that I didn’t fall in immediate love because I was scared, disturbed by what Jones has done to regular life, how he has layered it with the awful reality of loss and regret, how he is showing the truth of our relationships, so often plagued with the inescapable, so many moments of our lives irretrievably trampled by the need to work and work and work, until our home is a hull.
So hypothetically speaking, Alice could walk into a black hole to preserve herself. But from her perspective, if she stood waving from inside the black hole for me to enter and be with her, I would be speeding up. She’d see me accelerating into the future, stars smeared to the sides as she remained in a forever second. So for us to stop the gate we would need to walk together, hand-in-hand, leg-to-leg, hip-to-hip, into the black hole.
Vincent and Alice and Alice is profound. It doesn’t allow for the reader to practice cartwheels in the lawn of the surreal. Instead, it tackles us much closer to the real world, giving a crushing commentary on work and living and relationships. As always, Jones has a command of language above and beyond the typical, but here he’s also harnessing the usual and practical in order to demurely burst its seams. His punchy mastery on the sentence level is only icing on the cake of this frighteningly too-close-to-home premise, making Vincent and Alice and Alice exactly what it is: a startling and grotesque mirror.
Everyone thinks in twenty years we’ll be living in a dystopia, all storefronts blasted out, bankers’ heads on spikes, but in twenty years I just think that no one will care. The protestors will give up when they learn how powerful and indifferent the State is.
J.A. Tyler: When you were a kid, what did you want to grow up to be?
Shane Jones: A vet[erinarian]. I wanted to help animals. But I had awful grades in school, was a terrible student. There was no way I would have made it. I originally went to college to become a physical therapist but failed out after a semester.
JAT: Did you ever return to college?
SJ: I did go back after going to community college for a bit. I became obsessed with poets like Bob Creeley and Susan Howe and Charles Bernstein and they were all at SUNY Buffalo so I moved out there for five years.
JAT: And now, do you work a regular nine-to-five job?
SJ: I work a very regular and normal nine-to-five job. I like the routine of it.
JAT: How much of that routine, that job, is inherent in the writing of VAAAA? Or how much was avoided when writing the novel?
SJ: I think the basic framework of an office setting is part of the book, but it doesn’t resemble my office too much. VAAAA’s atmosphere is too wobbly and heightened to reflect one hundred percent of an office really. I avoided calling it Albany (where I work) and instead said the city/town was A-ville. That was a choice I made because I didn’t want people to read Albany and then have their own vision of what it was, and if they do know Albany it’s usually negative. I wanted a blank slate.
JAT: How much of VAAAA is also made to be a similar sort of blank slate or reset from your previous novels?
SJ: A total reset and blank slate. I wanted a new voice and a new style and a totally different direction. For the most part I wanted to become a new writer.
SJ: To try something different, to cross a new bridge and see where it lands. I was also trying to write a mainstream novel and get a big advance.
JAT: Where do you feel like it landed, and how do you like the result of this crossing?
SJ: I think it landed in new territory for me and that’s exciting. I like the result; I’m pleased with the book. I’ve been trying to read other novels published this year and each time I start reading one I know my book is much stronger.
JAT: I’m curious: Out of the books published this year, which was your favorite and why?
SJ: I’ve thought the most about Animalia by [Jean Baptiste] Del Amo because the language is so heightened and the story so atmospheric—you can smell every page.
JAT: What is the most satisfying part of writing for you?
JAT: Tell me about your editing process—pen / pencil, reading out loud, digital—how do you go about it and what are you looking to shear or disrupt in a work-in-progress as you edit?
SJ: I do everything you mentioned. I remember with this book sitting in my car during my lunch break from work and reading out loud to myself. I draft quickly and edit until I can’t take it anymore or I can open the manuscript to a random page, read a random paragraph, and not want to scream or feel totally embarrassed. Some days I spent several hours on one page. Mostly it’s a gut reaction as far as what to cut, sometimes what to add. With VAAAA the stress was on the pace, how the story unfolded. I don’t think there’s any magic to it, it’s just work.
JAT: I like that about a random page, a random paragraph. Did VAAAA go through much more revising / editing once it was with Gian at Tyrant Books, and what was that process like?
SJ: Well, he cut an entire last chapter from Alice’s point of view in the future. I think that was a smart move but now I wonder if it should have stayed to explain Alice more, how in her gate she sees Vincent. Then some minor line edits. It was a solid process—laid-back and fun.
JAT: If VAAAA had a soundtrack, what would a few of the songs be?
SJ: Baha Men “Who Let the Dogs Out,” and Tom Waits “Green Grass.”
JAT: If VAAAA had a rival book, which would it be and why?
SJ: A rival? VAAAA has no rival.