The Failure Six
(Fugue State Press, 2010)
A Jesse Ball magic mystery tour in a land of Calvino’s fables? With zany temporal shifts and winsome absurdities, Light Boxes, Shane Jones’s refractive first book, dispatches readers on just such a journey. Lyrical flights and evocative metaphors render the prose in poetic terms. In The Failure Six, Jones methodically dispenses with storytelling, surrendering the text to one strange and beautiful image after another:
The teahouse was tall and narrow, consisting of nineteen floors. The furniture was all wood, made by a carpenter who was a well-known acquaintance of the owner. Each floor had different-colored wallpaper and on each wall hung large paintings of country barns. All the wooden beams in the teahouse were covered in odd patches of red fur.
She saw a man in the nude. Yes, he was in the nude, very handsome, and she was as well, nude. Things were hazy. Fur-covered clouds were on the ceiling with little black crosses bobbing up and down.
Here, instead of a tale told from beginning to end, we have a sequence replayed five times with variations: a series of messengers are commissioned to retell an amnesiac’s life story. The message is simple: her name is Foe; she’s a linen and silk seamstress; her mother died in a car accident when she was 12; her father was killed in a duel by a man with a green mustache; and there was no one to comfort her when she began her apprenticeship. But Foe cannot or will not remember, none of the messengers are adequate to the task, and consequences follow.
You could look at The Failure Six as a parable on how memory always fails us; its central character isn’t named “Foe” for nothing. But this is no color-by-numbers morality tale. If, to quote Samuel Johnson, the true art of memory is the art of attention, then The Failure Six attends to the past’s elusive imprint, the future’s inevitable failure, to how forgetting may be a way toward unbecoming, and then toward becoming something else. It’s an exquisite memento of wildly imagined scenes, odd characters, and nightmares confused with waking life, a slipstream loop where bureaucracy and hallucination are so intertwined that you’re often confused which is the most absurd. This novella is a bright thing, something like a mostly forgotten, but still well-tooled memory that insists itself every so often.