Shane Jones on the constant interchange between reality and the dreamworld in his latest novel, Daniel Fights a Hurricane.
Shane Jones’s new Daniel Fights a Hurricane (Penguin Books) is about Daniel, a pipeline worker who attempts to find solutions to both his failed marriage and the hurricane he fears is coming. In addition to Daniel’s estranged wife, an uncommon cast of characters sets out to help him confront this anxiety—one is the world’s most beautiful man who also has the world’s worst teeth; another is a young boy named Iamso who can write a poem that tells you exactly how you’re feeling. The resulting journey is an imaginative, heart-wrenching vision quest peppered with looming retail giants and rapidly approaching peril, all threaded together by the essential ache of loving and wanting to be loved.
Having been a great fan of Jones’ previous novel Light Boxes, and having recently published his fiction in the Grey Issue of Fairy Tale Review, I was excited to speak with him about his newest novel.
Alissa Nutting Hurricanes cause a wealth of unlikely combinations and mix-ups: semi-trucks lifted into trees, grocery storefront windows impaled by stop signs. It strikes me that the multifaceted aspects of this novel’s narrative make similar disparate unions: dreams crash into reality, mental illness bisects rational fears, and first and third-person perspectives alternate. How did you approach the challenge of what to blend, how much to blend it, and what boundaries to maintain?
Shane Jones I see the structure as this: one 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 trees 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. Does that make sense? I wanted the book to feel very organic, always changing and growing—to have things intersecting and falling apart. Hopefully that answer is artsy and pretentious enough to blast you through a wall.
AN Speaking of blasting and extreme force, the novel examines violence in really interesting ways—it seems like violence, as seen by these characters, has a direct correlation to not being in control.
SJ Yeah, absolutely. I also think that in writing scenes that are violent (and for Daniel it’s mostly violence via nature) I can expand the lyrical/poetic vibe. [William S.] Burroughs, in Wild Boys and Naked Lunch, uses violence to really blow-up his creepy lyrical style. I read a lot of Burroughs during the writing of Daniel.
AN One of the most painful moments of the novel for me was when Daniel was sitting in a Target parking lot. The juxtaposition of fantasy and reality within the narrative really points to the lack of whimsy in American society and Capitalism. Can you talk a bit about your decision to include things like McDonald’s references in a largely poetic text?
SJ I think it was necessary in order to counterbalance Daniel. I remember reading something where an editor or writer said that any time they see something like McDonald’s or Target in a novel they are immediately disgusted and stop reading. So, obviously I had to include those things. I also like being able to write in this kind of style, this hyper-imagistic stuff, and then have a set-piece like a Target parking lot on the next page. I like extremes and the challenge of writing those extremes.
AN How would you describe the relationship between creativity and coping, both in this novel and your life as a writer?
SJ Something I thought after I finished the book was that the book could be read as a metaphor for writing. I didn’t intend this, but it’s definitely there. I think when you’re writing, the real world—reality—is always trying to pull you back into it. I feel that. Reality doesn’t want you to escape into your head and be writing. Reality wants you to answer email, go to Burger King, and call your mother. I’m really not sure how to answer this question. I think Daniel makes a decision to retreat into the woods and when he does that he’s aware of what he’s doing and what’s going to happen to him. He knows at that point that his mental state will overtake him, but he’s okay with the decision. He doesn’t want to be saved by anyone because he wants to be saved by his imagination.
AN That seems to align with the way beauty always has a catch in this novel: one character is the world’s most beautiful man, but he has the world’s worst teeth. The glimpses we get of Daniel’s relationship with his wife are tender and life-affirming, but his mental illness makes the relationship hard to sustain. Do you see this pairing as being nature’s design?
SJ Beauty in novels is important to me. 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. And life can also be really ugly. Yesterday I made eye contact with a guy who was masturbating in his car. There’s a sadness to that situation. I tend to lean toward, not balance, but a kind of undercutting. For example, the world’s most beautiful man with the world’s worst teeth. He’s such a sad and funny character to me. Because of course, this is how life is—or how we sometimes feel. Something great happens, then something shitty comes our way. You’re born with a handsome face, but your teeth are all fucked up.
AN Some of the narrative’s most poetic and brilliant lines describe the ominous. For example: “I imagined drops of oil caught in a breeze becoming a black net that covered skyward-looking deer.” Daniel states that, “the imagination is haunting, but so beautiful that I want to live in that instead.” Do you see beauty being more of a necessary anaesthetic in the novel, or a distracting siren song that takes him away from what’s real?
SJ That’s a really good and complex question. My head hurts just thinking about it. The beauty aspect of the novel, the imagination or what is just Daniel’s world, is a necessary anaesthetic in the novel, yeah. I love Daniel’s world and even when I first started discussing the book with my agent and a few close friends I hated typing, “Daniel’s imagination” or “The fantasy sections.” Because what is Daniel’s world, to him, is his reality. And in so many aspects it’s much more interesting and exciting than reality. I wanted that to come across. I wanted to make reality as cruel and boring and ugly as it could be. And as deep as Daniel goes into his mental retreat, he can’t escape reality. None of us can.
AN I was struck by how, in some ways, Daniel’s world is like a reverse Nightmare on Elm Street, in the sense that it’s the inverse of someone getting hurt in dreams and then actually dying. Daniel would never die in his dreams; that could only happen in reality, and death in reality would end his dreams by proxy. Dying, answering emails . . . really the more we talk about reality, the worse it seems.
SJ This may be my favorite thing someone has said about the book so far. Reality, as represented in the book, is more harmful than Daniel’s world, I think. I tend to side with Daniel, but from Karen’s perspective, I guess Daniel is hurting her. The ending of the book shows the power of reality even against the deepest of Daniel’s fantasies. There’s just no escape from reality. On a more personal level, when I was writing the book my grandfather was suffering from Alzheimer’s. My grandmother never put him in a home. Instead, she had a hospital bed set up in the living room until he died. We’d have holiday dinners basically sitting around our dying grandfather, and I remember how everyone would try to pull him into reality by showing him pictures, telling old stories, all that stuff. But what if what he was seeing in his mind was really beautiful and wonderful? I know this borders on hippie-thinking, but I thought it. And of course the reality of the situation is that even the most intense Alzheimer’s, the flights of dementia, end with the reality of death. That seems intensely sad to me.
AN In Daniel’s private world, there’s a fabulous and disorienting refusal of question marks—sentences that normally would be queries instead seem like weighty proclamations, such as, “Why would I want to help if I think everything will be destroyed.” Can you speak to that stylistic choice. (I’ll end that question with a period, in deference to Daniel.)
SJ I’ve done this before, the no question marks thing. I’m already recycling old material. Generally, I hate question marks because I think they can destroy a sentence, diminish its power. In this book, the lack of question marks and deletion of quotations around dialog signal a shift between Daniel and Karen. In Daniel’s world, there is complete freedom and beauty and insanity, and things like question marks are silly and unnecessary. Only in reality, Karen’s world, do we need question marks. Also, I think taking out question marks can change the tone of a sentence in really beautiful ways. Saying, “Why would I want to help if I think everything will be destroyed,” without the question mark somehow makes it sadder and deepens the thought of the speaker. We should teach kids that in school: how to delete question marks in order to make sentences more emotional. A fun homework assignment!
AN The character Iamso frequently writes poems that explain how other characters are feeling, and poetry is a fantastic medium to express what normal prose cannot. Does Daniel’s mental illness function in a similar way to that poetry? Did you find it let you go places and express things that traditional points of view would resist or fail to sustain?
SJ Iamso was a really fun character to write. I had his character in my mind for years but didn’t know what to do with him. The only workshop I ever took was with Lydia Davis and I turned in this story that had a character who said something like, “this is how I felt according to this poem by X character,” and Lydia Davis was really impressed. She said she had never seen that before, a character expressing another character’s feelings via poem within a short story. So I kept that and the character became Iamso. I don’t remember anything else Lydia Davis said about my story because she forgot to attach the second page of her notes and I was too scared to ask for it. I just had this small paragraph written at the end of my story that ended mid sentence.
As for Daniel’s mental illness, the worlds he created allowed me to do whatever I wanted. There was no holding back. It’s this kind of point of view or structure that I love, that excites me because that’s where the surprises are.
Shane Jones is the author of Light Boxes, The Failure Six, and A Cake Appeared. His new novel, Daniel Fights a Hurricane, is out now.
Alissa Nutting is author of Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls (Starcherone 2010) and an Assistant Professor of Fiction Writing at John Carroll University. Her work has or will appear in publications such as The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Literature, The New York Times, Tin House, and Fence.