The Fictions of Stephen Graham Jones: A Critical Companion

The Fictions of Stephen Graham Jones: A Critical Companion Twenty years ago, as a PhD candidate in Florida State University’s creative writing program, Stephen Graham Jones was not labeled a Native American writer. As a fellow student, I knew him as a Thomas Pynchon-grade postmodernist. When he unveiled, in workshops, brilliant portions of what would become his first novel, The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong (2000), his classmates and I anticipated him joining the ranks of elite writers such as David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, and Salman Rushdie. Eventually, when we learned of Jones’s Blackfeet background, we encouraged him to tether his experimental style to the subject matter of cultural identity. Instead, after watching the post-slasher flick Scream (1996), Jones announced that he had seen the future of storytelling and pivoted to writing werewolf stories. Jones’s refusal to cater to expectations accounts for his dissonant yet intriguing presence in American letters. The difficulty in categorizing his work is part of its charm, and a new critical companion edited by Billy J. Stratton aims to introduce Jones to new readers, guiding them “in their journeys through the cartographical strata of Stephen’s storied territory” (12). The Fictions of Stephen Graham Jones: A Critical Companion is a passionate—if at times fandom-level—collection of essays and an interview that enhances the author’s mystery and allure even as it strives to pinpoint what makes his texts so engaging. The companion opens with Jones’s own “Letter to a Just-Starting-Out Indian Writer—and Maybe to Myself,” printed here for the first time. In this address (penned for a 2015 keynote address for the Institute of American Indian Arts MFA writing program), Jones urges young writers—and reminds himself—to eschew the limitations of identity politics: Don’t be an elf. That’s what America wants you to be. Elves are liminal beings. They live close to the spiritual source. They commune with nature. They’re stewards of the trees. They belong in the forests. They cry because of Dr. Pepper bottles in the creek. Also, as it turns out, they’re made up, they’re not real. If you’re an elf, you don’t exist, and like that, America’s won. (xi) This controversial essay sets the tone for what follows, including Stratton’s extensive interview, “Observations on the Shadow Self,” in which readers learn how the novels of Bret Easton Ellis inspired Jones to write his crime novel Growing Up Dead in Texas (2012) in just thirteen weeks, and in which we are treated to a photo of Jones in full-on Walking Dead makeup at the 2013 Denver Comic Con. Such quirkiness is balanced with serious appraisals of influences. For instance, Jones describes the impact of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick on his own work, stating, “That sincere telling . . it’s what I’m always aiming for, what I’m always wanting to do” (25). It is this sincerity of expression that Frances Washburn addresses in “Stephen Graham Jones’ Cosmopolitan Literary Aesthetic,” an essay that unpacks the many postmodern references and paratextual inventions layered in works such as the acclaimed Demon Theory (2006), a book that helped create the genre of “intellectual horror.” Jones’s first serious attempt at writing a postmodern murder mystery, The Bird Is Gone: A Manifesto (2003), also earns close examination from two scholars. Birgit Däwes provides a long overdue analysis of The Bird Is Gone, drawing on critical theory and poststructuralism, while John Blair Gamber takes a historical approach in his essay, “The Law of the Land: Legal Allusion in The Bird Is Gone.” In the final essay of part 1, Kristina Baudemann deftly applies Anishinaabe writer Gerald Vizenor’s term “shadow survivance” to Jones’s supernatural crime novel Ledfeather (2008). The companion’s second part (“Writing at the Margins”) offers fascinating discussions of Jones’s work in relation to reservation basketball (David Buchanan’s “Shooting Hoops Like Magic Tricks”) and “native gothic postmodernism” (Cathy Covell Waegner’s “Rampaging Red Demons and Lumpy Indian Burial Grounds”). Both of these essays show genuine appreciation for Jones’s writing and enrich understanding of the author’s more obscure works. For Americanists, the most important essay in the volume is likely to be Charlotte L. Quinney’s “Lost in Owl Creek,” which places the author in the tradition of gothic masters such as Ambrose Bierce and Stephen King. In another essay, Rebecca Lush argues that Jones’s books “reflect a Native aesthetic approach that inverts a number of genre and social expectations” (307). For instance, Lush demonstrates how a novel such as The Last Final Girl (2012) inspires meticulous discussion of pop culture clichés and conventions. The appendices contribute further insight into Jones’s work. They include excerpts from the as-yet-unpublished Demon Theory graphic novel and a jettisoned glossary from The Bird Is Gone, which often reads like an indigenous rewrite of Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary (1906)—for example: “firewater—first sign of gonorrhea” (399). Overall, Stratton’s edited collection of academic scholarship on Jones reflects the author’s multiplicity and explains why his genre-smashing, rule-breaking, label-busting modus operandi has made it hard for critics to put him in a box. These strategies make him one of the richest writers alive today. Scholars specializing in popular culture, indigenous literature, postmodern texts, or experimental and hybrid writing would benefit from taking a closer look at Jones’s fiction, and this volume provides a starting point for future scholarship. © MELUS: The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States Oxford University Press

The Fictions of Stephen Graham Jones: A Critical Companion

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Oxford University Press
Copyright
© MELUS: The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
0163-755X
eISSN
1946-3170
D.O.I.
10.1093/melus/mly020
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Abstract

Twenty years ago, as a PhD candidate in Florida State University’s creative writing program, Stephen Graham Jones was not labeled a Native American writer. As a fellow student, I knew him as a Thomas Pynchon-grade postmodernist. When he unveiled, in workshops, brilliant portions of what would become his first novel, The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong (2000), his classmates and I anticipated him joining the ranks of elite writers such as David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, and Salman Rushdie. Eventually, when we learned of Jones’s Blackfeet background, we encouraged him to tether his experimental style to the subject matter of cultural identity. Instead, after watching the post-slasher flick Scream (1996), Jones announced that he had seen the future of storytelling and pivoted to writing werewolf stories. Jones’s refusal to cater to expectations accounts for his dissonant yet intriguing presence in American letters. The difficulty in categorizing his work is part of its charm, and a new critical companion edited by Billy J. Stratton aims to introduce Jones to new readers, guiding them “in their journeys through the cartographical strata of Stephen’s storied territory” (12). The Fictions of Stephen Graham Jones: A Critical Companion is a passionate—if at times fandom-level—collection of essays and an interview that enhances the author’s mystery and allure even as it strives to pinpoint what makes his texts so engaging. The companion opens with Jones’s own “Letter to a Just-Starting-Out Indian Writer—and Maybe to Myself,” printed here for the first time. In this address (penned for a 2015 keynote address for the Institute of American Indian Arts MFA writing program), Jones urges young writers—and reminds himself—to eschew the limitations of identity politics: Don’t be an elf. That’s what America wants you to be. Elves are liminal beings. They live close to the spiritual source. They commune with nature. They’re stewards of the trees. They belong in the forests. They cry because of Dr. Pepper bottles in the creek. Also, as it turns out, they’re made up, they’re not real. If you’re an elf, you don’t exist, and like that, America’s won. (xi) This controversial essay sets the tone for what follows, including Stratton’s extensive interview, “Observations on the Shadow Self,” in which readers learn how the novels of Bret Easton Ellis inspired Jones to write his crime novel Growing Up Dead in Texas (2012) in just thirteen weeks, and in which we are treated to a photo of Jones in full-on Walking Dead makeup at the 2013 Denver Comic Con. Such quirkiness is balanced with serious appraisals of influences. For instance, Jones describes the impact of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick on his own work, stating, “That sincere telling . . it’s what I’m always aiming for, what I’m always wanting to do” (25). It is this sincerity of expression that Frances Washburn addresses in “Stephen Graham Jones’ Cosmopolitan Literary Aesthetic,” an essay that unpacks the many postmodern references and paratextual inventions layered in works such as the acclaimed Demon Theory (2006), a book that helped create the genre of “intellectual horror.” Jones’s first serious attempt at writing a postmodern murder mystery, The Bird Is Gone: A Manifesto (2003), also earns close examination from two scholars. Birgit Däwes provides a long overdue analysis of The Bird Is Gone, drawing on critical theory and poststructuralism, while John Blair Gamber takes a historical approach in his essay, “The Law of the Land: Legal Allusion in The Bird Is Gone.” In the final essay of part 1, Kristina Baudemann deftly applies Anishinaabe writer Gerald Vizenor’s term “shadow survivance” to Jones’s supernatural crime novel Ledfeather (2008). The companion’s second part (“Writing at the Margins”) offers fascinating discussions of Jones’s work in relation to reservation basketball (David Buchanan’s “Shooting Hoops Like Magic Tricks”) and “native gothic postmodernism” (Cathy Covell Waegner’s “Rampaging Red Demons and Lumpy Indian Burial Grounds”). Both of these essays show genuine appreciation for Jones’s writing and enrich understanding of the author’s more obscure works. For Americanists, the most important essay in the volume is likely to be Charlotte L. Quinney’s “Lost in Owl Creek,” which places the author in the tradition of gothic masters such as Ambrose Bierce and Stephen King. In another essay, Rebecca Lush argues that Jones’s books “reflect a Native aesthetic approach that inverts a number of genre and social expectations” (307). For instance, Lush demonstrates how a novel such as The Last Final Girl (2012) inspires meticulous discussion of pop culture clichés and conventions. The appendices contribute further insight into Jones’s work. They include excerpts from the as-yet-unpublished Demon Theory graphic novel and a jettisoned glossary from The Bird Is Gone, which often reads like an indigenous rewrite of Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary (1906)—for example: “firewater—first sign of gonorrhea” (399). Overall, Stratton’s edited collection of academic scholarship on Jones reflects the author’s multiplicity and explains why his genre-smashing, rule-breaking, label-busting modus operandi has made it hard for critics to put him in a box. These strategies make him one of the richest writers alive today. Scholars specializing in popular culture, indigenous literature, postmodern texts, or experimental and hybrid writing would benefit from taking a closer look at Jones’s fiction, and this volume provides a starting point for future scholarship. © MELUS: The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

Journal

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United StatesOxford University Press

Published: May 29, 2018

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