APRIL 21, 2018
WHAT ARE THE RELATIONSHIPS between memory, trauma, healing, and loss? This question is the primary concern of Stephen Graham Jones’s latest novella, Mapping the Interior, the 2017 recipient of the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Long Fiction. In this story, Jones explores the fraught and tangled landscape of memory in its various forms — dream and nightmare, presence and absence, specter and reality — through a narrative that merges dark fantasy and horror with a classic coming-of-age story.
Jones’s 16 previous novels, four story collections, and more than 250 individual short stories in multiple forms and genres (including all sorts of speculative fiction) speak to his qualifications as a guide through the snarled territory of memory. Readers can feel confident following him into dark and obscure landscapes, trusting that Jones will lead us safely out from such wild and remote locations — even if that means walking us back in our sleep, “deadfooted” and “inhabited” by different selves. Jones’s latest novella explores the places that Cormac McCarthy described ominously as “provinces of night,” locations populated with shadowy figures and menacing creatures who yap and howl, or who skulk around in the darkness waiting to feed on the blood of the living. As readers of Jones’s previous work have come to expect, his are no ordinary creatures. In Mapping the Interior, where we might expect a character to reach for a vial of holy water or a string of garlic, to fire off a cylinder of silver bullets or extend a crucifix, instead we find magical tools like a buried tetherball pole, a superhero action figure, a sheriff’s deputy’s drop-piece, and a tube of cinnamon toothpicks.
Mapping the Interior presents a narrative of mourning and loss, hope and dread, love and terror. As Jones states in an interview (in The Fictions of Stephen Graham Jones: A Critical Companion), it is precisely the concerns with emotion that form the basis of his writing: “For me, if the story doesn’t have that emotion, that really small emotional core, then it’s only a premise, a situation, and that’s never enough. You can spin those kind of stories all day, but unless you find a way to anchor them emotionally, then why even bother.” Mapping the Interior reflects this principle: it centers on 12-year-old Junior, a boy yearning to connect with a father who drowned in mysterious circumstances several years before. Because of the limits of childhood recollection, which are strained by the passage of time, the only connections Junior maintains with his father are “snapshots and a blurry memory or two.” As the story progresses, we follow Junior into adulthood — and eventually into mourning after the loss of his son.
The fact that Junior also happens to be native American, living off the reservation with his mother and his cognitively impaired younger brother Dino, imbues the story with vital cultural context. Junior and his family persist on the margins of a spectral frontier landscape as members of a distinct native community (as well as part of the larger collective indigenous culture of North America). Jones’s portrayal of Junior and his family evokes reflections of disquieting figures and fleeting glimpses that persist in America’s cultural imaginary, confined in that liminal space where past and present collide in history, myth, memory, and silence. At the same time, they also exist as ordinary people, surviving the twists and turns of life in our modern world.
Memories of the dead, as well as stories of “squandered potential” and heartbreak, emphasize the significance of these narrative frames as the story unfolds. Jones’s distinctive cultural references blur the lines of genre and form, galvanizing perspectives in which spirits, ghosts, and the nature of time and space take on profound meanings. He presents these touchstones alongside references to the legacy of westward expansion and resistance led by figures such as Crazy Horse, while considering the larger shadow cast by the landing of Columbus upon the shores of the Western hemisphere. These instances from the past emerge to rupture the surface of the narrative and combine, with the return of Junior’s father in the dead of night, to weave a web of memories that cuts across space and temporality. This unique narrative latticework provides a vital element to the worlds that Jones constructs. Junior, for his part, desperately strives to make sense of the latent connections that persist between the events of the past, while establishing the coordinates of his position within a delicate structure of uncharted places, spaces, apparitions, and moments in time.
As a basis for his own understanding, Junior maps the dwelling he shares with his family, quick to explain that this abode is not just a trailer but a modular home, hovering above the ground on “cinderblock pylons,” detached and rootless. Reflecting upon the ironies of history — the material poverty of their lives in what Simon Ortiz has called this America “of steel and mad death” — Junior posits that “[y]ou can leave the reservation, but your income level will still land you in a reservation house, won’t it?” Meanwhile, Junior’s mom struggles to hold the family together in the aftermath of her husband’s death. Sometimes, though, particularly “when she was down,” she’d say that “they were maybe better off anyway.” “We never would have left otherwise,” she asserts — a response to the isolation, hopelessness, and despair common to many reservation communities. This family home is just one example of an interior space — predicated or even actualized in relation to an exterior/outside — which Junior must explore and map.
The insights that result from Junior’s pursuits eventually bring him to a confrontation with ghosts from the past, starting with the flittering memories of his father and the visitations of a specter. Within the secluded confines of their life in an uncanny, almost Gothic American West, Junior and Dino must run the gauntlet of a junk-strewn landscape replete with creepy rundown houses, barking dogs, and bus-stop bullies. Jones’s imagining of this desolate setting demarcates the parameters by which Junior encounters the ghost that he takes to be of his father — who appears in the regalia of a fancydancer, becoming “in death what he never could in life.” While these late-night encounters range from the poignant and heart-rending to the eerie and downright terrifying, readers are left with a strong sense of the potency of loss. At the same time, the human capacity to overcome its debilitating force prevails, but the debts that ensue can’t easily be paid; they require the help of superheroes, rituals of sacrifice, and even self-destruction and violence.
Whether the specter that haunts Junior’s world should be welcomed, placated, or driven off is one of the more provocative questions posed by Jones: a generative fulcrum for the kind of writing that he has become known for, one that dispenses with binary oppositions while resisting the strictures of genre and labels. Junior initially believes his father has returned to watch over him and the family, perhaps “to help make Dino better.” Over time, however, he comes to see the ghost in an increasingly apprehensive and fearful light, even as a demonic apparition returned to feed upon the breath of the living. The shifting of Junior’s perceptions intensifies the interplay of past and present in a narrative that spans decades and centuries.
In order to overcome his doubts and conquer his fear, Junior sets out along a psychological and physical slipstream of space and time to face the truth of his father’s death and the relation of his absence to the condition of his family. By turns and forking paths, Junior is ultimately able to sketch out “a map of the human heart,” which can only be accessed via a labyrinth of “dark hallways” and “rooms” he never thought he’d have to enter. What is revealed by Junior’s encounters with memory, dreams, truth, and lies ultimately involves a return to the desolate scene of a haunting “at an address that doesn’t exist anymore,” which is also the place where a monster whose range knows no boundaries was vanquished.
If you’ve come this far, there probably isn’t anything I could say to prevent you from entering into the darkening worlds of Jones’s imagination. For these, after all, are just the kind of places that tend to lead “into some other … not plane … but like a shade over,” where surfaces and interiors merge at the edges of shadow and light. That is the wonder, and magic really, the sincerity of all good writing, of fiction that captivates and endures — especially the type that isn’t really “fiction,” but can never be anything else.
Dr. Billy J. Stratton is an associate professor in the Department of English at the University of Denver where he teaches contemporary native American/American literature, critical theory, film studies, and writing.