- The Fictions of Stephen Graham Jones: A Critical Companion ed. by Billy J. Stratton
This, the first collection of critical essays dedicated to the fictions of contemporary Blackfeet writer Stephen Graham Jones, considers a body of work both quite recent and so fast growing that the word "prolific" borders on understatement. "Can't seem to stop," [End Page 456] he writes on his website, Demon Theory. Guided by Billy Stratton's steady editorial hand, this volume maps that seemingly unstoppable force, throwing down markers that empower further work on stories and novels both known and (as yet) unknown. Neophytes to Jones's work and confirmed fans alike will find here a refreshingly enthusiastic and generally helpful gathering of starting points for thinking about his achievement—which, this book demonstrates convincingly, is significant and, particularly with regard to Native American and Indigenous studies, provocatively complex.
I would want to own this book for its opening piece alone: Jones's "Letter to a Just-Starting-Out Indian Writer—And Maybe to Myself." His advice is on point, as in, "Go on, get out there, traffic in the genres typically denied to Indians" (xii) and "Don't be an elf" (xi), an injunction that goes to trenchant, challenging, and deeply useful larger points about coming to terms with the labels and categories that all too often burden Indian writers and their readers. For example, "just assume the Indianness. Of everything. Overwrite the world with us. Because we are everywhere. We're in the soil, yes, but we're in the future, too. Insist upon that" (xvi). The "Dialogues" between Jones and Stratton are terrific, too; these conversations open up space for Jones to reflect on the shadow selves "that could have been" him (21) and that haunt and drive his writing, as well as on how he gauges his success as a writer, how his fiction riffs on The Wizard of Oz, George W. Bush, Marty Robbins's song "El Paso," and much more.
In addition to the above chapters, the volume includes an editor's introduction by Stratton, fourteen essays, a brief but nicely turned afterword by Paul Tremblay, and three linked appendices presented as "A Cartographic Note on the Archives of Stephen Graham Jones." The sampling of photographs of annotated manuscript pages culled from Jones's files and the preview of his forthcoming graphic novel, Demon Theory: A Very Graphic Novel, are intriguing, but this section of the book could be more fully annotated—more metatextual—in its own right.
Some of the fourteen chapters are more fully fledged and more critically and theoretically up-to-date than others. Considering the "cartographic note" not only as an appendix but also as a methodology [End Page 457] and a goal for the book as a whole, though, I can say that each chapter contributes in some way to the project of mapping Jones's work. Some of the essays, inspired by the smooth, daring, agile, and subtle workings of Jones's own prose, refreshingly uncramp a variety of academic conventions. Stratton notes in his introduction a desire to be "free from the influence of, or even the dependency on, preconceived structures of meaning and interpretation that were never formulated to address how [Jones's] varied work intersects with the complex and interrelated processes central to Native American literature and contemporary writing" (3). To the extent that the book dynamites these "preconceived structures," it clears space for risk-taking as well as for good thinking about how Jones honors, wrangles, and inside-outs other kinds of preconceived structures whenever he builds on the bones of familiar western (and other) locations (the Dakotas, West Texas) and available genres (the zombie story, the werewolf story, the captivity narrative, and so on). As Stratton implies, it could also be time to develop entirely new methods.
This all raises a question for me about the strong presence of Gerald Vizenor throughout much of the collection, an homage to Vizenor's enormously influential work as well as a strategy...