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  • Both Everywhere and SomewhereFire Bones and the Smartphone Epic
  • James McWilliams (bio) and Taylor Callery (bio)

essay, Fire Bones, Arkansas, southern gothic, geography, storytelling, technology, cyberspace, literature

There are endless ways to lose your sense of place. A common one goes something like this: You call an Uber to get across town. You track the driver's arrival on your phone and, once in the car, answer texts and watch a video on YouTube. You aren't exactly disconnected—you're attuned to some version of reality—but you're oblivious to physical geography. You are not alone in this behavior. In 2015, Germaine R. Halegoua, a media-studies scholar, found that 96 percent of her research subjects, when asked how they navigate a new city, said that they do so on a GPS system, heads down.

But even heads up, you can be displaced. In another scenario, the place around you—I live in Austin, Texas—suddenly becomes a foreign territory. A pop-up skyline reflects the ceaseless change that turns place-based mentality into nostalgia. Over the next decade, no fewer than twenty-one skyscrapers will join the already castellated press of the Austin horizon. In 1995 there was one building that, at thirty-two floors tall, could be called a high-rise. Prophesizing these transformations, cultural theorists in the 1990s predicted a future marked by "the end of geography." In contrast to those who promised the "end of history," these critics look to be right.

This shifting relationship to place is integral to contemporary life. How it will shape the way we tell stories is an open question. Greg Brownderville's latest project, Fire Bones, offers an answer—one that counters the ever-proliferating "loss of place" jeremiads that amount to a drumbeat of declension doom.

Brownderville gets place. He is a poet whose [End Page 128] previous work is practically grafted onto the landscape of the Arkansas Delta. He is not really the writer you'd expect to create a technically savvy multimedia production—he calls it a "go-show"—where old-school text yields to a media mash-up of podcasts, video clips, music videos, field recordings, monologues, and even a puppet show—all housed on a single website and designed for the smartphone. But in making this leap, Fire Bones, in addition to telling a gripping story, complicates the connection between geography and consciousness.

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Brownderville's go-show suggests that place is not lost, but just replaced. And in this case, the replacement—the vast commonwealth of consciousness called cyberspace—asks us to rethink the entire notion of literary landscape and the sensibilities that it fosters. [End Page 129]


Fire Bones is a fictional account of the disappearance of Amra Boustani, a striking, Christian, Lebanese, crop-duster pilot and snake-handling Pentecostal preacher who goes missing after ferrying a plane to the Middle East. As the farrago of qualifiers implies, she's a figure to behold. Brownderville, who joins executive producer Bart Weiss to narrate and star in the go-show, enters in medias res with a whimsical task: He and Weiss set off to find some good Delta ice cream. But during their journey, they hear about the Boustani mystery and immediately shift gears. With that, the premise for a ten-chapter, four-hour, visually stunning and at times profoundly moving narrative is established. There is, moreover, every reason to suspect that we are about to experience a conventional delve into geographical place—in this case an ethnography of the Arkansas Delta.

But that's not quite what we get. Fire Bones indulges in its share of Southern Gothic tropes. Eccentrics and grotesques, snake handlers and handmade signs, colorful names and a range of accents with their own Delta drip confirm that we are indeed in middle-of-nowhere Arkansas. But these stock images skip across the narrative like water on a hot skillet. They fail to seep in and characterize place as effectively as if the tropes were limited to printed text, where readers are not viewers or listeners, and thus are permitted to imagine place with the laziest...


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pp. 128-135
Launched on MUSE
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