Stephen Graham Jones’ “Mapping the Interior”: Book Review

My significant other had been pitching Mapping the Interior to me for quite some time, but I was all too ready to crack open something else — as my reading list has become… extensive, to say the least. I finally decided to sit down and give the small book a read this past week, and I can now see why she was so adamant about me getting to it.

Full disclosure: I had never heard of Stephen Graham Jones until this year. I just assumed he was another milk toast writer with little to add to the literary canon. Boy, was I wrong.

Without further ado, let’s start with the man himself.

Jones is a Blackfeet Native American who teaches in the MFA program at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has enjoyed something of a prolific writing career thus far, churning out 22 books before the age of 50.

There are a good amount of writers out there who see their work suffer after publishing a substantial amount of books in such a short amount of time (I’m sure you know the type). Their readers notice it too. But I can honestly say that Jones’ work does not suffer from this trope. Every word — every sentence — seems deployed in the right place, in the right form, and at the right time. It’s obvious he has spent a lot of time with his stories, despite their brevity — a small luxury not every author can honestly lay claim to.

Jones’ work has often been described as leaning into horror, science fiction, speculative, crime, and experimental fiction. I don’t think any of these would be inaccurate, though these elements are not apparent in all of his works simultaneously.

He is well-known for his “dark playfulness” and “narrative inventiveness” — something I will touch on shortly.

Jones has been compared with David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity movement. Another name for this literary methodology would be metamodernism. This movement was founded on the idea of blending postmodern cynicism and irony with an unalloyed sense of sentimentalism that would (hopefully) push through the cultural nihilism which has reigned since the 60s, with writers such as Thomas Pynchon, John Hawkes, and John Barth.

NOTE: I wrote and presented a paper on metamodernism and its role in David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece Infinite Jest in 2018. You can check that out HERE, if you feel so inclined.

Wallace put it like this in Infinite Jest: “What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human […] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”

What is Mapping the Interior About?

On the surface, it is about a 15-year-old boy named Junior who lives with his mother and brother, Dino, in a modular home. Junior and Dino’s father had died a number of years ago, but Junior begins to see his father’s ghost — or someone he truly believes is his father in the flesh. Dino, an epileptic, is what Junior believes is the mechanism through which his father penetrates the material world.

The literary device of an epileptic character is one that has been around since the inception of gothic tales. Through the symbolism of seizures, these characters are sometimes considered spiritually unique or, at the very least, different in some substantial way.

In an effort to understand his home and the cause of his father’s appearing, Junior begins to literally map out his home, discovering elements at once frightening and enlightening. This plays out as Junior also starts mapping out his own mind and subjectivity — his own interior, if you will.

Junior’s interest in his dead father is best summarized by William Faulkner’s legendary line regarding the dead: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

This small line perfectly summarizes one of the hearts of Mapping the Interior.

There are two ways in which Junior communes with his dead father:

  • Sleepwalking
  • Deadfooting

The most common way Junior sees his father is through the former: by sleepwalking. However, he also consciously attempts to transcend this world by doing what’s called deadfooting — the belief or superstition that to walk on your feet while they are asleep allows for one to step into another dimension, another reality.

All this plays out against the backdrop of Junior attempting to take charge as the man of the house. He takes this duty quite seriously, having to stave off the bullies from tormenting Dino in school and on the bus.

The two fundamental questions asked in the book are the nature of truth and the nature of memory.

Is there a such thing as truth, or is truth used merely as a concession to our own subjectivity? These are very difficult to questions to answer. And by extension: Is there a distinction to be made between truth and fact? If so, how do we draw that line? This is one of the ways postmodernism has clouded our world — making it difficult to identify what is true and what isn’t.

The same goes for memory. Can our memories be trusted? If so, how do we know? If not, then how can we still use memory in a productive way despite its deficiencies? Many scientists are in agreement that our memories are significantly altered and malleable, making the memory of a particular event potentially false altogether. This is a frightening reality, if so.

We all have important memories we hold dear… and to think that they could be a product of deception is really a bummer.

The book also touches on the idea of lost potential — and whether younger generations are doomed to follow in the footsteps of the older generation. This is still a question many families discuss in the 21st century. The book asks the question whether someone, essentially, is bound by fate due to the family they were born into. The ending of the book attempts to answer this question — a spectacular and thought-provoking ending, in my view.

But the heart of the story — the biggest heart of the story — seems to be love, and one young boy’s attempt to get back to his father — a man he can hardly remember outside the stories he is told about him. In doing so, Junior attempts to recreate and form memories and establish what is true — lifelines that act as shelter from the overwhelming waves of sadness, loss, rage, and ultimately, heartbreak.

Conclusion

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the muddy waters of truth and memory. The book also has its own challenges, with certain parts making the reader feel unsure whether they are in the present moment of the story, a fantasy, or a dreamscape.

I do not think this was by accident.

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