Stephen Graham Jones is the author of Ledfeather (2008), The Bird is Gone — A Manifesto (2003), and The Fast Red Road — A Plainsong (2000) from FC2.
You’ve described The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong as “the conscious culmination of some one hundred years of tropic buildup in the American Indian novel.” What about that buildup attracted you, and how, in your book, have you tried to dislodge it?
I guess it wasn’t really about attraction for me. Repulsion, though? Not quite that far. Revulsion, maybe. I was just kind of fed up with how the genre of the Indian novel wasn’t really developing anymore. It’s kind of become a formula — plug one prototypical half-breed character into a reintegration narrative, pay a little respect to the oral tradition, show a little righteous anger (but not too much), dabble in the dislinear/multivocal, and bammo, you got yourself an Indian novel. Or, rather, a novel that can be validated “Indian” by academe, simply because it has all the proper markings, hearkens back to some 19th century romantic conception of the Indian. With Fast Red Road I tried to take this formula apart a bit by doing more or less what McNickle did with The Surrounded — structurally, anyway: showing how the “homing” pattern doesn’t necessarily reappropriate the comic narrative for us. Not that the homing pattern is flawed or anything, just that it’s a form of essentialism to assume that it can only lead to good things. Naive, at least. It supports the whole “all Indians are good” propaganda, which is just as dangerous as thinking we’re all somehow “bad.” What if, as in Fast Red Road, the “tribal center” the “half-breed” is drawing nearer and nearer is somehow corrupt or misguided, or just plain missing? Yeah, oops. Blind dependence upon conventions, while it does add homogeneity to a perhaps nascent genre — make it recognizable, all that — is finally self-destructive, as it doesn’t promote development. What does, though, right, once we’re this far in? Parody. The Indian novel’s been too long without it. The conventions which define it aren’t sacred, after all, or shouldn’t be.
So you would consider this an “Indian” novel — a progression of the Indian novel?
As opposed to regression, right? But first, yeah, is it even “Indian,” whatever that means. Well, here’s what it means: which shelf to put it on, how to market it. But then, too, I did call it The Fast Red Road, I know. And my hair is down in the author-photo, I think. So, phenotypically, yes, the novel is Indian, and it does exhibit all the literary characteristics we look for. The difference might be that it doesn’t do so in a particularly constructive manner. Or, a responsible manner. There’s nothing more oxymoronic than a responsible artist. But I don’t want to rationalize here. How about this: Fast Red Road, instead of being loyal to the current Indian novel, tries instead to be loyal to the Indian novel that should exist. So yes, it is a progression, the progress just isn’t linear, you know? Like how in “Vision of Delight,” there’s two Birdfingers for a while — two quantum particles on two different paths. But they still pull and tug on one other.
With Fast Red Road, you subvert the traditional means of reappropriating the comic narrative. Is it, then, necessarily tragic?
It would make sense if it were, wouldn’t it? Especially if there were only one way to “achieve” the comic narrative. But there isn’t. Another, untraditional way — however intuitive it might be — is to simply “dislodge” or at least distort the colonial myths which insist upon the tragic narrative in the first place. Like, say, with Fast Red Road, Pocahontas. Giving Captain John Smith what he’s had coming for four hundred years. But we’re not quite “comic” yet. Just laying the tragic narrative back on America — thus making us look “non-tragic” in comparison — is only half the job. The next step is to follow through with the deconstruction of the reintegration narrative, a narrative which entails that a liminal existence — the “half-breed,” trapped between two worlds etcetera — is a doomed existence, to be avoided at all costs. I mean, Pidgin’s there finally, you know? It’s peace for him.
How do you feel your work relates to contemporary fiction?
It’s probably harder to read, I guess, just because it’s not familiar: the prose doesn’t try to be transparent and the narrative takes a lot of gambles. No, “house” isn’t blue every time it’s printed, and there aren’t three or four hundred pages of footnotes at the end of the text, and there aren’t any flying mechanical invisible ducks — which I regret — but there is, I think, a type of movement the typical reader won’t recognize, or, will recognize simply as “other.” Like with Coover’s Ghost Town or Vizenor’s Bearheart or McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, all absolutely brilliant novels, but so dense and fluid that initially at least, the reader’s dislocated, in a strange place — in an improbable buffet line with a slightly mythical salesman named Litmus. But strange places are where the cool stuff happens, right? Or at least can. It’s like animation versus non-animation, whatever the real world’s called. Give me the cartoon every time.
Are there any living writers with whom you feel a particular kinship?
Well, there’s Vizenor of course, out there fighting the good fight with better words. Thomas King too. And I like how Alexie doesn’t want his stuff to be “academic” — locked in with the university presses and all that. Not that I know any of those guys. I don’t even know Welch. People always think I should, too, just because I’m Blackfeet. But he’s Montana; I just go there when I can scrounge enough money. I wish you hadn’t said “living,” because then I could summon Philip K. Dick, my hero. Living, though. I like to read Vonnegut, Pynchon, John Barth, Rushdie, Ishmael Reed, that whole crowd. And D. F. Wallace, that guy can really write dialogue. And Neal Stephenson, you can learn how to put a scene together just by reading him, I suspect. But “kinship.” It’s a hard word for me. “Influence,” yeah, no problem. Or, “Longing Vainly To Be Like.” But kinship. That entails resemblance, it seems. How about Terry Gilliam, then, or David Lynch? If their films had been novels, my stuff might resemble theirs at some level. I mean, if they were all abridged by one of Oliver Sacks’ patients — someone with just the right blend of aphasia and compulsion.
The Fast Red Road is your first published novel. What are you working on now?
I’m about a quarter or so of the way through an Indian sci-fi novel [The Bird is Gone, FC2 2003]. I retitle it every day. This week I’ve been leaning towards that line from Rush’s Tom Sawyer, Exit the Warrior. Last week it was Two Burn Flat, though. It’s a romance anyway, set in a bowling alley, in an alternate future where the Great Plains are Indian again, the result of America trying to restore all indigenous flora and fauna to the grasslands. Indians are the fauna here. It’s fun. The traditionals are the ones holding onto the past — their microwaves and space heaters — and the progressives are out on their horses with buffalo chip fires, trying to escape the anthropologists. There’s some eight characters so far — Mary Boy, Nickel Eye, Courtney Peltdowne, Denim Horse, Back Iron, Owen 82 — and then L. P. Deal and Cat Stand. L. P. Deal is the only Indian in the Territories who won’t grow his hair out; Cat Stand is a former child star, The Lactose Tolerant Indian. The bowling alley is Fool’s Hip. All these names, right? As far as Indian sf goes, it’s more light-hearted than, say, Alexie’s “Sin Eaters.” Hopefully some of the sentences are as tight, though. Or tighter. That’s what always matters most. Like Percival Everett says twice at the end of Glyph, the line is everything. He’s right.