Monday, August 22, 2016

Humans Are the Worst Monsters

Stephen Graham Jones, Mongrels: a Novel

Our nameless narrator has been raised by wolves. Literally so: the grandfather, aunt, and uncle who raised him are werewolves. And like American werewolves everywhere, they live rootless, impermanent, undocumented. Foreigners and fugitives in their native land. Our narrator’s aunt and uncle want our narrator to finish high school, live straight, and have opportunities they never had. He wants the savage, uninhibited life he thinks his family enjoys.

Veteran author Stephen Graham Jones makes different use of werewolves than I’ve seen recently. Where other authors’ werewolves apparently represent collapse into pure appetite, Jones offers more a sense here of wounded outsidership. These werewolves aren’t just outside, they’re driven out, even if it’s by their own fear. But saying that, I can’t attest if that’s entirely true. Jones goes further, pushes deeper, than his superficial horror narrative suggests.

This novel comprises nine linked novellas about our narrator’s life bouncing around the American Southeast. The episodic structure sees him confronting some aspect of his own or somebody else’s past intruding on the present. We could read different facets of coming-of-age into stories of these narratives. Or we can immerse ourselves into the experience, intense as windburn, of hitting young adulthood in an entirely present-tense world.

Dedicated literary types can read deeper levels into even the superficial level. (Jones teaches college writing, so that’s probably not incidental.) Aunt Libby is pure self-sacrifice, destroying herself slowly to provide better opportunities to the next generation. Uncle Darren only works to afford his junk food and women, living to indulge himself. Both, importantly, want our narrator to make different, better choices—choices he doesn’t want to make.

Stephen Graham Jones
The end suggests werewolves’ outsidership is somewhat chosen, because they can’t get together, can’t organize. But can they really not? Perhaps they simply believe they can’t because they couldn’t in the past. They accept an ancestral sense of outsidership, because they’ve been pushed down so long, they can’t assert control anymore. So really they lack the learned skills of power, and thus cannot pass those skills onto their children.

Our narrator’s orphan status is part of that. He cannot learn his family’s skills because he only has family one degree removed. The power flowing through them, through him, doesn’t merely come naturally. At the conlcusion we learn that some have learned to tame that power, but that’s learning. It isn’t natural. Even the skill of learning must be learned, which our narrator hasn’t had a chance to do.

Werewolves therefore aren’t just an expression of id, they convey widespread cultural elements we’ve striven to crush altogether. Though Jones is Blackfeet Indian himself, and incidental evidence suggests his characters are po’ white trash, we should resist the temptation to read in a color-coded system here. Rather, Jones makes us consider a system of opportunity, and how them that has, gets. Our narrator never had any chance to learn.

But our narrator also emphasizes his freedom: he reads, and in the final pages, he writes, so he has an opportunity, somewhat self-made, to learn, which his ancestors haven’t shared. He needn’t necessarily repeat yesterday’s patterns. Not everybody has his opportunity, and it seemingly isn’t  distributed evenly, so we can’t use the old canard that “anybody can work hard and get ahead.” Life is just unfair that way.

So this story expresses an element of fatalism. We’re all prisoners of our situation—in the final novella, Jones’ characters are literally prisoners of circumstances they cannot control, hostage to capitalism’s objectifying forces. But don’t mistake fatalism for defeatism: Jones also nurtures soft-spoken optimism, because while all humans remain part of where we came originated, we’re more than that. We’re also who we are.

Our author makes this clear very early, establishing storytelling as important to our experience. Grampa’s stories are, our narrator stresses, lies, but lies leading to deeper truths. Sometimes he successfully decodes those meanings, finding the human element beneath the subtext, and sometimes he doesn’t. But even when he can’t, he leaves us with his own story which itself can be unpacked. He’s lying about lying to get at deeper truths.

I fear this review has made this novel look pointy-headed and self-consciously literary. I’ve analyzed the subtext, without explaining the rush of pulse-pounding horror on the surface. It’s a monster story, folks. But for Jones, like Stephen King, the monster represents something far worse; families and secrets are the real source of horror. They’re also the only hope of redemption. That balance between monsters and angels makes us truly human.

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