[This is not a book review. But it is me talking about a book.]
Mongrels was the first book in a long time where I’d read and just fall into the world. Become a part of that story and lose, a little, my grip on where my life was separate from the life in the book. I loved the way it roamed the South and southwest, chapters dropping in on the characters at will, always in a different state, with different jobs, different school, different car. I loved all the cars, always disposable but with so much character–the kind you have to bang into thing. Towards the end, the narrator describes one of them as an ungrand Turismo.
The narrator also describes them as werewolf cars; because he and his family–an aunt and uncle–are werewolves.
Confession: From True Blood to Twilight to Supernatural, I’ve never had any intrinsic interest in werewolves. Black dogs, hellhounds, and other kinds of big, actual wolves, yes. I guess I’ve never been sure why having a human form would improve a canid.
Mongrels, though: Its different. And I think what sets it apart is how the lore gets handled. The werewolf lore in Mongrels is richly comprehensive and detail-oriented–thoughtful and full and seemingly never-ending–but always unstable. There are always unknowns and obfuscations. The narrator learns things about werewolves that could be generally true, but there’s always a sense that perhaps it’s all wrong, after all. Or maybe it’s only true in Arkansas. Or just for this one family. Everything is a story told about a story, or a hypothesis that will never have enough trials, or few enough controllable variables, to ever be proven. The lore stays wild. (You’ll discover, towards the end of the book, exactly how true this is.)
It sounds obvious–like, of course the lore should be that way. But so often, that’s not how it goes. Books build worlds by making rules, but what turns me off so much fantasy/supernatural fiction is that even after eschewing “real life rules” for their own shiny new ones, these books seem to think that they’re then obligated to follow those rules all the time, to the letter. No diverging, no slippage, no chaos. And that’s the part that’s just not realistic about fantasy, frankly. In what world are the rules infallible?
What I also love about Mongrels‘s lore is that so much of it is learned and internalized by the narrator in ways that make it feel deeply intimate. The book’s not just 300 pages of self-indulgent thought experiment about werewolves. (And I say this as someone who has engaged in many a self-indulgent lore-building thought experiment, though never about werewolves.) The narrator remembers the stories he does because these stories are what make life for his family so very hard. These stories have real impacts. There’s a reason that these questions have answers: Why can’t werewolves wear pantyhose? Do they live in dog years, or human ones? Why are they so good at game shows?
There are other questions, too, that find meaning in their non-werewolf parallels. First, though, I’ll say that I’d argue against reading werewolves as a one-to-one metaphor for things that academics might feel are more societally relevant. (Digression: Academics love vampirism as a metaphor for sexuality, and The Vampire Lestat as some kind of negotiation between sex–potentially homoerotic, and certainly pre-marital–and Catholicism. All of that is probably true and undoubtedly interesting, but it’s not actually more boring or less societally relevant to think deeply about vampirism as a metaphor for vampirism, and vampires as vampires. I think we should do both. Actually, I think we should do it, singular: We should consider these explorations all parts of the same.)
Where thinking in terms of one-to-one metaphors is, I think, a disservice to so very many things, I do think you can learn werewolves most deeply in Mongrels if you let yourself hear their story and think about how werewolf genetics–how that identity is passed on–can bear resemblance to debates around Native identity and blood quantum rules. If you think about werewolves in the context of other US populations that have been relegated to the societal fringes. If you understand why jails are a death sentence to werewolves, because you are simultaneously thinking about the ways the US justice system in our own world simply does not hold every life in even hands. (It does not hold the poor, or people of color, in loving or even neutral hands.)
The world that Mongrels builds and the lore that undergirds it work so well for me because (aside from my digging its aesthetic in general) its lot in life is not to act as a clear-cut foil for our real world. It’s not an easy allegory for our own shit on this side. Instead of using the boundary between its world and ours as a point of translation it takes a step and figures that, well, maybe there isn’t one.
A border is only a rule, after all. It’s not anything that can’t be broken.
Mongrels, by Stephen Graham Jones. William Morrow, 2016. 297 pages.