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 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.
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.
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 of associations.
Brownderville, who grew up in Pumpkin Bend, Arkansas, is unfazed by the folksy weirdness of the Delta; Weiss, who is from Philadelphia, is flat-out befuddled, playing the foil with perfect comedic poise. Nobody’s consciousness, in other words, seems to be terribly responsive to the actual landscape or the culture we imagine it to sustain. Instead, the digital range of Fire Bones prevents the show’s setting—the fictional town of Thisaway, Arkansas—from internalizing the familiar representations of Southern landscape and sensibility. In this respect, Fire Bones subtly acknowledges and subverts the moonlight-and-magnolia version of Southern iconography.
Brownderville, who composed, wrote, and performed the music for each episode, hints at this decentering strategy in an interview with Vol. 1 Brooklyn: “Here equals there, thisaway is thataway, and home’s the place that never stops surprising.” He adds: “The whole idea of localness in Fire Bones is pretty tricky. You’ve got this remote little town called Thisaway, but if you stay awhile…you realize it’s secretly modded out with trapdoors.” In chapter two, when Brownderville and Weiss reach the Arkansas border, they stop at a welcome center where a man named “The Beekeeper Spaceman” ushers them into a grain silo that becomes a spaceship that blasts them to the Planet Swan. Goodbye, weird little patch of strange Southern place, not to mention every stereotype you ever imposed on it, and hello Swan, whatever the hell that place is like. Brownderville—who might as well be reminding us that the moon is in outer space and that magnolias came from China—says this about Fire Bones’s trapdoors: “[F]all in and the next thing you know you’re not in Arkansas anymore.”
None of this should imply that Brownderville ignores the harsh reality of the past—particularly when it comes to race. In chapter six, an opening podcast presents Brownderville and Weiss asking a young Black poet named Louisiana Gamblin-Green about Boustani’s reputation and possible whereabouts. But Gamblin-Green, who thinks Boustani’s church (the Fire Bones Tabernacle) routinely fleeced its impoverished parishioners, reminds her visitors about something far more essential to their investigation: The past is in the present and its lessons are on the walls.
Literally. Gamblin-Green lives in a shotgun house covered with the metal ink plates that her grandparents once used to print a Black newspaper called The Mosquito. Brownderville reads the region’s history plated on her home, including a piece on the Elaine Massacre, one of the worst instances of racial violence in US history that killed hundreds of Black sharecroppers and their families in 1919. Gamblin-Green, living inside this history, tells Brownderville that her house always encourages her to “read against the grain.” No matter which direction one reads, the message is indelible: This landscape is real, and it holds blood.
Fire Bones pivots on the next scene. A nearly four-minute video presents Gamblin-Green by herself, recounting another kind of writing on the wall: the violently racist graffiti she found in gas-station bathrooms on a drive from Arkansas to Charleston, South Carolina. This segment is raw and breathtaking, a powerful affirmation of Brownderville’s choice to open the narrative to multiple formats. The shift from podcast to video denies viewers the chance to project subjectively imagined ideas about Gamblin-Green onto her. As she recounts the racism she has experienced, she does so as Louisiana Gamblin-Green, a woman stripped bare and ready to do the same for truth and justice.
Considering how our projections rely upon and perpetuate unexamined assumptions and stereotypes, Brownderville’s decision to put Gamblin-Green and her monologue in our faces—about three inches from them at that—has a jarring impact. When Gamblin-Green appeared on the screen, I was forced to check myself: What kind of person had I envisioned during the previous podcast, when all I had was a voice? What came to mind visually? With the video, Gamblin-Green answers these questions for us. Her physical presence elicits a jolt—here is a Black woman, played by Brittney Bluitt, whose emotions sear into the camera. The racism she recounts, visceral in its horror, simultaneously exists in the present and the past, and the two become one. The ultimate effect is to obliterate any notion of locality and tap something about humanity that is transcendently dark.
Gamblin-Green explains the hatred she experienced not as a regional phenomenon, but a national one. As she takes us into an art exhibition displaying her documentation of the vile bathroom declarations, she warns, “You are about to descend into the underworld of the American psyche.” Note the trajectory of this chapter: We started with historical text on the outside of an Arkansas shotgun shack set in the middle of the woods—a pinprick of a place—and we end in the broad contemporary legacy of that localized text—everywhere, basically—punctuated by Gamblin-Green’s insistence that the burden she faces, and that all Black Americans face, is endless and boundless.
Fire Bones further erases the boundaries around geography by hosting a range of characters with diversified stories that burst the seams of any region, much less the Arkansas Delta. Characters from multiple geographies evoke the south before it became the South—an expanded perspective that comes as a relief, since the literature of the American South tends to act as if there is no literature of the American “small s” south. Two hundred years of multiethnic cultural interaction that had nothing to do with King Cotton or John Calhoun has been swamped in the lore of antebellum life. But the early South was a different place. It was home to dozens of American Indian cultures, as well as the French, Spanish, English, and Dutch. It was a swirl of cultures and ethnicities, a region yet to be reduced to a single crop sustained by a single racial hierarchy. Fire Bones taps into this forgotten world.
Just as there are multiple digital formats in Fire Bones, there are multiple ethnicities. While Boustani is Lebanese, her boyfriend, the captivating and protean Ju Mon Poy—played by Raymund King—is the Chinese son of immigrant parents who own The Mad Butcher, a local grocery store. Chapter seven presents Beall McClellan, “a twenty-year-old Honduran national living in the US to explore her heritage”—her heritage being that of the Confederacy. Oddly, McClellan descended from an antebellum family who left the South after the Confederacy’s fall to keep the dream alive as Los Confederados on the Caribbean coast. And then the last segment of chapter seven is a handwritten recipe for that staple—one might say test—of Southern authenticity: the biscuit.
But this version does not come from the Old South. It comes from Poy, who has taken to wearing a black beret and scarf. He looks like a character from a Toulouse-Lautrec painting. And instead of King Biscuit flour he uses pulverized fortune cookies, dusting the end result with the ashes of pan-seared fortunes that he wrote as a former employee of The Mad Butcher. “Feeds 2,” the recipe (really a hidden poem) concludes, “but 1 is missing.”
The plot is thick as dough, with poetry creeping through the portals, and the South looks less like its own tropes than someplace wildly different and uncontainable.
As place turns amorphous, as trapdoors open and shut, as ethnicities proliferate, the Arkansas Delta becomes more of a blurred kaleidoscopic backdrop to the story than its focus. To an extent, place in Fire Bones, much like the mystery at its core, is up for grabs. We are far afield of Eudora Welty’s notion that “place…has the most delicate control over character: by confining character, it defines it,” or Frederick Turner’s description of Thoreau, Willa Cather, and William Carlos Williams as “heroes” who “learned in loneliness and silence and deprivation how truly to see where on the American earth they were.”
But if these connections between geography and consciousness are relics of an analog world, well then: Where are we? When the storyteller leaves the woods of Massachusetts, the pueblos of New Mexico, or the grit of a New Jersey mill town, what’s left to work with when it comes to integrating character and place? Brownderville suggests an answer in his Vol. 1 Brooklyn interview: “You could say Fire Bones is set in This-away, or you could say the real setting is the internet, or your phone.” Indeed, the online world is routinely affirmed by the go-show as a place all its own, a reality we can avoid only through the most extreme measures, and one that, even when we do avoid it, always lures us back.
Ju Mon Poy’s journey is especially revealing in this respect. In chapter three, Brownderville and Weiss visit Poy at home. Sitting in his living room, they discover that he has meticulously frozen reality to the decorative and technological standards of 1995 (a time before Boustani, his girlfriend, had disappeared). A Razorbacks–Auburn football game from that year plays on a tiny Sansui television set, Poy uses the word rad, and an ad runs for a product called the Cheaper Beeper. When Weiss pulls out his smartphone and begins to text, Poy yanks it from him, shoves it under a couch cushion, and glares at his visitors from the future (he does this while wearing a T-shirt that says “Reality” followed by a check mark). Later, however, Poy decides it’s time to leave 1995 behind. Forecasting his move into the digital era, he says, “I’ve been thinking seriously about entering the transfer portal…I know I enrolled in my reality, but I don’t have to stay here…they got new rules now. It’s a new day.” He makes the leap.
Poy’s wish to leave the Arkansas Delta of the mid-nineties and enter the “transfer portal” into the digitized present reflects Fire Bones’sdefiningassumption: Cyberspace is just as fitting a venue for serious storytelling as any literal landscape. In her 2020 book The Digital City, Germaine Halegoua backs this point, arguing that living through our smartphones does not necessarily entail becoming detached from place. “If we take account of the ways in which digital wayfinding makes the world around us meaningful,” she writes, “then digital navigation is entirely about placing oneself in space.” Halegoua insists that when we are avoiding interaction with traditional geographies we are, by living online, attentive to another version of place. We are not so much “alone together” or a “lonely crowd” as a collective hive of loosely connected sensibilities. Why should this version of place not have literary agency in the same way conventional settings do?
Fire Bones honors this question. It pursues literary expressions that reflect and shape the dispersed consciousness that animates cyberspace. Its characters interact less with a preexisting sense of place than an undefined one that awaits whatever cohesion or character Brownderville and his actors bring to it. Unlike the Snopes, Compsons, Sartorises, and McCaslins of Yoknapatawpha County, the characters in Fire Bones are not constrained by Faulkner’s maxim that the past haunts the present. Instead, they are liberated—partially by the variable media and partially by the acknowledgment of cyberspace as a real setting—to soar beyond it.
A case in point is the “preacher” who takes over the Fire Bones Tabernacle Church after Boustani vanishes—a dandified gentleman named Chad Fonda (played by Chris Gardner). Foppish Fonda, who redefines the nature of worship for Thisaway, trusts that his parishioners “understand the importance of their Pentecostal icons having a glamorous appearance.” Dressed in layered silks and leopard scarves, he rebrands worship services as “donnybrooks,” serves strawberries and pecans for communion, and, on the church’s marquee, replaces conventional biblical quotes with expressions such as bad weather makes me horny and, more aptly, anything is possible out here, pumpkin. Under Fonda’s leadership, heathen and holy mate to produce offspring that traditional Southern landscapes cannot plausibly contain.
This is not to denigrate traditional Southern landscapes or the regional specificity of Faulkner’s writing (or anyone’s, for that matter). It’s only to recognize how a traditional sense of place can restrict what happens inside it. About fifty pages into Faulkner’s third novel, Flags in the Dust (originally published as Sartoris), Old Bayard Sartoris knocks Caspey Strother, his Black servant, to the ground with a stick of stove wood, a Jim Crow reprimand for being uppity. That singular event, indelibly linked to Jefferson, Mississippi, resurrected the past that presaged this assault, the racial hierarchy at its core, and thus the burden to seek some measure of reckoning. In so doing, that singular moment, one might argue, sets the thematic and geographical frame for the next thirty years of Faulkner’s work.
Nobody who has carefully read Faulkner can be anything but appreciative of this relentless focus. But it is, nonetheless, relentless focus, one intricately entwined with the “postage stamp” of land Faulkner knew so well. All of which is to say, there is no room for Chad Fonda and his spiritually expansive antics in Yoknapatawpha. But Thisaway’s digital space opens Fonda’s donnybrook doors to any Faulkner character you could dig out of the most remote hills of northern Mississippi.
Fire Bones is an expression of what a growing movement of revisionist media scholars has been seeking to affirm. In Halegoua’s terms, they want “to recognize more positive associations between digital media and experiences of place.” This is a timely corrective. The last decade has seen a spate of dire predictions about the fate of humanity in the grip of digital existence—from Jaron Lanier’s brilliant You Are Not a Gadget to Nicholas Carr’s catastrophic The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains to Sherry Turkle’s warmly empathetic Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other. These studies have driven home the point that the internet can be a nasty place, one that, if we don’t watch it, will swallow us into homogenized and numbed oblivion. Or worse. One recent reviewer’s disdain for the dangers of the internet led him to describe “solipsism and rootlessness” as “cyberspace’s Faustian payback”—the digital devil in our midst.
Contemporary novelists have followed these critics into the vortex of doom. Two recent examples stand out. Patricia Lockwood’s viral 2019 London Review of Books essay (“The Communal Mind”), which recently culminated in a novel (No One Is Talking About This), not only insists that creative storytelling is virtually impossible inside “the collective head,” but that original thought itself has been rendered moot, if not totally dead, inside “the portal.”
“Why did the portal feel so private,” she writes in both the article and the book, “when you only entered it when you needed to be everywhere?” Everywhere, here, means nowhere, of course. Everywhere and nowhere is precisely the disembodied state of mind that inspires the false sense of power in Lockwood’s portal-imprisoned protagonist: “She wasn’t trapped, rooted in her provincial ignorance and her regional mispronunciations, pinned to one place.” To the contrary, when online, “she was an instantaneous citizen of the flash of lightning that wrote across the sky I know.” Once there, Lockwood feels, you are as good as gone. Even when one does manage to focus enough to read “things in the portal”—trying to, you know, really know—it is, at least in the dark ethos of this novel, necessarily accomplished with “rapacious diffidence” and “vacant avidity.” A very nasty place indeed.
“Real life” eventually intervenes. The protagonist’s sister suffers a health issue that snaps the protagonist out of her digital daze. But before that moment a litany of anodyne metaphors and generalizations about the horrors of the “communal mind” pours forth. One example:
The people who lived in the portal were often compared to those legendary experiment rats who kept hitting a button over and over to get a pellet. But at least the rats were getting a pellet, or the hope of a pellet, or the memory of a pellet. When we hit the button, all we were getting was to be more of a rat.
In this ethereal realm, nothing registers and nothing sticks. Those “who came of age in the 2000s,” we learn, “saw the whole world’s waxed pussy get out of a car and said, more.” What hope is left if this is what passes for desire? There’s a lot of this kind of hand-wringing in No One Is Talking About This, but one leaves the novel feeling less concerned about the dangers of the internet or the hive mind than Lockwood’s personal experiences in it.
Richard Flanagan’s The Living Sea of Waking Dreams offers another novelistic critique of the human mind lost in digital fog. The main character, Anna, battles an addiction to digital distraction so severe she hallucinates the disappearance of body parts—her own and others’. It’s a condition that prompts the narrator to offer endless commentaries about living on our phones. To wit: “The more things changed the harder people stared into their screens, living elsewhere, the real world now no more than the simulacrum of the screen world, their real lives the shadow of their online lives.” A version of this message appears about once every fifteen pages, like a meddlesome chaperone.
Forget that such assessments are boring. The larger concern is the big question that such dismissals beg: By what logic does Flanagan dismiss what happens on screens as separate from “the real world”? Likewise, why does Lockwood deny room for beauty and mystery and literature—genuine storytelling—in Flanagan’s “screen world”? And doesn’t such a blanket dismissal, this facile refusal to see the portal as anything but a cesspool, amount to a huge cop-out?
Because, as Fire Bones concedes, the portal is where we live. In 2021, about a third of Americans reported being online “almost constantly.” The most active 20 percent of smartphone users are on their screens more than four and a half hours a day. In 2019, American youth spent twice as much time watching online videos compared with 2015, a figure on track to double yet again. This extensive time online fundamentally alters how we think about place, how we internalize its meaning. A team of anthropologists (people who study the essence of place) who researched online behavior in nine countries recently concluded that the smartphone is indeed our “home,” calling it “perhaps the first object to challenge the house itself (and possibly also the workplace) in terms of the amount of time we dwell in it while awake.”
I have singled out Lockwood and Flanagan, perhaps unfairly. They are in fact part of a long literary tradition of picking contemporary society’s lowest-hanging fruit—yes, as Lockwood insists on reminding us, there are people out there who post pics of themselves with Chihuahuas standing on their erections—and pressing it into bitter juice. I think of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, and the protagonist dying in front of a television set, clutching that evil instrument of the 1980s: the remote control. Or Don DeLillo’s portrayal of the grocery store as a soul-sucking emblem of hyper-reality in White Noise. Or the existential hopelessness caused by mining and marketing in William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic. Perhaps it is the natural disposition of those whose creativity is traditionally rooted in text to lash out at the forces that distract us from text. Perhaps a multimedia reality is too daunting to contemplate as a setting for constructing consciousness. Perhaps writing sentences is starting to feel anachronistic in the age of Twitter and TikTok. Who knows.
But I admire Fire Bones for acknowledging the reality that we live on screens and deserve a literature appropriate for that existence. Didn’t Joyce and Woolf do something similar in response to the madness of industrialization? Did they not seek expressions where consciousness could survive in the modern world?
Brownderville, in making his go-show, is also part of a long storytelling tradition. He told me that the seed for Fire Bones sprouted when he was working on a poem and thought to himself, If I only could take a picture of what I want to write. This urge to break free from the strictures of text evoked a time-honored habit, one where poets chanted their work in the agora, actors made the world a stage, and even the earliest illuminated manuscripts came with vivid imagery. We’ve always told our most important stories through an array of formats. It’s encouraging to think that we’ll continue to do so, and maybe even in ways that not only lend a sense of place to cyberspace, but—again, like the most important stories—save ourselves from its demons.