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“This is my own story, told in many voices,” says the narrator of Rick Whitaker’s new novel, An Honest Ghost (Jaded Ibis Press). The sentence, like every other in the book, has been lifted from a volume in Whitaker’s own library, or that of his fictional protagonist–the reader is subtly encouraged to confuse the two. What results is an impressionistic portrait of literary subjectivity that cuts both ways, revealing the opportunities for pleasure and refuge available to the inveterate reader, despite the insufficiency of even the best crafted sentence to stand against life’s tendency towards chaos and vacancy.
The novel’s narrator is a forty-year-old American expatriate living in Paris with his young lover, a wealthy, alcoholically self-absorbed Englishman named David. Having abandoned a law career for a less buttoned-down life amongst the city’s artist set, the narrator is “now interested only in reading and writing and anonymous sex.” But the writing has stalled and the search for love never-ending–David, who chases misery with liquor and rarely comes to bed, is good for little in this regard. There is talk of Zen masters and “rules for becoming more alive.” Like his literary progenitors in James and Eliot, our narrator suffers in life from rather unfashionably high expectations. “We are in fact made of the same material as Isabel Archer, as Dorothea Brooke,” he laments.
An evening of futile cruising ends with a knock at the door, and into this scene of spiritual yearning steps a child, the narrator’s estranged son, Joe. The boy is precocious and needy, with a particular flair for taking the piss out of the adults. “Men are such perverts,” Joe says jealously, when his father broaches the subject of David. Still, the narrator finds his life re-oriented around the boy and the all-consuming love he demands. He catches Dick Cheney on television and suddenly the numbingly familiar rhetoric of the “global war on terror” echoes with a single heart-stopping thought: “My son will be hurt.” This sudden mid-life unsefling jars the narrator out of orbit with David and the other extravagant neurotics with whom he keeps company. It also provides an aesthetic remove from which he can view the world more clearly, and finally begin again to write.
Whitaker’s novel is preoccupied with the mimetic impulse, the mind’s habit of hiding from itself and the possibility of change amongst the furniture of the past. “All of us, even when we think we have noted every tiny detail, resort to set pieces which have already been staged often enough by others,” the narrator observes. Nowhere is this tendency more evident than in Joe’s mother, the cruelly flamboyant Eleanor Sullivan. Middle-aged and estranged from her son, Eleanor’s pleasures are limited to dining out, drinking to excess and turning her most pedestrian insecurities outward into caustic melodramas, improvised from well-worn scripts. “In this heat, champagne is so much more refreshing than tea,” she enthuses, a little wink to the dark moods sure to follow a dinnertime drunk. But our narrator is far too well rehearsed in her games to fear what is to come. “She stressed her words in unusual places,” he deadpans, “making them interesting and quite new-sounding.”
But a novel comprised of other writers’ voices cannot judge too harshly Eleanor’s habits of mind, and An Honest Ghost does not attempt to. For how else are we to reveal ourselves to the world, if not as an accumulation of affectations and tastes, turns of phrase picked up along the way? The lengthy index at the end of the novel lists the source of each sentence appropriated and lets readers scan the titles on Whitaker’s bookshelves. Like Georges Perec’s meticulously curated lists of foods consumed and things-to-do, the index also functions as a portrait of the author as serious reader or, as the narrator of An Honest Ghost finds his lover’s library, “the incarnation of both his absence and his presence.”
An Honest Ghost is a wondrous Ouija board session of a read. To expect a novel that channels Nathaniel West and Henry James (and many, many more) in a single chapter to hold together with absolute cohesion is to miss the point. Life is treacherous. Children torture us with their quicksilver moods, faithless lovers return broken and contrite, one-night stands insinuate themselves into the daylight landscape and haunt us in the night when they disappear for good, all with a senseless unreason. Thus, the recourse to art, the desire for something somehow both less real and less evanescent than life.
Whitaker’s novel ends with a determined renunciation of the world along with all of the beautiful sentences that have described its meanings, a dissolve into forgetfulness and silence. But many readers will find themselves turning back to the best parts, committing them to memory, saying them out loud, arming themselves with pithy, elegant lines to meet the day.
An Honest Ghost
By Rick Whitaker
Jaded Ibis Press
Paperback, 9781937543501, 236 pp.