October 2010

Erin McKnight

fiction

Ghosted by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall

While undoubtedly trite, the suggestion that this debut novel by an author unafraid to palpate society’s dark underbelly is a wild ride falls utterly short in terms of Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s unnerving subject matter and singular style. Ghosted is the kind of book a reader won’t soon forget, its characters imbued with the ability to hang around long after their astounding trip is over, and the stunned reader is forced to return to his or her less-dangerous, yet also less-enticing, reality.

For the landscape of this environment has been scorched by the very fire burning in the bellies of people who should be considered deplorable; this novel could be overlooked as fractured renderings of a disarming, distorted, and dizzied grouping of scenes culled from the mind of an astoundingly original, yet erratic, author. However, from the first day of protagonist Mason Dubisee’s life, during which he was forced to duck a “booze-propelled bullet” in the form of a champagne cork fired by his own father, this young Toronto writer, drinker, drug addict, gambler, and all-around loser proves compelling to the reader on a level likely as frightening as the book’s helter-skelter journey to the hell of Bob Seger’s heavily referenced “Fire Lake.”

Related to the often-unwitting process of shedding imagined and longed-for personae -- typically as a result of maturation, though for Mason and his damaged-goods compatriots, a result of multiple encounters with a stunting reality -- finding oneself “ghosted” is the result of ceasing to create future, better selves, when “standing there -- or, more likely, hunched over and puking -- [you] were who you were, who you are... all the [people] you’d envisioned were never going to be.” Where Mason’s consuming proclivity for self-destruction abides is in the persistence of these long-held reliances, in the extended shelf life of his haunting potential selves.

Embodied in the despairing forms of people who hire him after coming across his online classified ad as a “professional ghostwriter available, for notes and letters,” Mason’s role in detailing the reasons for their subjects’ eventual deaths is spelled out not only in the suicide notes he renders, but in their intrusion into his multiple-year novel writing process. Assisted on his precipitous path to sobriety, as well as in locating authorial control over his own existence by a physician specializing in substance abuse, Mason teeters between multiple state of consciousness, representations of reality, and tales too disturbing not to be told, this “in-between” status allowing for the bizarre, frightening, and at times depraved behavior of people the reader would likely rather not encounter -- and embarking on anything short of Bishop-Stall’s smoldering pages, likely wouldn’t.

Yet, it is the spirit of inaccessible potentiality, due largely to the writer’s firm grasp on his narrative reins, that makes Ghosted a novel successful across the genres of black comedy, love tale, suspense thriller, and horror story detailing a series of almost otherworldly encounters. How else could a suicide-note writer/hot dog vendor be perceived as so damn likeable, his dealer best friend and hemiplegic (“split right down the center”) girlfriend so irresistibly placating to the frazzled nerves which fire in response to a novel that seems as capable of catching on fire as it does of slipping through the reader’s fingers as nothing more than an apparition: an incendiary phantasm?

The author’s mastery of thought and language, his ability to take up Mason’s evasive struggle with the realization that the end-of-the-line folks whose lives he chronicles through ambiguously authored final words are “all real, but they’re also a story,” is nothing short of ferocious in its proclivity for tenderness. Without Mason’s clients “there’d be a different story,” but, arguably, Bishop-Stall’s overwhelming achievement lies in the fact that his reader won’t doubt that there would be a story: for this is a writer who appreciates that sometimes self-annihilation is a temporary side effect of getting down and dirty in seeking what was lost, even if such a pursuit results in little more than a gripping at the edges of a dark shape lost to the cruel reality of time -- a form never actually capable of any corporeal substantiation.

Ghosted by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall
Soft Skull Press
ISBN: 159376295X
336 Pages