Believing in Ghosts: October Reads

I didn't make my October reading list intentionally spooky, so it must just be that most fiction is about ghosts one way or another and we're just particularly prone to notice around Halloween.

Some of my ghosts were literal, and in those cases also formally experimental. After first reading Lincoln in the Bardo in print form earlier this year and hearing the audiobook recommended at every turn, I finally gave it a listen. I'm now tragically curious about how I'd feel if I'd read/listened in the opposite order, but going in with foreknowledge of the plot to ground me I loved experiencing the polyphonic arguments and interruptions and soliloquies while commuting or otherwise going about my life—the way the novel's living characters do. It was a haunting.

A weirdly lovely companion to the Saunders novel was Dave Malloy's Ghost Quartet, a chamber musical whose characters circle back to each other and themselves across time, space, and states of being. Each new track deepens the audience's understanding of the characters and their relationships, until at one point it reads like a fugue and we feel we're learning things and making connections faster than the characters themselves can. Listening to Malloy and Saunders—whose Bardo residents don't realize, fundamentally, that they are dead—you end up thinking a lot about what a soul knows, if anything; what we have to learn from and tell each other; what we will or have already forgotten. Do we believe in ghosts? Do ghosts believe in us?

Ghosts are no less present, though perhaps a tad less literal, in Emily Ruskovich's Idaho. Here the haunting comes through memories treasured, evaded, invented, and lost. Dementia, prison, trauma both inflicted and survived, even one sister outgrowing a favorite game before another—this book is concerned with the ways we become half-strangers, half-family to one another. These ghostly presences, as in Malloy and Saunders, are underscored by Idaho's shifting point of view. There seems to me, as one modern reader, something inherently otherworldly about a collective, mutable, or omniscient narration. Any time the text in our hands bends beyond the singular perspective, we feel the prickly of the world beyond.

In Idaho, the effect is partly to make us believe in one of the book's own ghosts. As the narrator trades perspectives, hopping between characters searching for (or striving to forget) the missing June, the reader ends up waiting just as eagerly for her appearance—as a point-of-view character, to be thus found by us even if none of the other characters are so lucky. In Ruskovich, where characters find and lose each other in memory more than in the flesh, to imagine is to meet. Most of the book's interactions are ghostly visitations, in fact or in mood.

I finished out the month with Call Me By Your Name and Elif Batuman's The Idiot, two chilling tales of the slings and arrows of adolescence. After so many profound and ethereal tragic tales told from multiple perspectives (and planes), I felt particularly acutely the transition to the blind fumbling and mortified confusion of Batuman's and Aciman's young protagonists. The lack of information—even for the reader; the vague dramatic irony that comes when we know something is wrong but our narrator doesn't know enough to tell us what—broke my heart. As I'm sure it would have, regardless of where I'd just come from. But I found myself itching for the collective voice of my other October reads—for a chapter from Oliver's perspective, or Ralph's. I'd grown used to being a ghost of a reader, privy to everyone's thoughts—most fully aware of the scope of everyone's yearning, but held above the tragedy of it all by the distance of my own multifaceted perspective. It's an extra privilege, an extra pain to be "alive" again and wedding to one character, raw and confused and limited, trying to understand another but unable, alas, to jump into their mind. In some books, this is the haunting ache. Spooky.