[Psychology Tomorrow Proudly Presents an Excerpt from Rick Whitaker’s An Honest Ghost]
An Honest Ghost is a novel which evolved (over eight years) out of an Oulipo-style strict rule I set for myself at the beginning: I would limit myself to sentences I could find in other books. I would steal fewer than 300 words per book (in accordance with my understanding of Fair Use law), would not take two sentences together, would make no changes, even to punctuation (and quotation marks), and would attribute every sentence to its source. (Oulipo is a French literary group that was interested in creating “generative” processes by which to create literary texts, for example Georges Perec’s 1969 novel, La Disparition, omitting the letter e – that is to say, using no words that included an e – except for the author’s own name; Gilbert Adair translated the book into English, also without requiring the letter e, as A Void.) My hope was to access a kind of strange, uncanny turning of the mind that would both tell my own story and push against the boundaries of my own conscious thought.
The plot of the novel developed along with the text itself. I wanted to stick with an autobiographical slant as much as possible. The narrator, like me, is a gay man with a kid. He is involved with a difficult, wealthy, promiscuous younger man, David. Eleanor, a spoiled, selfish, irresponsible but charming and fun woman, is the mother of the narrator’s precocious son. These four are the main characters, and it is around their lives that the plot revolves. The boyfriend, David, introduces one of his tricks, a strange policeman called Roy, who promptly dies of unknown causes (“in the deep and dark hours of the night”). The real through-line of the story is the narrator’s obsession with memory, and the way memory can be provoked, altered, and lost in seemingly random encounters with people, books, and dreams.
An Honest Ghost
My decision to change my life was not all that easy to act upon. I lacked both genius and talent. I am forty years old. Beneath everything else I smelled (or rather heard) the melancholy of an old, waterlogged industrial building, a sound as virile but at the same time as sexless as a Russian basso descending liturgically from low G to F to E, on and on down on narrow steps below the stave into a resonant deep C. The place was scrubbed daily, but you could never eliminate the smell. The problem is much more serious than that. I opened the window, and the air entered in a single gust, as though it had been waiting for admission.
Generally, even then, I was lonely. A lost soul is one lost in the size and complexity of life. That’s me.
The psychological feeling of dependence seems to be on the increase.
I dropped David a hint of what was going on. “Did you know that I have a son?”
Several times he made as though to speak, but sighed instead.
David extended his hand. “I’m so sorry,” he said impulsively; “but you are among friends here, you know.”
The things one tardily becomes aware of.
“I am glad you’ve come,” he said, kissing me absently, “because you, unlike many others I could name, occasionally understand what I am talking about.”
The irony of this observation never seemed to occur to him.
“How are you getting on with your shrink?” he asked, somewhat irritated. He does not know that the passage from irritated love to black anger is short and swift, while the passage from anger to love is long, slow, and difficult.
“I am the father of an illegitimate son.”
There was a short, smiling silence. But soon this spirit of conﬁdence was followed by a feeling of blank pessimism. What, if anything, does he still want? What was the meaning of it all? Who will speak—who will ﬁll the silence with whatever comes to mind?—and by so doing declare himself the loser, the bitch; the one willing to devise some conversation gambit so that everything can be okay.
“Which cathedral do you like best?” I asked in a strangled voice, trying hard to be natural.
A moan burst from David’s lips. He was handsome and bold and pleasant, off- hand and gay and kind. His broad shoulders made him come off as a big man, though when he turned sideways his waist was breathtakingly slender. “But you have to settle in to looking at these things. You are too intellectual, my dear. It’s too serious a question to decide at this late hour.”
Amused, I nodded in agreement.
“I may be back late tonight,” he said.
We will see. “Fortunately, I know you don’t mean that.”
“I’m interested in a lot of things,” he bragged.
His leisure hours were often drunkenly aimless. There is, of course, in some young men, a certain drive to try to seduce everybody. He was young; he was boyish; he did but as nature bade him. And so on. He was a poet himself.
Take care of yourself, I love you so desperately. Do you love me?