The ghost in the machine

September 4, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Ghosted. Shaughessy Bishop-Stall; $32.00 cloth 978-0-679-31452-3, 394 pp., Random House Canada

Literary spirits – dead and living – haunt Shaughessy Bishop-Stall’s first novel. Charles Bukowski, Hubert Selby, Jr., Bret Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk: echoes of each can be detected at various points throughout Ghosted, a potent story about addiction and despair that takes an unfortunate left-turn about two-thirds of the way through and never quite gets back on track.

The novel focuses on Mason Dubisee, an alcoholic, gambling addicted would-be writer who finds himself getting ever deeper in debt to his old friend Chaz, a small-time drug dealer and hoodlum. Chaz sets Mason up in an apartment, gives him money for life’s basic necessities – food, shaving equipment, and rivers of whiskey – and gets him a job as the Dogfather, a vendor selling hot dogs out of a cart called the Dogmobile: “It’s like a state-of-the-art pseudo-mafioso hotdog stand kind of thing.” It is here that Mason meets Warren, a computer programmer who has fallen in love and who offers Mason $5,000 to ghostwrite a love letter for him. Mason complies, but no sooner has he completed the assignment than Warren turns up dead. At his funeral, Warren’s sister reads Mason’s letter, which was found on his desk, and has morphed from a love missive into a suicide note.

Having struggled unsuccessfully for five years to write a novel, Mason recognizes an opportunity to put his skills as a writer to good use and simultaneously make enough money to pay down his mounting debt to Chaz. In short order, Mason has posted an advertisement online offering his services to despairing souls who plan to kill themselves and want a lovingly crafted testimonial to leave behind. Needless to say, Mason finds no shortage of people willing to pony up the cash.

All of this is narrated briskly, using a limited third-person perspective and incorporating all manner of meta-textual devices, from e-mails to notes for Mason’s failed novel to random Socratic statements from a therapist’s questionnaire (“I’d rather fold a napkin (or tablecloth) than unfold one”; “I’d rather build a bridge than write a song”). Throughout, Bishop-Stall evinces a clear eye for the city of Toronto and its often listless and wayward inhabitants:

There was a small park in the middle of Kensington Market that reminded him of Richard Scarry’s Busytown – every kind of folk doing every kind of thing – mohawked punks playing guitar, old Chinese women doing tai chi, a man on a unicycle being chased by small children, a circle of fishmongers smoking from a hookah, painters with their easels and watercolours, young Wiccans with their sticks and stones, people writing in notebooks, readers reading, singers singing, dealers dealing, drummers drumming, drinkers drinking – all together in the same small frame.

The language here has a jazzy rhythm to it, and the portrait of the city is vibrant and immediate. This is not a surprise from Bishop-Stall, whose first book, Down to This, chronicled the year the author spent living in Toronto’s notorious tent city. His affection for the homeless, mentally ill, and dispossessed is evident throughout Ghosted, and his descriptions of the people who inhabit The Cave, Chaz’s underground boozecan, have a kind of Ellroyesque quality about them:

The poker table was full – a blue, green and black monster in the centre of the felt, tumbling stacks, cards snapping, thick lines of coke on metal discs, cigarette packs, forearms with fresh tattoos still leaking blood, a card burning then turning to the river.

In all corners the shadows were full: skids, capos, trannies, nannies, boxers, traders, waiters, goths, hookers, dealers, doctors, DJs, addicts, assholes, dentists and debt collectors – Chaz’s patrons, getting blasted in the early morning.

Nor is the book devoid of humour, albeit of an extraordinarily dark hue. (Variations on Mason’s Internet ad include “So life ain’t worth living? And your writing skills suck?” and “The grey skies may never be clear, but at least your letter should be.”) And Bishop-Stall proves adept at pacing and at keeping a number of narrative balls in the air simultaneously.

Unfortunately, the author wants his protagonist to be redeemed, and his chosen method for effecting this is introducing a character who is even worse than Mason: more heinous, more callous, more reprehensible. Enter Seth Handyman, a sociopathic pedophile who discovers Mason’s online solicitation, setting the two of them on a collision course. It is with Seth’s introduction that the novel ceases to be a dark urban satire and dons the mantle of a thriller. Seth gives Mason the notebook that his therapist has ordered him to keep, in which he details a prison scalping and the abduction and rape of an eight-year-old girl, among other atrocities. None of this material is gratuitous, in the sense that it is all essential to the novel’s plot, but neither is it comfortable reading: Bishop-Stall’s relentlessly dark milieu – frequently reminiscent of the urban horrorscapes of Bret Easton Ellis – is not for everyone.

But the real problem with the novel’s final stages is the shift in emphasis away from postmodern satire to a more conventional chase narrative. There’s even the de rigueur imperilled love interest (who, in one of the novel’s most jarring moments, takes over the narrative point-of-view from Mason for two pages, before the perspective switches back again precipitously). This retreat into convention is disappointing in a novel that flouts convention so assiduously in its first half. And the various plot strands come together a bit too neatly to be entirely satisfying: in this sense, as well as in its Toronto setting, Ghosted bears a resemblance to Alissa York’s novel Fauna (both York and Bishop-Stall teach creative writing at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies).

“Anti-hero is a lot easier than hero,” Chaz tells Mason. Perhaps, but its also often more interesting. Mason’s transformation from a self-destructive, self-absorbed reprobate into a heroic figure arguably provides a kind of catharsis, but his redemption just doesn’t ring true. Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall knows darkness well, and has the literary skills to dramatize it. Would that he also had the confidence to see his vision through to its extreme, uncompromised end.