[12 August 2014]
The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit is British cult author Graham Joyce’s latest book, except that it is also not really a new book. This novel was originally published last year in the United Kingdom as The Year of the Ladybird, and I initially thought the reason for the name change was to remove the very British-ism from the title for what is an American reprinting of the book. (Ladybirds are more commonly known in America as ladybugs.)
However, there’s a little more to it than that. I reached out to Joyce’s US publicist, and it seems as though the change of title is meant to reflect some rewriting on Joyce’s part to ratchet up the suspense and tension during the editing process, so there are some changes that have been apparently made to the original text. I happened to have downloaded The Year of the Ladybird onto my Kindle and read the first couple of chapters, and can say that not a lot has changed, at least at the start, aside from a find and replace of all references from “ladybird” to “ladybug” and any mention of “rock” is expanded to make it clear that Joyce is writing about “rock candy”. So whether it is The Year of the Ladybird or The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit, the plot is essentially the same.
Set in the summer of 1976, which was one of the hottest on record in the UK, the story centers around David Barwise, a young university student who seeks summer employment at a dying English seaside resort. Now, the setting and year are interesting as punk rock was just around the corner, the country was in the grips of a drought and a ladybug infestation, and there was great political turmoil at the time, with fascism on the rise. Joyce weaves these elements into the story, but given that this is a Graham Joyce book, this is somewhat of a focus on the supernatural.
Joyce is a bit of a slipstream writer: not quite literary, but not quite fantasy. In fact, he is a winner of the O. Henry Award and various fantasy awards both in Britain and internationally. However, The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit mutes the fantastical elements and this reads more like a straight-up coming of age story as David makes the rounds in the resort culture, gets caught up in a vicious love triangle, and starts having visions of a man and a little boy on the beach; the man, of course, being the titular character of the piece.
The Ghost in the Electric Suit is, pardon the pun, an electrifying read, and a quick one, too: I managed to finish the book over the course of a weekend. Joyce has a knack for writing very matter-of-factly and in plain language, and it’s easy to get swept away by the sheer momentum of the novel. There’s a little bit of political commentary, too, as David finds himself accidentally hanging out with National Front members, and it’s uncanny that one character has read the following books: Erich Segal’s Love Story, Stephen King’s Carrie and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
Typically, a good Joyce book will marry the styles of writing found in those three examples, though the latter two are much less in evidence here. And Joyce effortlessly captures a culture that is gradually fading away, as the seaside resort business gives way to international travel.
What The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit does well, too, is offer a paean to escapism, and not just for the reader. The holidaymakers who populate the resort are looking to escape from the harsh working conditions of industrial labour, particularly in the coal mines, at least temporarily. David is trying to get away from a summer working in the construction business with his step-father. And another female character is trying to get away from the clutches of a brutish husband with a capacity for violence. Even the National Front members, racist though they may be, are trying to escape from a future of no jobs and a recession that is looming right before them. So there’s much to chew on with this theme of the book.
However, while I doubt that Joyce has ever turned in a bad novel (I’m still making my way through his backcatalogue), The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit sees the author on autopilot. In fact, I would go so far as to call this Graham Joyce Lite, as it’s a minor work.
The characters are unusually one dimensional – David’s roommate at the resort is basically played for comic relief and not much more – and David is a protagonist who gets led around by the other characters, and the plot usually involves him being reactive to whatever is happening to him, rather than being proactive.
The love triangle aspect of the book is also quite predictable – if you don’t see what’s coming, you haven’t really read an Archie comic growing up. And as for that ghost haunting David, well, if you haven’t figured out who he is or might be within the first couple of chance meetings, I don’t know what to say.
These elements of utter predictability make the novel feel rather flat. Usually, Joyce is a lot better at stringing his plots together so that you don’t naturally see what’s coming for his characters, which makes this novel rather unusual. Having worked in the resort business as a youth, I suppose Joyce wanted to get a bildungsroman out of his system.
Still, The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit is a great beach read for the dog days of summer, as there’s not a great deal here that will challenge the mind of the reader, which is probably the book’s greatest asset and liability. Even though the characterizations are flat, the interaction between David and the holidaymakers is sometimes worth a chuckle, and there’s natural tension even if you sort of know where this is all going.
The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit isn’t the sort of instant classic that Joyce’s The Tooth Fairy, Requiem and The Limits of Enchantment are. Still, at halfway decent, Joyce is still usually miles ahead of much of his competition. If you’re new to Joyce, but are unsure whether you’d like his much more darkly fantastic work or not, this is a pretty good starting place. The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit is simply a sound, enjoyable novel, and though it’s not much more than that, it’s still grand to have a a new Joyce book in hand. Even if it really isn’t all that “new”.