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Frenetic and Scatter-Brained, 'Preparing the Ghost' Is Still an Infuriatingly Good Read

If one is looking for something more 21st century than beat poetry and new journalism to challenge your mind and thrill your heart, this is it, whatever this is.

Preparing the Ghost

Publisher: Liveright
Length: 320 pages
Author: Matthew Gavin Frank
Price: $22.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-07

The giant squid probably doesn’t realize how busy it’s been.

While it paddles about the depths (1,000 metres below), battling whales and – if the stories are to be believed – boats, it’s been generating quite an industry top-side: photographers, marine biologists, journalists, television crews, all eager and desperate to catch a glimpse of this most elusive of sea-creatures.

The allure is easy to understand. Scientific estimates place its size at over 40 feet long, and up to 600 pounds, with the largest eyes of any animal known (11 inches). Elusive and sought-after, the first video of the giant squid in its natural habitat appeared on television only last year.

The giant squid has now attracted the attention of Matthew Gavin Frank, a novelist and writer from Michigan who has decided to apply his own bit of ink to penning its story.

His angle into the subject (or so the book jacket tells us) is the story of the Reverend Moses Harvey, an eccentric naturalist, writer and priest in 19th century Newfoundland who was the first to photograph the giant squid. At least, that’s what we’re told to expect (along with some musings about the nature of story-telling, memory, myth-making, etc etc.).

The reader would do well to pay greater attention to this fine print, because it is in fact these diverse and abstract sub-themes which turn out to comprise the main substance of the book (at the expense of the Reverend Moses Harvey himself).

If ever a book were to be diagnosed with ADHD, this is probably it. It leaps from topic to topic in a stream-of-consciousness way. Indeed, at times it appears to dwell more on ice cream than giant squid.

Coming to Newfoundland, the author relates his efforts to find an ice-cream parlour. Failing to find the ice cream parlour, he sends his narrative on a brief jaunt into the history of ice cream. Then, claiming that one of the early colonial governors in Newfoundland was an ice cream lover (how he ascertained this we are given no clue), he introduces a piece of fiction from the internet where a blogger invented a character with that governor’s same name, who happened to be a giant squid hunter.

Aha, thinks the reader, we’re getting back on topic! But no, the narrative swerves off the squid just as quickly, returning to the topic of ice cream, which precipitates a reflection on a deadly US heat wave and how the mortality rates were racialized and higher in low-income African American communities. But then it returns to squids, for in heat waves people like to think about cold things, and giant squid swim in cold waters.

This sort of rapid-fire topical shift is pervasive. A Newfoundland fisherman in the '30s has the great skill and courage to bag himself a giant squid while out fishing, but the bad fortune to have the name Ezekiel, for this prompts a detour into the exploits of other biblical Ezekiels, a consideration of the frequency with which certain words appear in Ezekiel Chapter 1 (‘likeness’: 14 times) and then a philosophical reflection on what it means to see an image or ‘likeness’ of something (to wit: ice cream).

It’s either brilliant, or infuriating.

There’s a possibility this is good writing; creative writing, but I’m hesitant to commit. The prose is not unpleasant, and at times dips into true lyrical beauty. The focus of the plot skips around faster than a Newfoundland jig, eliciting laughs at some points, and it’s not an unpleasant ride. But then things like this happen, as he is interviewing the proprietor of a Newfoundland insectarium (for no discernible reason) who bears a beard so neat it must have been shaved with a protractor: “His shirt is purple and faux-Polo. The two white buttons are buttoned.”

Can we go back to ice cream, please?

In an unexpected turn. Frank launches a preemptive strike and deliberately dynamites the reader’s ability to invoke suspension of disbelief. After spending several pages dramatizing, through fictional narrative, an excerpt in the life of Moses Harvey (the giant squid’s first photographer, and ostensibly, but not really, the subject of this book) as well as an excerpt in the life of his own grandfather (the only connection between the two characters, he notes, is the fact that his grandfather was born 15 years after Moses Harvey died), he then proceeds to explain that he made up much of the narrative.

And to what end, is left unclear. Is this part of the “myth-making” theme which the book’s cover extols?

That’s the most frustrating thing about Preparing the Ghost: while there are many truths (no specific item is cited but an extensive bibliography conveys the impression a great deal of research was done) the author also deliberately and openly makes up many other facts, or begins with facts and then distorts them in subtle ways for stylistic effect. This too is in service to the broader theme of exploring how we ‘mythologize’ things. Which is a valid theme, but the end result here is that one doesn’t know what to believe and what not to believe, and eventually defaults to assuming most of it is made up.

Perhaps that’s the point, but it’s irritating to slog through nearly 300 pages of this. Shifting between high-sounding scientific verbosity and unexpected colloquialisms doesn’t help (“The giant squid… can fuck up a sperm whale beyond sucker scars.”).

It turns out, eventually, that his grandfather is not so unrelated to giant squid as the author had pretended. Following a brief rundown of pop music charts in the years of his grandfather’s birth and death, it is revealed that his grandfather was a jazz musician who once invented a dance (that never really took off) called the ‘Squid Jump’ (detailed instructions are provided, should one wish to try it).

After several pages of this sort of thing, I realize with some horror that I’ve made a grievous error (I'd blame it on the publicists, but I'd prefer to think they were being clever). This book is not about the giant squid, and I am not remotely qualified to review it. It’s not (primarily) about the squid, or Newfoundland, or photography; any of which items I would feel some grounds to offer critical commentary around.

Preparing the Ghost, rather, is a memoir, located somewhere in the murky waters between beat poetry and gonzo journalism. Tom Wolfe famously described the work of Hunter S. Thompson as "... part journalism and part personal memoir admixed with powers of wild invention and wilder rhetoric." That’s a fairly accurate description of what one will encounter in Preparing the Ghost.

It’s the memoir of a man (the author) who has a healthy fascination with giant squids. But ultimately, it’s not about the squid, but rather about the man (and the society that produced him, etc., etc., and all that other stuff Hunter S. Thompson might say if he were called upon to justify his books, which, because he had the good sense to be writing 40 years ago instead of now, he is not).

Once I’d realized all this – that this was not a bad history book, but rather an ambitiously bold piece of poetic fiction sprinkled with bits of fact -- and made the mental adjustment necessary to cope with a book of such a different stylistic temperament, Preparing the Ghost became a great deal more pleasant to read.

Highly entertaining, with shades of brilliance and flashes of genius, let us say.

But it’s not really about squid.

(And that line about the buttons being buttoned really needs to be excised.)

This is a highly entertaining book, but the reader ought to be better prepared for what it has to offer. To that end, let me offer the promotional blurb that should have accompanied it, and which I feel does far better truth to what this has to offer:

Preparing the Ghost is not a book about squid, although the elusive giant squid appears on every second page. It is not about family, although we learn a great deal about the author’s own. It is about everything (and nothing). It is a literary experiment. It is a journey into the many flailing tentacles of modern culture via the squirming, ink-rich imagination of Matthew Gavin Frank; into the deep dark waters of a magical world where fact is improved with fiction and fiction rendered fuller with fact.

The narrator shoots through these dark waters, tentacles flailing at every theme and idea that passes by. Some stick; some are consumed; some are consumed, regurgitated, and consumed again; some slip by leaving only the slightest trace. The reader fishes for the narrator’s theme, but this is as elusive as the squid that it might or might not be.

This is magical realism, or very real magic. It’s fiction, garnished richly with fact; fact, simmered in a reduction to fiction. This is poetry crafted around a thin skein of historical fact.

Join Frank for a lyrical, psychedelic journey through the themes of his cephalopod imaginings. Learn about giant squid. Learn about ice cream. Learn about jazz music. There will also be a brief travelogue about Newfoundland.

Reviews and press materials grasp at themes such as the “beauty of obsession” and the “power of myth”. But this book (oops, essay) is about none of these things, really. It’s more about nothing in particular; and everything in general.

This is a lyrical essay (of almost 300 pages; at what point does an essay cease to be an essay and become a book?) on a set of themes loosely connected and only barely held together in any sort of shape, like the squid which is its namesake. There are moments of lucidity, but these do not get in the way of the grand poem which the whole comprises. For Frank is a poet – several volumes to his name – and this is an ode to human endeavor as gripping as any set of verses.

That’s the thing about lyric prose essays about cephalopods that try to reel in cosmic themes: they’re tough to do right. But as Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa wrote in his own famous poem about the sea, “Was it worth doing? Everything’s worth doing, if the soul of the doer isn’t small.”

Frank’s soul is not small, and whatever the book’s flaws (and there are many), we need more of these ambitious works: ambitious in the sense of challenging what an essay can be; what a poem can be; what the mysterious reality of a rarely seen cephalopod can be, on a symbolic as well as a literal level.

And the prose? Well, it rises and falls, much like the waves (metaphors are infectious, and there’s no shortage of them in this book). There are giant monster crests, ten-metre waves that swamp you with their power: “The giant squid as first kiss as gravity as tiny bees without stingers as things that should hurt us, but don’t.”

And then there are the waves that sputter and collapse in on themselves under their own weight. On recessive genes: “Somewhere, in the recesses of these recessive versions of our dominant truths, behind a daisy chain of lanterns and Darwin’s theories drunk and conga-lining, Rudolph Valentino was a blond.”

(One reviewer liked that line, so who am I to say. Well, there’s still those buttons…)

There’s a lot of good in here, but at almost 300 pages of text, the endless lists, anachronistic fictional dramatizations of historical events, and page-long sentences of imagery become a bit much. It’s possible to do a lot of good in 300 pages – and Frank achieves wonderful hit after wonderful hit – but with an experiment in writing of that length it’s also impossible to avoid lots of misses. After a bit of well-crafted reporting on the dangers of eating undercooked calamari, this suddenly pops out:

…Myth as quite possible.

Myth, in Portugal, encourages the mosquito to eat leather and turn into a flesh-eating cow.

Myth, in India, inspires the tribe to receive all necessary sustenance from the smells of food, particularly the apple, and, when traveling, to carry the apple with them, as they will perish in the absence of its smell.

Myth, as On Special!, as Ladies Night Discount!...

Nicely constructed verse, but what’s it supposed to mean?

This ‘essay’ is actually three works mashed together in one: an essay on various abstract themes such as myth-making, truth-telling, and the author’s grandfather; a fictional dramatization of the squid adventure in Moses Harvey’s life; and a travelogue of Newfoundland. As individual pieces each of these works quite well; woven together they’re more difficult to handle.

Frank's Newfoundland travelogue is entertaining, indeed refreshing. Writings about Newfoundland tend to fall into one of two categories: over-abundant adulation, or a disdainful depiction of violent poverty and wind-swept grittiness.

Frank neatly avoids either trap, for the most part (I find his recurring description of old men drinking out of paper bags hard to believe: nobody drinks out of paper bags in Newfoundland; open bottles are a norm). His description of the craft gallery: “And up the groaning stairs, more paintings of fish and flowers, beautiful young St. John’s women, arms sleeved in tattoos… And pillows sewn with fish, and quilts sewn with fish, and lampshades made of antlers, and shawls sewn with fish.” The image is accurate, poignant and lovely.

But he also deftly deflates the over-hyped image of George Street, the city’s legendary bar strip: “…dive bar after dive bar, each with their own long lines of mostly 50-somethings waiting to get in… bald bouncers preside over the entryways, their huge bodies doing their best to prevent the bad Mellencamp covers from commingling with the bad Rod Stewart covers coming from next door.” Spot-on: the sort of honesty only an outsider who doesn’t care what people think of him can provide (and indeed, he doesn’t seem to care: he harasses the poor current owner of Moses Harvey’s house, banging on the door at all hours, drunk and sober, demanding to be let in to see it).

Likewise, he retraces Moses Harvey’s journey out to Logy Bay on foot to collect his giant squid, walking from downtown St. John’s. His description weaves between past and present, describing what he passes (and would have passed a century earlier) as he walks. A clever technique, and carried off brilliantly.

Unfortunately it’s spoiled by being repeated on the return journey, where the description of the crowds awaiting Harvey are just a bit too forced: one can only tolerate so many pages reading about Harvey’s runny nose and the beating in his head. As with much of the book, it strives for genius – and begins to grasp it, but then pushes it too far.

But genius requires creative daring and Frank has it in plenty. On the whole the book works, and if one is looking for something more 21st century than beat poetry and new journalism to challenge your mind and thrill your heart, this is it, whatever this is. It pretends to be an essay in the guise of a book; in reality it is poetry in the guise of an essay.

Preparing the Ghost is a not-very-good book about Moses Harvey and the giant squid. But it's a beautiful and lyrical concoction about a much greater – and equally elusive – theme; one that teases the mind, swells the soul, and leaves us yearning for the deep mysteries of dark water.


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