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An Honest Ghost

Rick Whitaker’s “An Honest Ghost” consists entirely of sentences appropriated from over 500 books; the effect is, as Edmund White says, “an exhilarating, percussive experience, proof that literature is capricious and exalted.”

An Honest Ghost is a novel which evolved 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.

It was around the time I began the novel (2006) that I received a sexy new Sony Reader in a brown leather case as a Christmas gift. I loaded it up with books I wanted to steal sentences from, and carried it around with me, harvesting sentences on the subway, on vacation, at cafes and parks, at work. Books with footnotes had numbers the Reader allowed me to read by highlighting the number and shifting to another page, then back to the text, in a somewhat clumsy way. It occurred to me then that a more desirable way to read the notes would be to tap the screen and see the note in a balloon on the same screen, and this thought naturally led to my wish that the novel I was writing, with a note for every sentence, would be ideally published as an interactive digital book, with easy access to the attributions. (The book I’m writing now, called Fathers and Sons, will feature a link to the Wikipedia page for each of the hundreds of writers and public figures I’m referring to.)

The story I’ve told in An Honest Ghost was influenced above all by two elements: my own autobiographical inclinations, and the content of the sentences I gathered when I found those I knew I could use together with those I already had. That and a predilection for a darkly comic sensibility I first found in my teacher Gordon Lish, and later in John Cassavetes’s movies, Glen Baxter’s drawings, and the novels of Thomas Bernhard and Ivy Compton-Burnett (among many others).

An Honest Ghost is a funny, sad story with characters who represent real people. Not real people in life: I haven’t had quite the bad luck to be burdened with so selfish and clueless a friend as Eleanor Sullivan, the mother of my narrator’s precocious only child, Joe. But I did adopt a teenager, so in a way he did, as in the novel, come more or less suddenly into my life, changing everything. I have had boyfriends as distracted, discontented, and unreliable as the narrator’s handsome young Englishman, David (though none as rich). I am as baffled and astonished by life as my narrator is. And the illogical, ill-conceived movements of the self-involved characters in the novel do mimic the life I see around me and am living myself. In life as in the novel there are continuities: friendships, love affairs, family. But we know all too well how unexpectedly things change and seem to be ending; how we have to repeatedly begin again and go on. There’s a reflection of this in the disjunctions between sentences in the novel: flow is interrupted all the time, yet it does flow along anyway, like life.

The narrator’s stance corresponds with the conflict I feel about memory: my fear of it, my hunger for it, my readiness to kiss it goodbye and not look back. To make something up in order to swerve from the past. He, like me, is better at finding what he’s looking for than he is at making things up, even if he doesn’t really know what he’s looking for until he finds it.

John Cage said he was not so much involved in self-expression as self-alteration. Like him, as a writer I want to be changeable and responsive, and I want to feel something new, to be surprised by what I do.

The book is being published both digitally (with interactive touch-pad notes) and in print (with a long list of attributions at the back). The advantage to the print version is that you can scan the notes and take in a kind of subliminal awareness of the sources: you can connect all at once with the full panoply of ghosts haunting the story, Shakespeare (for the title), Hart Crane, Susan Sontag, Thomas Bernhard, Plato, James Joyce, Chekhov, Virginia Woolf, Edmund White, Colette, Janet Malcolm, hundreds of others all chiming in. But my preference is for the interactive digital form, where I think a reader will enjoy matching up sentence to source more quickly and more easily, smoothing out the experience of simultaneously reading the text and witnessing the influence.

Pre-order An Honest Ghost here.

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