Here is my review of A Lonely Man by Chris Power and Ghosted: A Love Story by Jenn Ashworth. The London Magazine, 23 August 2021:
In Victorian Hauntings (2002), Julian Wolfreys observes that telling a story always opens up a space through which ‘something other returns’, thereby drawing the conclusion that ‘all stories are, more or less, ghost stories’. Can we infer from this that all writers are, more or less, ghostwriters? Possibly, if A Lonely Man — Chris Power’s thrilling debut novel — is anything to go by.
The implacable plot is set in motion by a seemingly chance encounter in the metafictional setting of an anglophone bookshop. Robert, an expat novelist, and Patrick, a ghostwriter on the run, both reach for the same slim volume at the same time: ‘”Sorry,” they said together, drawing back their arms’. The latter has been hiding out in Berlin, fearing for his life following the suspicious death of Vanyashin, the Russian oligarch, whose memoir he was working on. Robert has little compunction about stealing Patrick’s story to cure a bout of writer’s block and meet a deadline. This is what writers do, he rationalises, rehearsing a familiar line of argument deployed, in recent years, by Rachel Cusk, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Kristen Roupenian. A Lonely Man is a portrait of the artist as a ghoul: ‘Stories are like coins, Robert thought, passed from one hand to another’.
The monetary simile he employs is itself second-hand, providing a pleasing instance of self-reflexivity as well as a strong dose of dramatic irony. It is lifted from ‘The Zahir’, Borges’s tale of obsession, which concludes with daytime reality in thrall to a disquieting dream world. Robert is likewise consumed by his fixation with Patrick’s story: a ‘shadow-self’ that his wife and children are blissfully unaware of grows inside him while he slowly slips through the looking-glass into some parallel dimension. Prior to the final coup de théâtre, he has the distinct feeling that he is ‘operating within a dream and that the door might open onto anything’ — which it does.
This reference to ‘The Zahir’ fuels the reader’s suspicion that the theft of the story may have incurred some kind of curse — a sentiment enhanced by the intrusion of straightforward Gothic imagery. At the funeral home, the novelist pictures his friend Liam rising from his open coffin. Back in his hotel room, that night, Robert has a drunken vision in which Liam appears in a wardrobe — the setting of his suicide. Declan blames his son’s untimely demise on his accursed bookishness, and particularly his immersion in fiction, which brings us back to Borges: ‘He had a brilliant mind, but it was haunted’. If reading is so dangerous, then what of writing?
Chris Power has a canny eye for the uncanny. A parallel between secret agents and ghosts is established when Robert dismisses Patrick’s fears as paranoid delusions. ‘Spooks and phantoms,’ he scoffs, inadvertently advertising the fact that the former have turned into the latter. Indeed, the spies all seem to have been spirited away from this spy story — back, no doubt, to the fiction from whence they largely sprang. At the very least, they have evanesced into ontological uncertainty, leaving behind two wannabe le Carrés re-enacting Cold War scenarios.
It is never clear who, if anyone, is spying on whom, and if we are in panopticon or peeping Tom territory. Ambiguous networks of gazes allegorise the struggle for narrative mastery at the heart of A Lonely Man (Power’s close third-person voice allowing Robert a semblance of control). In an early scene, the novelist is depicted smoking a cigarette on the balcony. He spots a woman on a treadmill in the building opposite, observing her intermittently and absent-mindedly in between drags, until he realises that she has been staring at him all along. The ‘eerie thrill of secret watching’ — shared by spooks and scribes alike — grows even more salient when he recalls sailing to an island and looking back at his spouse stepping out of their Swedish holiday home: ‘He had planned to tell her about it, but when he got back he found he didn’t want to. It was as if the secret wanted to be kept’. We later learn that Robert is in the habit of switching off the kitchen light, the better to observe his neighbours (‘Berliners rarely drew their curtains’), including the ‘vague phantoms’ that sometimes appear behind the opaque bathroom or toilet windows: ‘He liked to elaborate narratives from the scenes he saw’. On one such occasion, he eventually glances down only to discover a man looking up at his window.
This echo of the cigarette-break episode is just one of many unheimlich doublings, and even treblings, to take place in the book, as though the reproduction of Patrick’s story had unleashed a proliferation of simulacra: there are two hangings, for instance, as well as two homes and two titular lonely men (three, if you count Liam). One of Vanyashin’s anecdotes (which the ghostwriter relays to the novelist) turns out to have been pilfered from another oligarch’s memoir. Robert replicates many of his creator’s biographical characteristics (a Swedish wife and two daughters, a published short-story collection; Prowe — his surname — is even an anagram of Power). The most emblematic scene in this regard — doubling up as a critique of realism’s mimetic project (to which Power’s novel broadly conforms but in a sly, knowing way) — is the disorientating moment, in the funeral home, when Robert has a premonition of the world without him:
…Robert was confused to see, through an archway, another lobby apparently identical to the one he was standing in, as if he were looking into a mirror from which his reflection was impossibly absent. The difference, he realised, with a momentary relief, was that the floor of this duplicate version was covered with a dustsheet.
Note that the relief is only momentary. Robert does indeed undergo a process of erasure that seems to originate in the spectral qualities he projects on to the ghostwriter. Patrick’s spiel about being hounded by hitmen is mere self-aggrandisement, in his view: nobody cares enough about him to want to bump him off. In fact, the novelist becomes convinced that ‘he was the only person who knew Patrick, not just in Berlin but anywhere. That he was someone the world had forgotten’, as though the ghostwriter were a mere figment of his imagination or a Mr Hyde ‘shadow-self’ to his Dr Jekyll. Not to put too fine a point on it, Robert is being haunted by a spectre, whose ghostliness is catching. In a crowded pub he feels, at times, ‘a strange certainty that he couldn’t be seen’. Shortly thereafter, rowdy revellers — laughing and swigging from bottles — just flow past him ‘as if he wasn’t there’:
For an instant he was amid them all. In that moment, and as he stood on the street watching them move away, their voices fading, he felt for the second time that day as if he were a ghost.
Has Robert become an anonymous man of the crowd? Is he fading away — unmaking himself in the making of his work, from which he will be dismissed once completed? Perhaps, but the more pressing question is whether he will ever be allowed to complete it. And has anyone seen Chris Power of late?
Christina Stead’s notion that every love story is a ghost story is particularly pertinent in the case of Jenn Ashworth’s stunning fifth novel. Ghosted: A Love Story is narrated by Laurie Wright, a young woman whose husband disappears — out of the blue, or so it seems — leaving his phone and all his other possessions behind. A campus novel subplot, seen from the perspective of the unseen, proceeds from Laurie’s job as a cleaner at the local university: ‘we called the students “Wankers” and the academics “Staff Wankers”, just to distinguish them from each other, though in practice, there really wasn’t much difference at all’. With (and without) her husband Mark, a night guard at the power station, she lives in a high-rise block located in a ‘slightly down-at-heel area’ of a northern English coastal town — a setting congenial to the conjuring of a kitchen sink Gothic aesthetic. After watching a horror film on television, the couple ponders why ghosts are so often depicted in ‘historical fancy dress’. When Mark remarks that they are also invariably posh (‘You never get them in high-rises either’), Laurie counters: ‘Maybe the place is full of ghosts and we can’t tell because they don’t look any different from us’. T. S. Eliot’s cruel line about the undead swarming across London Bridge springs to mind and, although we are on the other side of the barricades here, Olena — the Polish carer — is as invisible to Laurie as the latter is to her own employers. Perhaps we are all someone else’s ghost.
Specific references to spectres are so numerous as to be almost suspicious. On the very first page, Laurie describes herself as pale complexioned ‘like a ghost’. She soon fantasises about throwing Mark’s clothes out of the window and ‘seeing his jumpers rain downwards like the ghosts of men, jumping’. She acknowledges that living with Mark had frequently felt ‘like living with a ghost’. She describes the time they first met, at a wedding reception: Mark, deep in conversation with a clairvoyant, whose services she will call upon sixteen years later to try to locate him (‘How about PayPal, if that makes things easier? Then we can keep talking’). She recalls the occasion when she mock-vowed to haunt her reluctant Heathcliff should she pass away before him: ‘I wanted Mark to say that he’d haunt me too, and for us to devise some kind of sign or code or system of knocks and bangings that each of us would use to let the one left behind know that the other was still there’. She pictures herself ‘throwing things about like a poltergeist’. She even reads Rebecca in bed and listens to a radio adaptation of Blithe Spirit in the bath (complaining that it was difficult to tell ‘which were the ghosts and which were the real people’). On a far more sinister note, the then unresolved case of a murdered schoolgirl, Connie Fallon, weaves itself into the very fabric of their courtship: ‘one of our earliest private jokes was my pretending to be convinced that he himself was the murderer the police was looking for’. When Mark vanishes, however, Laurie associates him with Connie — whose terrible fate thus haunts their entire relationship — and when she tracks him down, following his second absconsion, it is she who is cast in the role of the revenant: ‘He looked — sorry about this, but I can think of no other phrase — as if he’d seen a ghost, and the colour went right out of him’.
Yet, despite all this, the narrator is loath to mention phantoms when referring to the strange phenomena occurring within her home: ‘you know the word I am attempting not to bring into play here: I would like to be taken seriously’. Lights flicker — a bulb even shatters while she is on the phone to the psychic. A microclimate of ‘persistent coldness’ haunts certain corners of the flat, however warm the weather may be. Water ripples in the bath or toilet bowl. Household items go missing, sometimes reappearing in unlikely locations. An amorphous presence is frequently felt. And then, there is the ‘small room’ with the door that opens of its own accord, which is out of bounds — ‘No-space. Un-space. Behind that door: deleted territory’ — as it is seen as the locus of all the other paranormal activity. Or perhaps for a totally different, but even more harrowing, reason.
Laurie is an unreliable narrator, given to withholding information (from the police, Mark’s mother, the reader, herself), so that one comes to wonder if all this hocus-pocus is not some kind of elaborate displacement activity. When Mark first goes missing, she has the feeling that he has remained close by and is spying on her — very much like Wakefield in Hawthorne’s story — to see how she reacts to his ‘nasty little vanishing trick’. As we have already intimated, it transpires that the trauma of being ghosted only serves to occult a far more traumatic absence — one which Mark’s return can never make up for; indeed one which may make all return impossible. Her husband is both present when absent (‘the flat was still choked with the sense of his absence, the fact of that, and I wanted it gone’) and absent when present (‘I still want you to come back. …You’re on the settee, in my bed, but you’re not here‘).
There is an obvious contradiction between the character’s attempt to control her own story and her consciousness of not being in control of the ‘team of shimmering selves who fought and swirled around inside her’. She seems dimly aware, on occasion, that the haunting may be a by-product of her alcohol abuse and ‘mentally unsettled state’; that her ‘loneliness itself was a hostile presence’ in the flat. Apropos of her father, who suffers from vascular dementia, she tells Olena that it is difficult to ascertain ‘where the illness starts and his personality begins’ — an observation that perfectly applies to her own experience of the paranormal.
In the ‘small room’, which is supposedly haunted and out of bounds, there is a child’s drawing on the wall that reappears however many times it is painted over. Laurie is unsure whether it depicts suicides jumping from a block of flats or angels flying. She spends many a night staring at it, attempting to resolve the enigmatic figures’ indeterminacy ‘into the fact of a story — a story with an ending’ while her husband is engrossed in online conspiracy theories — both seeking solace in grand narratives. This is exactly how she proceeds when Mark disappears. Since the story remains open-ended, she goes looking for the end in the beginning, which is recast as the beginning of the end. In so doing, she becomes fully aware that they had been living apart together, some trauma (unnamed for most of the book) having torn them asunder. This is best exemplified by the times Laurie feigns to be reading in bed, monitoring her husband’s internet activity on her phone by means of a keylogger installed on his computer. On one such occasion, she tries to initiate some intimacy when he finally retires for the night: ‘He wasn’t able or interested and it was as if the man of enthusiasm and passion I had watched post on the forum had remained there in the ether, his lively double, while only the pale shade of that presence had made it back to our bed’. Mark, for his part, was overheard lamenting that Laurie had ‘disappeared on him’ shortly before he disappeared himself, thus making it quite clear that the alienation was reciprocal — that they had both become ghosts to each other.
The novel contains several striking images of the haunting presence of absence. There is the private joke that has become so tired that it is now merely a vague echo of itself, ‘the way the fossil trace of an ammonite pressed into a rock is not ammonite, but only a reminder of one’. At the wedding reception, traces of Laurie’s make-up end up on Mark’s lapel — ‘a little pale impression of my cheek and nose impressed on the material, like the Turin Shroud’. Most importantly, there is the ‘ghostly impression’ of the angels or suicides that keeps resurfacing, like some repetition compulsion, ‘whatever colour we tried and however many coats we applied’. Trauma is akin to the ghostly ‘not-quite shape’ that suddenly materialises on the page-like bedsheet — ‘an outline without an edge’ — making Laurie jump. It is the palimpsest that keeps shining through, disrupting the linear narrative and its quest for meaning and closure.
‘Hi, this is Mark. I’m afraid I’m not here, and this isn’t really me, but a recording of my voice I like to call No-Mark’: one of the most poignant scenes in the novel is when Laurie listens to her missing husband’s voicemail message over and over again until she can hear other sounds behind his words, ‘static or interference on the line, the impressions of the background radiation, relics from the big bang’. She leaves him countless messages until his inbox is full, whereupon she continues to call his number, now leaving unrecorded messages she describes as gaps or absences and refers to as ‘black sound’. She says black sound feels like praying.
According to Freud, writing was ‘in its origin the voice of an absent person’: it is this origin — this original absence — that Jenn Ashworth makes contact with here. Ghosted is a seance disguised as a novel.