Ghosted, by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall

Review copy courtesy Random House -- click cover for more info

While Ghosted is the first novel from Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, it is worth noting that it is not his first book. Bishop-Stall spent a year living with the homeless in Toronto’s Tent City and chronicled his experiences in Down to This: Squalor and Splendour in a Big-City Shantytown, a non-fiction work that was good enough to make a number of 2005 prize lists (I have not read it). Before you pick this novel up, it is also worth paying attention to the first sentence of the cover blurb from Linden MacIntyre, winner of last year’s Giller Prize for The Bishop’s Man: “Ghosted is not for the faint of heart — in places it’s an unflinching exploration of depravity.” Given that MacIntyre’s novel was not exactly cheery, the need for that warning from him in a cover blurb is not something to ignore.

I will add my own warning. When an author has spent a year living with the homeless and already successfully written about that, yet feels a need to expand on it in a work of fiction, there is good reason to expect some pretty grim stuff — and Bishop-Stall delivers that. His central character, Mason Dubisee, is not homeless, but that is only because his drug dealer has put him up in an apartment in a particularly tough part of Toronto. Dubisee is an alcoholic and chronic losing gambler, as well as a drug addict, and a struggling survivor of the city’s underside. Among the depravities in the book, suicides play a central role, there is a rape of an eight-year-old child and a fair bit of random violence takes place.

If that puts you off, by all means abandon this review now — I won’t be trying to sugar-coat any of it (although I’ll also just be skimming the surface). On the other hand, Jon McGregor’s Even The Dogs involves a similar setting and cast in Birmingham, is equally disturbing and is a novel that many, including me, believe should be on this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist. Bishop-Stall’s book is, for me, equally successful: a faithful portrayal of a disturbing way of life lived by all too many in Canada’s largest city, featuring a credible central character and supporting cast and a carefully-developed plot that evolves into a compelling thriller. If you can get past the blackness, there is even humor and hope. For this reader, Ghosted ranks with the best first novels that I have read in recent years.

The title comes from a diagnosis that Mason’s counsellor at MHAD (the Mental Health, Alcohol and Drug Centre) has made. She says that the path of his life is “ghosted” by the memories of various damaging incidents, betrayals, sins and traumas from his past. They began, literally, at his birth:

Mason Dubisee dodged a booze-propelled bullet on the day he was born.

His father came in to the hospital room smiling — a bottle of champagne cradled in his arms. He looked at his wife and new-born son, tore off the foil and cranked the wire. Angling the bottle heavenward, he pushed with his thumbs.

The cork shot out with incredible force. It ricocheted off the ceiling, a wall, then rocketed into the pillow an inch from Mason’s infant craniium.

His father told the story for years to come. Grinning with pride, he’d pass around the infamous cork: “I swear to God, he dodged the fucking thing.”

It was a feat that would prove more difficult as Mason’s life went on.

Bishop-Stall spends the first half of the novel setting in place the characters, incidents and surroundings which will serve as the building blocks for the thriller that the latter half of the book will become — his chapter headings actually make this clear. The first five “titles” list characters that will be introduced in that chapter, Chapter Six (of ten) is headed “No More Introductions”. This review is going to concentrate on the first half — if you are up to that, the last half flows very quickly.

First, let me note the fidelity of the novel to contemporary Toronto. The apartment that Mason’s drug-dealer (Chaz, whom he grew up with in British Columbia) has put him in is located at the intersection of Spadina Avenue and College Street, one of the city’s better-known, if seedier, intersections. His window offers a view of MHAD (in real life, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) across Spadina. A short walk down the street, there is a Harvey’s restaurant where a fair bit of the action takes place. A modern speakeasy/drug den will eventually show up in the basement of the building. All of this is real — I know because during the three years that I lived in Toronto I stopped at this intersection (the light was always red) every day on the way to and from work. In the real world, there is a men’s shelter on the ground floor next door to Mason’s building. You can imagine the characters that an addiction centre and homeless shelter attract — I can assure you, they were all loitering on the sidewalk every day and they are present in Bishop-Stall’s book.

In a brilliant piece of design, one of them even makes the cover — a disturbed person who spends his time flying an imaginery kite and whom Mason frequently watches (the kite is white in the cover illustration here; on the real volume it is almost a palimsest that can only be seen by tilting the book). Bishop-Stall is equally faithful to the rest of Toronto in the book: it features realistic portrayals of Spadina’s Chinatown, the Kensington Market and, perhaps most important, the Bloor Street viaduct, until a few years ago North America’s second most popular site (after the Golden Gate Bridge) for individuals who chose that method of suicide. You don’t have to know the city for this aspect of the book to work, but if you do, you will be in familiar territory.

Chaz does want Mason to pay for the apartment, so he needs a job — and Chaz has found him one. Chaz’s Uncle Fishy has just set up the Dogfather Hotdog Company and Mason is hired on to tend the Dogmobile, a street-vending hot dog kitchen van shaped as an over-sized fedora (a literary tip of the hat to A Confederacy of Dunces here) that he parks each day in the Matt Cohen parkette (another homage, this time to a Canadian author) at Spadina and Bloor, one of the city’s busier intersections. It is at the cart that Mason meets Warren, who on first meeting is so afraid of everything that he can’t even eat the hot dog Mason sells him because the mustard and ketchup scare him. The two eventually find a non-scary version (a weiner securely wrapped in a leaf of Romaine lettuce — Warren is afraid of mixed colors) and become sort of friends.

Warren discovers that Mason is a writer working on a novel (this one, of course) and hires him — for $5,000 — to write a love letter to the clerk at the video store whom Warren has fallen in love with. After several false starts, Mason produces a final, acceptable version. Only a few days later, he discovers that Warren has drowned in Lake Ontario. He goes to the funeral and is stunned to hear his “love letter” read by Warren’s sister as a eulogy:

“They found this on my brother’s desk,” she said, then flattened the papers and began to read:

I’ve got a lot of fears.

I am scared of heights and tunnels. I am scared of crowds and being alone, of speed and paralysis, of dawn and dusk and so many lights between.

I am scared of spiders and Janet Jackson, of needles, bonfires and middle initials, of the earth speeding up so that gravity kills us and the birds explode in the trees.

I am scared of drought. I am scared of drowning — of tidal waves, heat waves, electromagnetic radio waves, the signal passing through our bodies; the static, the snow, the wind that blows through your sleep so it feels like you’ve fallen awake in your bed, the terror of hitting the waves.

That’s only about a third of the letter, but you get the point. The love letter part comes at the end: “But also I am brave as hell. I look and then I leap. I hope to see you when I land.”

Mason convinces himself that Warren actually hired him to write his suicide note; another ghost has just been planted in memory, but it won’t loom until later on. In the short term, the cost of his drug, gambling and alcohol habits is outstripping the income he can generate at the hot dog cart and Mason decides to open a new enterprise. He places an ad on TheWayOut.com (“A forum for those with final thoughts”):

Professional ghostwriter available, for notes and letters. Rates negotiable.

He has his first client, a disturbed young woman, within a week. His second is one of the book’s more interesting diversions: Soon Sahala, a designer who was the runner-up in the competition to produce a plan to make the Bloor Street viaduct suicide-proof. This too is faithful to Toronto — they really have made the viaduct suicide-proof with a curtain of harpstring-like steel rods, a design which Soon and Mason (and Bishop-Stall, obviously) don’t like. Soon’s proposal (The Wings Of Hope, originally called Save Your Breath) had been rejected:

The “wings” would be made of a strong, translucent material — the same stuff they make parachutes out of — suspended from the sides of the bridge by airplane cables that angled upwards. They wouldn’t necessarily stop someone from jumping but rather catch them if they did. And there was no real way to climb out of them. Once caught in the wings’ embrace there’d be little to do but wait.

Both of those clients join the “ghosts” that are part of Mason’s driving memories, but it is his third, a psychopath, that sets the thriller part of the novel in motion.

And that’s enough of the story for this review, which has already gone on too long. Rest assured, a lot more happens but I think you can get the sense. I would like to emphasize that I have dealt with only a fraction of the stories, themes and characters introduced in the first half of the book (I figured some depth around a few was better than a cursory survey of many) and haven’t touched any of the material in the latter half of the book (which includes the most gruesome parts). As well, I have not even mentioned some of the writing devices (some successful, others not) that Bishop-Stall uses — be aware they are there, and while most worked for me, I know they won’t work for some. As Linden MacIntyre says, this is not a book for everyone but if you are open to it, Ghosted is an amazing reading experience.

Ghosted is one of four novels in Random House Canada’s New Face of Fiction program for 2010 (two have been previously reviewed here: Deloume Road by Matthew Hooton and Motorcycles and Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor). Both those novels were good; in my opinion, this one is better. The New Face of Fiction program has an impressive record of introducing outstanding new Canadian novelists: Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and Mary Lawson’s Crow Lake are just three of the more outstanding titles that have been published as part of this program. For this reader, Ghosted is a worthy addition to that impressive roster.

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11 Responses to “Ghosted, by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall”

  1. Trevor Says:

    It does sound like a book I might be interested in. Any chance it will be on the Giller longlist, Kevin?

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I would like to see it on the longlist, because I think the Giller needs to recognize some of these riskier novels. I fear, however, that the latter half may be too gruesome for the jury. I guess it all depends on their personal tastes.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Could you expand at all on the writing devices Kevin? What worked and what didn’t?

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sure, Max. What worked:

    1. The chapter headings, e.g. Here is Chapter One:

    The First Mistake
    …..

    Introducing:

    Mason, Chaz
    Warren
    And a little bit of Fishy.

    Okay, it’s a little bit cute but I found myself paying attention to new names and waiting for them to appear.

    2. Some internal documents (the author uses a number). Soon, the bridge barrier designer, researched all the Bloor Street suicides and excerpts from his proposal show up occasionally. (I should note that another “homage” inthe book is to Michael Ondaatje whose In the Skin of A Lion is about the building of the viaduct.) Less successful on this front are excerpts from Mason’s journal, The Book of Sobriety (it is part of his counselling regime) and the psychopath’s journal, The Book of the Handyman — alas, they are too obviously plot-advancing devices.

    3. There’s another fun thing from counselling — the Socrates thing. This is one of those things where you are given a statement and respond with a “strongly agree/somewhat agree, etc.” spectrum. Mason gets four at his first assessment and discovers that there are 490 — he strikes a deal to get four at each visit and they pop up in the book. Here are two examples:
    17. I’m scared of people knowing things about me.
    18. If I were a tree I’d be a cut-down tree.

    4. The drafts of the suicide notes/letters are funny, if you are up to black humor.

    5. Not successful at all for me were “Notes on the Novel In Progress” — too obvious gimmicks about where the author was at in his own head.

    In general, I think authors should be granted some slack when they play with devices such as these (and I think other readers are much more critical of them). I applaud the effort and think that most of them work, so I’ll overlook those that don’t.

  5. Tom C Says:

    You certainly like challenging reads Kevin! The post-modern elements of this do not worry me, but whether I want to spend a few days in the company of these people is another matter. Your review is excellent and certainly gives your readers and excellent overview of this book

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I have to say that the characters are not nearly as grim in the book as any review makes them appear to be.

  7. Lydia @ The Literary Lollipop Says:

    I can’t read your review just yet; I just checked it out from the library. I’ll come back when I’ve finished it!

  8. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Thanks Kevin, very interesting.

    I suspect I’ll pass on this one (though I’ve started the Berger you recommended, I hadn’t guessed it would open with a twenty odd page essay which was a Marxist interpretation of the role of the peasant through history, well written though). I can see how those devices might work though.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I’d say hold off on this one until we see how it strikes the Canadian prize juries. I liked it a lot — but I think that has more to do with the way it spoke to my knowledge of Toronto. Sorry about the start of the Berger — I completely forgot that he launched it with a left-wing essay. I still remember it as offering an interesting perspective.

  10. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Kevin,

    No need to be sorry. I’m really enjoying the Berger. The essay was interesting, just unexpected. It’s an integral part of the work though so I’m glad I didn’t know about it or I might have skipped it and I think that would have been a mistake.

    Anyway, I’m about a third of the way in and right now I’m expecting to pick up the other two books in the series.

  11. KfC’s NFoF giveaway « KevinfromCanada Says:

    [...] Ghosted, by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall. My favorite of the four, but don’t let that sway you. A moving, very dark portrayal of Toronto’s underside, with a fascinating cast of depraved characters. The humor is significant, but very black. For me, a major achievement. Review here. [...]

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