Originally printed November 15, 2010.
First-time novelist Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall learned the hard way that he needs to be more careful about what he says during interviews.
"When you start out in this process of talking to reviewers," Bishop-Stall told me in a phone interview Wednesday, "you can create a self-fulfilling prophecy."
After the near universal praise of Bishop-Stall's 2004 memoir "Down to This: Squalor and Splendour in a Big-City Shantytown," it's not surprising that the author was less than defensive when beginning the publicity rounds for his debut novel, "Ghosted."
In an early interview with a Canadian newspaper, Bishop-Stall told the reviewer that the first section of the novel was "genuinely funny" (black humor, but still humor), the last section was "pretty damn scary," and the middle section was neither. The reviewer took the author at his word and suggested that Bishop-Stall somehow lost focus during that middle section. Subsequent reviewers then latched on to that template and began providing their own maps for charting where Bishop-Stall is in command of his dark, deeply dysfunctional narrative, and where the storytelling itself gets lost in violence and drug-haze being described.
Some of the reviews prefer the first section, in which a 30-year-old frustrated writer Mason Dubisee finds a way to fund his drug and poker addictions by writing letters for people looking to kill themselves. Other views prefer the final section, in which one of Mason's clients is revealed to be a sociopath who is coming after Mason, after Mason's hemiplegic girlfriend and after Mason's recovery physician.
Nearly all the reviewers provide a backhanded compliment to Bishop-Stall's ability to pour so many details and storylines into a single novel, but those who prefer the first part bemoan that Bishop-Stall sold out at in the last section and provided merely a thriller with some meta-fiction thrown in. And those who prefer the last part complain that it took the novelist so long to find his stride.
And no one, it seems, knows what to make of that middle part.
"That's too bad," Bishop-Stall said. "I'm rather fond of the middle."
The reviewers seem to have missed the point, however. It's not that Bishop-Stall lost faith in the literary aspects of his novel and turned "Ghosted" into a mystery-thriller, it's that he wanted to be working in several non-compatible genres at the same time.
"I like books that overreach much more than ones that under-reach," Bishop-Stall said.
In fact, it's hard to imagine a reader capable of appreciating and identifying with the wide variety of genres, plot twists and character derangements found in "Ghosted." And given that every reader is going to be disturbed by one or more aspects of this novel, it much less interesting to have readers chart where they had to tune out for a few pages than it is to talk about the benefits of making it all the way through "Ghosted."
The novel is the result of Bishop-Stall's attempt to isolate his deepest fears and then see how far and long he can look into them.
"Suicide, as a concept, scares me," Bishop-Stall said. "Exploring how any human being could make that choice was the original impetus for the novel."
Mix in the concept of sociopathy -- "the idea that there exists out there a complete lack of human empathy" -- and Bishop-Stall was starting to write about issues he could "barely comprehend." And the more research he did, the more he realized how "amazingly little" anyone really knows about those topics.
"Those are two very dark subjects to explore," Bishop-Stall explained. "The darkness can't help but overwhelm to a degree."
The reviewers who actually have made it through the novel usually try to summarize that overwhelming experience in some long-winded closing sentences.
After explaining that the ending has "all the subtlety of a chainsaw chewing up body parts," the reviewer for Toronto's National Post writes, "But then you look back at the tale, and you realize you have just read a terrifying but moving and life-affirming paean to love, friendship, devotion, determination and all those other characteristics that make human beings such wonderfully fascinating creatures in real life and in richly imagined creations such as 'Ghosted.'"
And the reviewer for "Mystery Scene Magazine" condenses the reading experience down to, "In fact, with its lovingly drawn broken characters, ruminations about the act of writing, the fragility of life, the lies we tell ourselves to keep on going, and a GOTCHA! climactic confrontation between Mason and Seth that finally wraps all those disparate threads together, this bleak, frequently nasty but always literate novel reads like a film noir pounded out by a pissed-off, hung-over John Irving."
"I guess reviewers just like to end with really long sentences," Bishop-Stall observed.
In spirit of Bishop-Stall's poker-playing protagonist, I made a bet with the author that I could wrap up my review with a four-word sentence capable of encapsulating the "terrifying," "pissed-off," "life-affirming," "hung-over" quality of "Ghosted."
I've lost that bet.
Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.