Ghosted begins as a grim comedy of down-and-out dissolution. It morphs into a vaguely unbelievable but engaging story of a stalled writer who markets himself as a ghostwriter for suicidal people. It falls into a haze of drug-addled confusion for a while, then ends up as a slightly classier-than-average airport thriller, complete with garden-variety descriptions of rape perpetrated by a Lou Reed-fetishizing sociopath. In the same way that, as one character theorizes, most people live with lingering ghosts of “a hundred future selves” that failed to assert themselves, Ghosted has its own internal stock control problems. It’s perfectly possible to enjoy one of the four books blended in here while wanting to junk the rest.
The problems that stalk the pages aren’t all genre-related. Canadian journalist Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall makes use of the time he spent homeless and drugged-out, as chronicled in his memoir, Down To This: Squalor And Splendour In A Big-City Shantytown, which he’s described as a sort of companion to this debut novel. His minute descriptions of Toronto above and below ground are pleasingly fresh and specific. Even as his protagonist—dissolute, self-destruction-fetishizing failed writer Mason Dubisee—churns out purple suicide notes for the despairing (“I am scared of never asking, never knowing never breathing—a full, knowing breath”), the surrounding narrative remains witty and unblinkingly observed.
Then Mason keeps taking drugs, the prose gets increasingly inchoate, and the plot gets complicated and unexplained for a long interval. When the novel finds itself again, Dubisee is squaring off against one Seth Handyman, whose list of transgressions (and banal musings on rock ’n’ roll) would alternately make Hannibal Lecter queasy and bored. Bishop-Stall keeps telling us what everyone’s listening to, and it’s a warning sign from the start that Bob Seger’s “Fire Lake” provides his main framing device. The descent into symbolic hell that comprises the end is portrayed about as literally, with less nuance.
Not content to examine drug addiction, withdrawal, and suicidal tendencies, Bishop-Stall also goes meta, eventually having unnamed voices torment Mason and make him wonder who’s narrating his story. The narrative ODs for a while, much like Mason himself, which may be apt, but doesn’t make for easier reading. Grace notes are frequent: the Socratic questions used to profile addicts coming in for counseling (“At times I hear so well it bothers me”; “I believe I dream in color”) are alternately funny and pleasingly elusive, and Mason’s friend Chaz, who insists on speaking in Jimmy Cagney-isms, is good comic relief. But the increasingly pervasive grimness feels unearned when it’s all in service of yet another super-intelligent sociopath whose vile crimes seem ripped from some airport novel. Surely it isn’t that hard to imagine someone redeeming himself without defeating a mad genius.