JULY 8, 2014
IN 1978 The New Yorker published a lovely little piece by Freddy Bosco called “What They Did,” which consisted entirely of a list of full-sentence titles, in alphabetical order, from a library catalog. Among the things they did: They all played ragtime. They almost killed Hitler. They found a common language. They wait in darkness. Who are they? Mainly they are just the rest of the world, the amorphous representatives of its achievements and attitudes. Sure, sometimes they’re wrong or too complacent. After all, They said it couldn’t be done. And sometimes they’re surprisingly successful: They found gold! Either way they always seem at home in the world they speak for, sharing its serenely third-person status. Okay, maybe They can’t fit in. Perhaps They can’t go home again. But even so, they’re the kind of people they write books about.
Bosco’s piece ends on a note of melancholy, as adulthood and real life intervene to dampen “their” attempts to see and know it all. The last three sentences form a haiku summary of human life: They went to college. They went to Portugal. They were expendable. So too, it must have seemed, was their compiler. It makes the story strangely moving to learn that in later years Bosco was to go through some very dark experiences: drug abuse, mental illness, homelessness. He couldn’t go home again either.
Bosco’s New Yorker piece might be seen, at least after the fact, as hinting at his estrangement from the far-away world of the sentences he collected. Heidegger named this “they-being,” a kind of unfocussed, inattentive inflexibility about the world, the sort of thing you get in English in the generic “you” as I am using it in this sentence. Bosco’s New Yorker piece is a transcription of they-being: a helplessness before the indifferent outside world, “there all the time without you: and ever shall be, world without end,” as Rick Whitaker puts it in An Honest Ghost, his semi-autobiographical novel about a gay father adopting a young son.
Like Bosco, Whitaker has had his share of hardship. He has published gripping and graceful accounts of his experiences of addiction — to gambling, to crystal meth — and of hustling. Now he has written a full-length novel made up entirely of quotations (to which is appended a long index of sources; the iBooks version offers the most convenient interface to the book).
But there’s all the difference in the world between Whitaker’s quotation and Bosco’s transcription of book titles. Transcripts are legalistic: they attribute words to their sources; they’re about who is responsible for those very words. A transcription doesn’t so much repeat words as contextualize and historicize them, uniting them with the time, place, and source of their utterance. A transcript reproduces the words it records; it does not use them. Quoting is an attitude and practice, central to aesthetic and literary experiences as different from each other as the sublime and camp. To quote — well, to cite — Susan Sontag, “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’” To put something into quotation marks is, paradoxically, to make it your own, as though inverted commas were the fingers with which you picked it up: the quoted words are not just mentioned now, but assimilated to your own aesthetic expression. This is what the Greek critic Longinus meant when, in the 1st century AD, he described the literary sublime: “As if instinctively, our soul is uplifted by the true sublime; it takes a proud flight, and is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard.”
Longinus seems to have anticipated not only Sontag but also the surprising achievement of An Honest Ghost. The title is from Hamlet: “It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you.” Hamlet is just barely condescending here, both to the honest-to-goodness ghost of his father, the king, and to his friend Horatio. Whitaker’s ghosts are not as reliable and direct as Hamlet reliable and direct always uncanny, haunting us the way quotation haunts us, the way literature haunts us.
In An Honest Ghost, the unnamed narrator characterizes his adopted son, Joe, as someone in whom solitude induced “a languor haunted by vague reveries.” Joe is haunted by his own attraction to being haunted, which makes him like the gay writers Whitaker chronicled in his superb 2003 book, The First Time I Met Frank O’Hara: “We have always craved invisibility, for whatever mysterious reasons, “We have athen of the gay writers among whom he felt at home. “We’ve always wanted to be both openly and fully ourselves and, at the same time, to be no more present than a ghost, haunting the page, the stage, the song, the streets.”
A prefatory note describes the rules Whitaker followed in writing the book. The quotations come from some 500 books in his own library. “Whitaker limited himself to using 300 words per book (in accordance with Fair Use), never taking two sentences together and never making any changes, even to punctuation.” This last phrase is not strictly speaking true: Whitaker’s quotation marksare often his own, as when he puts a sentence into a character’s mouth. Consider an apposite remark that comes from Kenneth Burke’s narrator in his novel or anti-novel Towards a Better Life,which I’ll set off here in order to transcribe it:
We must learn to what extent our thoughts are consistent with our lives, and to what extent compensatory; to what extent ideals are a guide to behaviour, and to what extent they are behaviour itself.
In An Honest Ghost a policeman named Roy, both partner and rival for the affections of the narrator’s boyfriend, David, speaks these words, and they end with closing quotation marks not in the original, thus:
…are behaviour itself.”
Likewise, a remark from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s wartime notebooks is presented here as a line of conversation, framed by inverted commas added by Whitaker. This active interpolation of quotation marks is another way of making the point I began with: that quotation is not transcription, and so quotation marks are not mere punctuation. If these words are surprising in a policeman’s mouth, well that’s the point: you never know who is haunting the streets, and anyhow the conversation he is having with the narrator is about the relation of an assumed style to one’s own true character. Quotation introduces the thoughts that might disrupt and compensate for our strait- and straight-jacketed lives, and accordingly, the narrator tells Roy that he finds the disorder of his intelligence sacred, andunderstands his own past as “Fictions constructed out of quotations.”
But how does Whitaker construct this literal fiction out of quotations? By his rules, as by Freddy Bosco’s, all his quotations must be single sentences (or quasi-sentences, like the fragmentary phrase from Susan Sontag’s journals that ends my last paragraph, though the period there is Whitakeren). The narrator’s sentences are both consistent with his life and compensations for everything that thwarts and baffles it.
And the quotations are all, in one way or another, about love. They tell the story of the narrator’s love for Joe, of his vexed relation to Joe’s mother, Eleanor, and of her troubling relation to the narrator’s young boyfriend, David, on whom she has a mesmerizing effect, drawing him away from the narrator, partly out of what appears to be some mixture of resentment, remorse, and jealousy of the narrator’s relation to Joe.
Eleanor. David. Joe. Roy. These are the names of the central characters, and the fact that they have individuating proper names means that Whitaker’s sentences are identical to sentences about various different people with those names in various other books. Many Joes, and they are all stylistic, emotional, literary ancestors of the Joe this book’s narrator adopts, just as (says Emerson), “Every book is a quotation … and every man is a quotation of his ancestors.”
The narrator, Eleanor, Joe, David, and Roy are each a palimpsest — Gore Vidal’s memoir of that title is the source of several of Whitaker’s sentences — constituted from the ghosts that haunt them and with which they haunt each other. Since no contiguous sentences in An Honest Ghost were adjacent in their sources, any contiguous sentences naming the same character usually referred, originally, to different people of the same name. Named ancestors of Eleanor, for example, include not only the heroic Eleanor Roosevelt but Eleanor Sullivan, the sketchy mother in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s Parents and Children, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Eleanor Tilney, Henry’s sister in Northanger Abbey, and Prudence’s friend Eleanor Hitchins from Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence.
(A not-quite-honest-ghost-Eleanor seems to come in as well: Whitaker writes that David “spent the next few days chatting with Eleanor,” but in the source material, Justin Spring’s Secret Historian, its subject, Samuel Steward, “spent the next few days chatting with” not Eleanor, but “her,” her being Alice B. Toklas. No Eleanor appears in the book.)
The quotations that make up An Honest Ghost come mainly from the kinds of writers that Whitaker identifies in The First Time I Met Frank O’Hara as demonstrating an indefinable gay sensibility in whom there is “a degree of irony, and wit … and almost always a background of melancholy.” Whitaker includes quotations from straight writers who share a similar sensibility, such as Elizabeth Hardwick, Thomas Bernhard, Nathanael West, Paul Griffiths, Roberto Bolaño, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett (as well as my former teacher, and Whitaker’s, Harold Bloom), but the majority of the sentences in An Honest Ghost were first written by gay writers, such as — I choose my favorites more or less at random — Wittgenstein and Gertrude Stein, Proust, André Gide, John Ashbery, James Merrill, Glenway Wescott, Willa Cather, Hart Crane, Gore Vidal, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Colm Toibin, Sylvia Townsend Warner (whose superb adult fairy tales here become the source of acerbic insult to the “fairies” the narrator sometimes sees himself as, sometimes wishes to avoid), Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Rick Whitaker himself.
A fiction constructed out of quotations: at some point the narrator of such a fiction will become the logical product of the quotations that form his facade, protection, and screen. He adopts and adapts “words heated originally by the breath of others,” to quote (as Whitaker does not) Edmund Burke. Or rather he adopts them and then must adapt himself to them, use them to say who he is. Who is he? The person who has adopted these quotations and then adapted himself to them.
Because that’s the demonstration that this powerful and moving book is offering: adopting a child (as Whitaker himself has done) and adapting himself to that other person, object of incessant attention, understanding, and love.
Reading the book is like looking at a Donatello bas-relief from close-up and seeing how everything is surface and façade. And then you read it again, and the novel becomes nothing less than a powerfully moving story of love, and loss, and their precious remainders, or the story rather of how what you love is always at risk of becoming only the trace and remainder of itself. “What are you doing — praying?” the narrator asks Joe at the story’s climax, and continues: “What are you thinking?” The narrator looks at Joe, listens to Joe, hears and sees the facades he presents, the accents and characters he imitates, and at the same time hears and sees the wishful, anxious, intent, injured, needy, self-reliant, praying, thinking human being behind those facades.
Maybe the best way to put this is to say that the most impressive of the centripetal namings in this book — more impressive than the way all the Eleanors from many sources become one Eleanor, all the Joes become one Joe, all the Davids become one David —that is all the I’s become one I, the subjective intensity of the narrator — just the opposite of Bosco’s elusively indifferent they. What is other turns out to have the depths of self, and that recognition is the story of love, the love story that An Honest Ghost tells.