Rick Whitaker - Life lived by quotations: a semi-autobiographical novel that consists entirely of sentences appropriated from over 500 books
"Like an Italian micromosaic, whose infinitesimal ceramic tesserae generate an unearthly glow just by being in close proximity to each other, Rick Whitaker's An Honest Ghost is both narrative and objet, a singular work of art whose singularity keeps beckoning to the reader. He has put the force back into tour de force. — John Ashbery
"An Honest Ghost is brilliantly conceived and brilliantly performed." -Adam Phillips
"An Honest Ghost is sheer genius, the uber novel, the ultimate palimpsest. It is a writer's truth and a reader's dream. Above all, it is a uniquely gripping read." -Jenny McPhee
I cannot really claim to be a voracious reader. I don't devour vast quantities of books, speed-reading through them the way my boyfriend sometimes appears to. And perhaps my dyslexia is only part of the reason. Be that as it may, what I can say about my preferred way of reading is that it is thorough. In addition, I truly get a kick out of rereading books that are dear to me. Few things equal the pleasure I can derive from finding stylish or outrageous or funny sentences I may not have singled out the first time around.
Of course, fashioning a book exclusively out of quotes could easily be dismissed as a nifty way to ward off writer's block, avoid the demands of being "original" and bypass what Joan Didion once called "the mortal humiliation of seeing one's own words in print." But while the collage technique Whitaker used may have offered him a helpful structure and welcome creative restraints, An Honest Ghost is much more than the sum of its parts. In the same way that each part of the composition in a Paul Cézanne painting is as important as the whole, the entire composition of the book is affected with every new quotation, creating a dizzying effect. I read (and reread) An Honest Ghost as a novel, an essay, a poem and a musical score, all at once, and was repeatedly dazzled and befuddled by how Whitaker surgically stitched all those genres/voices together. He is the Dr. Frankenstein of American Literature, jolting it with electricity, magic, and lots of sparks. It's alive! It's alive!
Seen in this light, the author/narrator's drama is not just bibliophilic but biblio-filial. The narrator's obsessive quest to find his own truth revealed through his personal library cannot be separated from the author's daily, sometimes hourly, reassessment of his new identity as a parent of an (adopted) teenager.
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.
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.”
¤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-honestghost-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,” u uher” being Alice B. Toklas. No Eleanor appears in the book.)
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. - William Flesch
If you visit the Web site of a gay Washington hustler whose nom de shtup is Fratboy, you can, after checking out near-naked but tasteful pictures of the product, click on a self-interview in which the young entrepreneur explains why he puts out for pay: “College is extremely expensive, not to mention living off campus in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Given the choice of working a service job for $8-$10 an hour versus $150 an hour, it’s a very clear choice for me.”