Fiction Review by Matthew K. Thibeault

John Goldbach, It is an Honest Ghost (Toronto: Coach House, 2016). Paperbound, 141 pp., $18.95.

It Is an Honest GhostA different John Goldbach could have written each of these seven stories (six shorts and a novella). This is not a bad thing. I’m particularly fond of the John Goldbach who nails millennial narcissism in a one-and-a-half-page, single-sentence stream-of-consciousness narrative about being hypothetically abducted and murdered by terrorists while standing in front of a Russian cathedral. I’m less fond of the Goldbach who wrote a very long story about a writer named John who goes to Kenya to write (ostensibly not about a writer named John) but instead just becomes ill and decides to break up with his girlfriend.

I first read Mr. Goldbach’s “Sigismund Mohr: The Man Who Brought Electricity to Quebec” in a past Malahat issue. It’s the kind of story that makes you leaf back to the contents page to find out what genre you’re reading; it almost seems like one of those Canadian Heritage Minutes commercials. Sigismund Mohr was a real person and he really did bring electricity to Quebec. Many of the story’s general details about his life seem to be factual, as far as I can tell, but the intimate details (taken from the diary of someone close to him) are fabrications—I think. Goldbach has taken a relatively unknown historical figure and tried to breathe a little colour into his life and death, which isn’t something we’re used to seeing in short fiction, but it works.
Another of the John Goldbachs I like wrote a story called “A Girl With a Dragon Tattoo.” The joke of the title is, of course, that there are many girls and many dragon tattoos, and probably many girls with dragon tattoos, but that’s not why I liked it. It’s a dialogue between a stripper and a customer she used to know in high school and it has the crude minimalism of a good Gordon Lish piece. As a fragment of dialogue, there’s no attempt to direct the reader to anything in particular, and the author is his best self when he isn’t trying to send the reader off to some meaning.

The novella, “Hic Et Ubique,” makes up the bulk of the collection. There’s no doubt that it’s an ambitious piece of work—racial, cultural, and political themes abound. It’s the kind of story that really wants to be about important, contemporary stuff. With that said, it doesn’t really move. The narrator is bland to the point that you want to jump into just about any other character’s consciousness, which tends to be the case when you write about writers, because writers make boring, self-absorbed characters. What normally saves this kind of story are sharp observations and finely tuned, rhythmic sentences, however much of this novella lacks rhythm and stumbles around in banal details, like “my face looked sallower than the day before, my face looked more unshaven,” to which the reader will point out, perhaps that’s because you haven’t shaved. And where there ought to be some economy, there are whole paragraphs like this:

  …as soon as I exited my room, I was outside, and then I turned to my left and walked by a couple of rooms and then I was at the outdoor pool, which in daylight looked inviting, more so than in my memory, and I turned right at the pool, walked down a few steps, and then was in the lobby, which I bypassed for the restaurant.

This sort of thing is objectively not fun to read, and that’s why I prefer the Goldbach who writes short, funny, quasi-postmodern bits like “Jenny,” the last piece in the collection. The story is a series of quotations from a very intelligent (though outrageously racist) girl with such nuggets of wisdom as “The only good thing about dying is you really start to like life. What a joke,” and “People just want to get famous, like it’ll save them, even if the reasons for getting famous are ignominious, it’s actually a boring topic and for stupid people, like God.” She’s like a contemporary, female Holden Caulfield, and though I wasn’t entirely convinced by It is an Honest Ghost, I know I’d pay good money to read the John Goldbach who writes a novel about Jenny.

—Matthew K. Thibeault

As in The Malahat Review, 199, Summer 2017, 111-112