Mason’s in a bit of a bind, though he might not admit it to you. Five years into a drug binge and he’s spiraling deeper into debt, more addicted, and his novel fails to extend beyond page after page of notes.
So when his best friend Chaz offers him a job selling hot dogs out of a fedora car, acting as the “Dogfather,” Mason figures he doesn’t have much of a choice. And when a chance meeting with a lovelorn Warren, looking for a ghostwriter, takes a tragic turn, suddenly Mason stumbles upon a unique business model—ghostwriting suicide notes. What follows is a literary thriller that contains flashes of brilliance kept in check by the conceits of the genre.
Bishop-Stall’s writing is authentic, fast-paced, and at times, surprisingly lush. His greatest strength is his unique characters—who read like people whose saturation level has been turned up: almost believable, but just a bit too fantastic.
Also laudable is the author’s manipulation of his premise—what better conceit could an author wish for than inventing someone’s most private thoughts and pains?
Bishop-Stall’s protagonist, Mason, in writing others’ suicide notes, gets to imagine and spin incredible prose-poetic visions that are all the more vibrant because they are aware of their role as performance. While a true suicide note perhaps would be more affecting, it would likely contain more simple language than the following: “I am scared of things mixing together. I am scared of them blowing apart: summer leaves off the limbs of trees, arms and legs strewn across a battlefield, the dispersion of words—how they fly from your mouth like swallows, then dust in the atmosphere, never to be heard from again.” It’s absolutely lovely prose, but completely performative. Our author and protagonist know this, and use it to great effect.
Finally, Bishop-Stall’s use of pairs of Socratic statements (initially introduced in Mason’s therapy session as true/false personality questions) provides a nice thread of wit and affecting vagary to the story. One example: “43. In my dreams I’m often falling/44. I’d rather build a bridge than write a song.” It’s pure poetry, and is an effortless way to bring evocative pause to less examined scenes.
As the novel continues, it becomes increasingly beholden to the constraints of the thriller genre. While Bishop-Stall convincingly utilizes these tools, the novel loses its emotional thrust the more it gets caught up in its intrigue, and less in the poetic self-doubting of its vibrant characters.
While there are many smart plot turns in the concluding pages, I found that the novel lost much of its lovely, quiet questioning quality. The nature of identity, suicide, and haunting by our former selves—all themes explored in some detail throughout the book—become too explicit and less subtle as the story rolls toward its conclusion.
Still, the main problem with Ghosted is that it’s overly ambitious. Bishop-Stall is a good writer, a smart one with an eye for detail and an ear for poetry. He’s at his best describing the inner turmoil of the outsider, and I would be eager to read a work where he delved into this further, ignoring some of the constraints of a plot-centric genre, and focusing on the quiet crises of the everyday.
For a fiction debut, it certainly shows promise I hope Bishop-Stall allows himself to realize.