This past week, whenever my husband asked me what I was reading the conversation went something like this:
“What’re you reading?”
“Squid book? Like a book about squid?”
“And ice cream. It’s about ice cream, too. And giant squid.”
“Makes more sense.”
Because explaining Matthew Gavin Frank’s book-length essay, Preparing the Ghost, is not easy. Yes, it contains the biography of Moses Harvey, the first man to obtain a photograph of a giant squid, but from that jumping off point the discussion alights on topics ranging from family, death, insects, ice cream, pain, guilt, commerce, obsession, otherness, and mythology. Miraculously, no matter how bizarre the subject matter, Frank connects each element so organically that it seems perfectly natural that the giant squid, butterflies, and death by chocolate ice cream occupy the same space in thought.
In homage to one of my favorite parts of the book, here is how I would describe Frank’s work….
Preparing the Ghost as interconnected conversation.
as glimpse into a mind uncomfortably close to our own.
as homage to our deepest fears of knowing the unknown.
as inducing mint-chocolate chip cravings at inappropriate times.
as mind-bending and eye-opening.
as a good way to alienate yourself at boring social gatherings.
as experiment in stretching the limits of genre.
as a hell of a good book.
I was lucky enough to have a chance to talk with Frank about his book, its creation and what on earth goes on in his head half the time. It’s not for the faint at heart….
Steph Post: I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting when I picked up your book, most likely something along the lines of a straight forward biography of Moses Harvey, but from the very first page I knew that I was in for an unusual, wild ride. What do you imagine other readers expect when they first crack open Preparing the Ghost? For that matter, do reader expectations matter to you?
Matthew Gavin Frank: Reader expectations certainly matter when they’re actually made manifest— after the book-as-artifact is out there in the world, ready to be engaged— but, during the writing process, I can never know what they are. And of course, they’re not just one thing. They’re myriad. They’re endless. They’re informed by everything else said readers have ever read, or, for that matter, ate. They’re informed by sex lives and cultural milieus, and good kisses and bad haircuts, and that ad in Good Housekeeping for the air-freshener that ribbits like a frog as it belches lavender-scented glycol ethers into the living room. If there’s anything more mysterious than the giant squid, it’s reader expectation. If I’m attempting to engage a fascinating subject in a unique way, I hope I’m doing my job. If I’m fascinated, I think, the reader will be fascinated. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way, but, during the process, that’s probably the best we can do.
SP: You claim that Preparing the Ghost is an essay, but it also clocks in at 280 pages. Yet it is obviously not a novel, and not a traditional non-fiction book. How does Preparing the Ghost work as an essay? What elements in the structure of the work make you classify it in the essay genre?
MF: That word, essay, simply means, among other things, an attempt. Oftentimes, the essay strives to find connections between seemingly dissimilar objects/people/places/events/linguistic leaps, and finds a holiness in this act, in the careful shuffling of experience, narrative, observation, language, and research, even if it does not uncover any clear “answers.” The holiness is in the attempt. The success of the essay lies in the engine that drives the attempt, the meditation, because, implicit in this attempt, is a comment on a very particular– and perhaps damn-near universal– human desire, obsession, identity, and curiosity, all eventually thwarted by the larger fascinating context– whether the world, or the subject(s), or the physical form of the essay itself. And this larger context, in spite of our failure to clearly connect things within it, and perhaps even because of our failure, becomes more mysterious and, thereby, more fascinating. Permit me a moment of corniness, but, during the writing process of PREPARING THE GHOST, as I was wandering through the meadow of the giant squid, so many ancillary burrs kept attaching themselves to my pant cuffs (ice cream, cultural expressions of pain, et. al.), and, in engaging said burrs—in allowing for digression— the essay form permitted me to draw a sort of chalk outline around the body of the squid, evoking its shape, while maintaining its mystery. And we all know: the body in shadow is oftentimes more alluring than the body under fluorescents.
SP: Along the same lines of asking about the essay structure, I have to remark on the book’s similarity to a well-researched and well-thought out conversation. It reads as if much of it is springing straight up out of your mind instead of being labored over. There were times when I was reading and wanted to respond immediately to a passage I had just read. I felt myself mentally asking questions and making comments. Clearly, though, a lot of planning and thought has gone into the arrangement of the book. As Preparing the Ghost has a huge scope, how did you decide what to include and where to present it in the essay?
MF: Oh goodness, it was a serious labor. My scans and Xeroxes and books and magazines stuffed with post-it notes spanned floor-to-ceiling multiple times over. My wife calls my writing process, The Fire Hazard. The first draft was nearly 700 pages and included many additional ancillary burrs. Like many writers, I fall in love with my research. It’s such a devoted courtship, then marriage, then separation, then custody battle, then reconciliation, that it’s tough to cut any of it loose. One thing leads to another, and it’s this ecstatic cascade down the rabbit hole. When I’m sifting through that roomful of Xeroxes with my pink highlighter, I’m seeking out that rare thing—that thing I’ll find on only one page in that room; the fact, for instance, that squid corpses, even when cooked, retain their sexual reflexes and have been known to inseminate our mouths. And I’m interested in seeing what happens when we hold something like that up against a more known thing, like the fact that calamari dominates the appetizer sections of our restaurants. How did that come to be? And how does that back-story—if at all—relate to the ways in which I want to engage the giant squid? I’m interested in seeing where such collisions will end up. During the revision process, the book had to be seriously girdled, and so many ancillary obsessions and back-stories had to end up on the cutting room floor, in order to maintain the illusion of a singular, if twitchily digressive, focus.
SP: Although much of the book is grounded in reality and historical fact, you admit that you take “imaginative leaps with many scenes.” You go into imagined detail all the way down to clothing and even to what historical figures might have thought of or dreamed about. Why was it important for you to re-create these details and scenes?
MF: Because detail—even imagined, inflamed, visceral, details (all of which were, in the book, I’d argue, natural extensions of my research)—attends ecstasy. Oftentimes, detail is the obligation of ecstasy— Moses Harvey’s ecstasy in obtaining, then photographing (in his rowhouse bathroom) the first intact specimen of the giant squid; in riding next to the carcass on the deck of a ship, measuring his fist next to its eye, cooing to it as if some sick horse... And my ecstasy too, in writing about such things; in being untethered amid all of this beautiful research and choosing what to grab onto, and what to let float away... Rendering said details is a way to stitch Harvey’s ecstasy to my own and, in turn, ideally to the reader’s. It’s a way to force an overlapping. And, if I’m lucky, empathy. A strict adherence to the facts may not always be the best way to transfer the real sense of a particular event. Imposing narrative on fact always involves choice—what to leave in, what to leave out—and thereby softens fact, allows it a malleability. It’s our duty as writers to stretch such facts via exaggeration, understatement, juxtaposition, et. al. in order to see how much of a beating the fact can take before it breaks. The trick, sometimes, is to stop just short of the breaking.
SP: So much of Preparing the Ghost is about the essence of story, connections, and the importance of myth. At one point you state, “In this way, I can tell myself that I empathize with Moses Harvey. In this way, we possess, we possess, we are possessed by the myths we destroy…” This reminds me of an interview I show and discuss with my students when we study myths. In the interview, Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro states that we need myths and monsters to explain our fears about the unknown world. Why do you believe that we need myths? Because we still know so little about the giant squid, but have confirmed its existence, does it still occupy a place as a monster/myth in our collective unconscious?
MF: Yeah: It’s interesting how the things we most want to possess end up possessing us. There’s this whole section of the book wondering why, after all, the giant squid was the recipient of our desperate need to mythologize. And why, even after its existence has been proven time and again, it still seems to straddle that border between myth and reality. We make myths, it seems, of our respective cultural obsessions; to encapsulate what we can’t easily process (intellectually, emotionally) within a narrative shell. We get story. In story is sense, comfort, trajectory. Myths are shorthand, contextualizing our collective and individual obsessions. If we objectify fear or awe, turn it into god or monster, we give it parameters—a beginning and an end. Therefore, it can be both like us, and Other. We can have our cake and eat it too. We can thereby identify with our myths, control them, exhaust them eventually of their usefulness, and kill them, replace them with a more relevant narrative, and shape. Occasionally, we’ll have the need to resurrect old myths. Again, there’s comfort in that; a familiarity. They help us to navigate this quagmire, to simplify and put a lid on the uncontainable complexity of... what? Stars! The sea! We need our myths because they are useful tools to explain us, to us. And as with any tool, we use them until we use them up. And what does that tell us about ourselves?
SP: One of the defining traits of Preparing the Ghost is its ultimate emphasis on connection. Every element presented by you in some way relates to another, so that the book eventually reads like some giant diorama of string theory. Do you see these types of connections all the time? Do you think these connections can be felt or perceived by everyone?
MF: I love that notion of some giant diorama of string theory! I’m ever looking to find connections between seemingly dissimilar things in my work. How does the story of my first kiss in the Aptakisic Junior High School parking lot relate to Alberto Santos-Dumont (the lecherous balloonist and dirigible pioneer) and locusts, for instance? I want to know. I write essays, in part, to seek out such answers, however fuzzy. I want to know how an engagement of grasshoppers will affect the narrative of that kiss, and how that kiss will relate to the fact that some species of grasshopper are biologically compelled to change their own color when in a high population density; that they are equipped for leaping, but not for flight. For better or for worse, we writers have allowed ourselves the ability to manipulate connections between just about anything—all it takes is sufficient (read: obsessive) research, imaginative alchemy, meditation... What is that perfect “bridge” ingredient that joins my lips, Dawn Liebermans’s lips, a castor-oil-fueled blimp flown my a mustachioed philanderer, and jumping bugs capable of desperate camouflage? What does the archetypal first kiss have to do with flight, death? The journey to find out often embodies this skittish, and addictive bumping-and-grinding between moony necromancy and eating sandwiches in the car while on stakeout. I’m sure some of this is a product of OCD, but I’m convinced the connections are there, though they take endurance to unearth—the looking and looking and looking after most everyone else has stopped.
Thanks so much to Matthew Gavin Frank for stopping by! To learn more about Frank, Preparing the Ghost and his other titles visit www.matthewgfrank.com. To read lots of random (but extremely interesting!) tweets about squid, follow Frank on twitter- @matthewgfrank