Rick White’s debut collection Talking to Ghosts at Parties presents itself as a book of outsiders (an orphan, migrant worker, and exercise addict), misfits (a girl deluded by grief into thinking she’s a cat and man fretting over his family discovering his love for wearing silk negligees) and weirdos (a kleptomaniac housewife with a taste for continental duchies, infernal bureaucrat who has to learn about hell the hard way, bistro chef convinced he is a werewolf, and emigre landlady moonlighting as a celestial guardian of the dead). Toss in a middle school building, a gaggle of disaffected teens and an indie-band’s worth of maladapted young men, and this collection’s 30 stories present a frenetic collage of lonely, fractured lives. White drags the reader, as if by the collar, through moments in time and space that reflect and refract each other, both literally and thematically. In White’s own words, these stories take place in a universe where “every single thing that had been, or ever would be, were all just threads intertwining… moving along the same vectors, traveling together through astral planes.” White manages these astral crossings through abrupt tonal and stylistic shifts, so that, like the collection’s titular ghosts, characters vanish abruptly only to reappear dozens of pages later rendered in different perspectives and in different modes. The result feels like a perverse, LSD-fueled, Christo-anarchist version of The Muppet Christmas Carol, except the morally tidy threat of perdition is substituted with a yawning abyss of self-reflection.
White’s collection thus reads like a shock test for the reader’s sympathies; in every new moment we find our perspective continually undermined. Far from those books into which readers can simply disappear, this book continually called my attention back to myself, left me feeling seen, not necessarily condemned like Scrooge McDuck, but simply examined, as if reading were something being done to me. White accomplishes this through the grating opposition of two narrative modes; he is either incisively tender or savagely ironic. In one moment, White’s scorn scours a character’s ego down to the varnish. In “Infinite Growth,” one of Hell’s great princes is the victim of an office prank with cosmic consequences, whereas “The place all your old bandmates go,” a failed indie rocker turned telecom salesperson performatively insults a stranger, running his life off the road metaphorically before literally running his car into a tree, and in “F23,” a haplessly selfish CEO erases a life and causes a wave of silent, subtle suffering in order to keep the company car he’d spent so long choosing. Here, White pits the squirming, infantile rage of his petite-satanic anti-heroes––the kind of people who are deflated upon finding hella hostile workplace, or that their quartet Furious Dad wasn’t the next big thing after all––against excruciatingly obvious banalities, like the sadism of corporate culture or the malaise of late-capitalist society, so that the reader feels contemptuous of both the anti-hero and the world against which they rage.
Yet, in the next moment White shows us how he can peel back the phenomenal veil of a character’s quietest, most unassuming moment and hands us their heart like it’s a glass bird. “Bees, mutherfucker!” shows us the delightful and serendipitous inception of a great love, as a shy vet assistant calls up that handsome and flirty Cavalier dad at the insistence of his work wife, the receptionist. Meanwhile, “Free to A Good Home” drops us is a moment of time where the memory of that love fades like a receding shore, as the receptionist, now a successful actress, seeks the dad of (a new) Cavalier––who we’re also informed is now a widower––for help connecting with her traumatized adopted daughter. White bookends this love with apocalyptic intonations––the eerie buzzing of bees coming from the vet assistant’s bathroom vent and the adopted girl’s cryptic yet pregnant assertion that the vet assistant, gone here, but somewhere else very much still alive, serves as all of their “eyes in the darkness”—giving the sequence a touch of the sublime. In “Trifle,” a broken and frustrated divorcee finds novel but unsurprising healing in his kinky emasculation, but not before “The Only Way to Mansplain it” gives us a haunting, alternate version of his life where, instead, he fades into obscurity as a bitter, lonely alcoholic in his ex-wife’s attic apartment. The bonds we form fasten hard, only to be torn abruptly by White’s chief strength as a storyteller, concision. It’s rare, in my experience, to both wish that a story was longer yet firmly agree that it can’t be.
White doesn’t offer us relief in the form of a synthesis between the sympathetic and the ironic; there is no crystalline moment when cruelty and compassion illuminate each other mutually in a sort of negative capability. Yet this absence feels nothing like a strict, self-conscious disavowal, as the collection suffers none of the affected seriousness of performative failure-to-make-a-point. Instead, it does something far more interesting both to and for the reader. White continually reframes our perspective through abrupt shifts highlighted in moments like the interplay between “You’ll Never Be A Cat,” in which a therapist watches with clinical indifference as a young woman doubles down on her delusions before “Free to A Good Home” throws the horrifying image of her mother’s traumatic death, which, in the former story appeared to us nothing more than a few loose notes on a clipboard, in our face, or when the devoted gym rat in “Pop music is the best music to run to” supplanting exercise for grief for his dead brother is later revealed in “Cafeteria” to be a xenophobic bully. The moments force the various poses that we take in relation towards a story––the cynical reader, the annoyed reader, the sensitive, understanding reader––to stand and face one another, unaided by the pretense of a higher purpose.
Reading this collection was thus at times challenging and, especially for such a short book, even a little exhausting. Every moment demanded introspection, and a look of suspicion back on the reader who had laughed, winced, or just sat thinking a few pages earlier. That is to say, every moment left the reader wishing they had their own set of “eyes in the darkness” to see through White’s precipitous moral vision. These kinds of reading experiences aren’t ones that, honestly, I often seek consciously, but I’m glad especially here to have it as a reminder of the depth of relationship one can have with a book beyond “liking/not liking” in a commercial sense.
CHASE ERWIN is the managing editor at MAYDAY and teaches English and Humanities at Interlochen Arts Academy way up in the remote woods of Northern Michigan, where he lives with his cats Stevie and Penelope.
RICK WHITE is a fiction writer from Manchester, UK whose work can be found in many fine lit journals including Trampset, Milk Candy Review, and Lunate. Rick’s debut collection Talking to Ghosts at Parties is available now via Storgy Books.