Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Stay Close, Little Ghost

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. I won the book--which would have been a perfect five-star read if not for my own frayed edges getting snagged on typos often enough to jar me out of an otherwise euphoric reading experience--through a Goodreads First Reads giveaway.)

Stay Close, Little Ghost, Oliver Serang
24 to 26 January 2014
4.5 / 5 stars

Written while the author was also finishing his Ph.D. in some field that's well beyond my range of comprehension (or genome sciences, whatever), Oliver Serang's debut novel, Stay Close, Little Ghost, is a meditation on loves both past and present that is made all the more personal by the mathematician protagonist sharing a name with his creator. It slams the rigidly logical vehicle of mathematical distillation into the hallucinatory fog of magical realism while the neither-black-nor-white realm of romantic love and the games it can make people play hang in the balance of such a collision, giving rise to a maelstrom of jagged emotions, discombobulating experiences and brutal self-discovery set against a backdrop that's at once universally familiar and hazily disorienting.

The story begins with city-dwelling Oliver meeting up with friends who introduce him to the chronically flirtatious Yuki (whom he'd already met in an elevator under less than auspicious circumstances). It's plainly obvious that their ensuing romance is not long for this world, given Oliver's lingering damage from previous relationships and the rightful jealousy he fosters over Yuki's inappropriate displays of affection for her male friends. They fight, they make up, they break up, they reconcile, they fall to pieces all over again until the last Oliver sees of the girl who was so careless with a boy she deemed far more wholesome than herself and his still-freshly wounded heart is her slow disintegration into a subway tunnel shadow, where she remains a stubborn reminder of a last desperate attempt to mend irreparable harm every time Oliver passes her frozen silhouette.

Oliver flounders around the city for a while as he's plagued by strange happenings--an eyeless girl scratching subterranean messages to our hero, mirror realms, secret worlds of which only a chosen few are told, unnaturally persistent homeless subway riders, obliterated mental maps charting the locations of all the city's four-leaf clovers--and the all-too-common ruefully single man's ruminations on his other ex-girlfriends, like Anne, the girl who began his transformation into something more jaded and jagged than he used to be, and "you," the one Oliver speaks of most regretfully and to whom he directs his narration. He eventually flees to a lakeside house far from the city, where he befriends both a gravesite and, later, a skittish, artistic girl named Laika whose innocence and need to be protected allow Oliver to shed the role of the wholesome half in a pair. It seems that Laika's fragility exists in tandem with the kind of gentle heart that can soften some of the prickliness that Oliver has acquired with time and experience, but she, too, falls victim to infidelity; their love disintegrates as the painted landscape in her home turns from idyllic to cataclysmic, driving Oliver out of her life with a frenzied snowstorm.

The story ends as it began, with a letter to the "you" Oliver has lost and the love he'll be trying to replicate for the rest of his life, only the concluding letter is so awash in remorse over the past being an out-of-reach dream to which the future merely pales in comparison that it would actually hurt to read the final pages if they weren't infused with the kind of hope that comes with accepting the dualities of growing up, that one cannot know the pain of exquisite heartbreak without stumbling upon something sublimely beautiful first, and that learning from both gives them a place in the peaks and valleys of one's personal landscape.

Playing fantastic elements against the universally felt bitterness of a broken heart and the people whose purpose for passing through our lives is to remind us that not all love stories conclude with the fairy-tale endings they deserve puts a strange spin on an otherwise ordinary rite of passage into adulthood. It's so easy to dwell on the slings and arrows we've survived like tragic heroes while conveniently glossing over the times we dealt those same cruelties to others. Here, Oliver watches a sobbing Yuki turn into a frozen shadow and a wailing Laika disappear in the snow, in silent, metaphorical acknowledgment that the end of their romances hurt more than him, regardless of the women's cavalier attitudes toward romantic loyalty.

Oliver finally accepts that we all do desperate, unknowingly hurtful things to simultaneously satisfy our need for self-preservation while tightening our hold on the one person we've entrusted with the safekeeping of our most vulnerable selves, observing that the "you" he's writing to has always seen past his transgressions to accept him as a good person who couldn't help but commit a few wicked acts: When someone means the world to us and they make it clear their love is divided among others, it's only natural to let our lesser selves lash out like a hurt animal--but that doesn't damn a person to unconquerable rottenness.

Maybe it's because I'm coated in a little residual magic from recently revisiting the similarly feverish, preternaturally dreamlike world of Haruki Murakami, or because I've been wallowing in a surfeit of 30s-onset introspection about things that exist in a more distant past than their still-healing scars suggest, but Stay Close, Little Ghost offered one of those fated chance encounters of crossing paths with a novel at the absolute perfect time: It told me everything I've been needing to hear and I got to be the patiently, earnestly receptive audience it deserved. Perhaps I took interpretational liberties with this story but I do think that anyone who never got a sense of closure for a crucially formative but prematurely extinguished experience would have to be rubbed as raw as I was by this book: It's hard to resist personalizing a tale that serves as a tribute to the heartaches both inflicted and suffered that usher us away from childhood's temporary refuge by tempting us with romances fuelled by intensities we can't understand and are destined to burn out in spectacular disasters we can't yet imagine.

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