characterological

When I was a senior at American and editor-in-chief of AmLit, the undergraduate literary magazine, I shared office with  the editor-in-chief of the graduate student literary magazine. He was never actually in the office, although there was always evidence of recent departure: a shutting down computer, a crumpled and grease-stained bag from McDonald’s, a pen left uncapped on the desk. I don’t remember an issue of his publication launching that year, but I do remember that he hoarded individual-sized packets of Sugar in the Raw. The bookcases on his side of the office were filled not with previous issues or short story collections or manuscripts submitted by hopeful MFA students but instead cardboard boxes worn flimsy, leaning and gaping and leaking the small, brown paper envelopes of sugar all over the floor.

Some evenings I would camp out in the office, killing time before an evening staff meeting and speculating about the purpose of so much aggressively organic sweetener. Maybe this man spent his days paralyzed by an irrational fear of sugar shortage. Maybe, in the dark moments of his career in academia, he succumbed to the temptations of a cultish religious sect that required some sort of sugar tithe. Perhaps he was planning an installation art piece, a commentary on those surprising, crystallized moments of sweetness in an otherwise bitter world.

The more likely scenario: he was addicted to caffeine like the rest of us and pocketed a few extra packets each time he visited the coffee shop. I have learned the wily if obvious ways of poor graduate students since my days at AU.

I just finished reading Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s Ghosted, a book that is full of such unlikely characters. A clean drug dealer whose speaks in a slangy gangster when happy. A hemiplegic woman named Willy, long for Will instead of short for Wilhemina. A mentally ill or drug addled woman who haunts the grounds of a mental health and rehab center, wearing a Pac-Man towel as a cape.

I’m ambivalent about Ghosted. It was a strange balance of moments horrible but beautifully written — moments now burned into my brain like Annie Dillard’s crippled Polyphemus — and entire sequences of scenes that just didn’t really hit me with the force they were meant to exert. (I have trouble caring about and concentrating on narrated poker games.) But one of the things I really appreciated about the novel was that parade of quirky characters, their neuroses grounded in detail. A pink hair scrunchie. A memory of swallows. An unreasonable and really quite inconsiderate hoard of Sugar in the Raw.

Characters like this are why some hate Dickens. Sure, his cast of thousands includes individuals with tics a touch more obvious than a Pac Man cape. But really — a crack dealer talking ghetto shorthand isn’t that different from a man like Bleak House‘s Harold Skimpole, who reveals himself through his own verbal refrains. But I am just a child!

People like this exist, of course, they just seem improbable in print. Reading Ghosted made me want to take stock of the lovable and lamentable weirdos in my own history and stick them in a novel. A retail manager who always wears old-school high topped Reeboks with zippers on the side — a man I always picture making jazz hands! A nonprofit coordinator named Classy who preaches the advantages of a simple manicure over elaborately painted nails with the measured gravity usually reserved for weightier topics.

A middle aged neighbor making enemies through ill conceived practical jokes — a dead snake, coiled as if alive on the grate of our backyard grill.

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