“The Ghost Variations” is Philosophical, Ironic, Dark, and Humorous

Kevin Brockmeier’s newest collection, The Ghost Variations: One Hundred Stories, continues the haunting theme first explored in his bestselling novel from 2006, The Brief History of the Dead. In the novel, people are divided into the living, the dead, and the “recently departed” — those who are neither living nor dead, but exist in the memories of the living. These “nearly departed” linger in a city of their own, a sort of otherworldly way station. Melancholy, curious, resigned, the inhabitants of the metaphysical city ruminate about the ordinary lives they left behind, and manage to connect (and reconnect) with others, or just hang out in parks, wondering if they will disappear when the last living person on earth who remembers them finally dies.

The Ghost Variations explores again what lies beyond — and between — life and death in one hundred stories. By turns philosophical, ironic, dark, and humorous, the fabulist tales in this collection feature ghosts in settings ranging from Victorian drawing rooms, African savannahs, and Chinese restaurants, to beaches “littered with kelp pods… growing stiff little punk haircuts of grass.” There are ghosts from the past, the present, and the speculative future.

In the opening story, a ghost, once a fifteen-year-old in a bustling gown from a century before, haunts a law firm, where the paralegals “watch the ghost emerging from her pleat in space and time and wonder if their lives will slip by like hers did…”

“A Matter of Acoustics” features a “spectral engineer” who coaxes ghosts out of the suburbs and into the city, because “in an age such as ours, so hungry for the transcendental, most people desire more spiritual encounters rather than fewer.”

In “A Source of Confusion” women begin to give birth to ghosts rather than babies, “a miracle of a different sort, a miracle from the night side of the grave, as it were, rather than the day side.”

Occasionally, comic moments leaven the darkness. “All His Life” features a dying man who refuses to follow the peaceful light that beckons him, gleefully dooming himself to cling to the earth and join other lost souls so he can, with “vindictive joy,” frighten children. A spiritual medium in “Extraordinary Gifts” is chaperoned by the ghost of her mother at every turn, for the rest of her life. In “Bilateral Symmetry,” a man after death discovers that “every ghost who took up haunting had a different specialty. His were the wealthy and lovestruck.”

The ghosts in this collection are aimless, ornery, and occasionally kind, but don’t hold any more answers to the meaning of life than people do. “Gone along with their bodies were their desire, their vehemence, their misery, their glee,” a narrator muses. “As such, they were never outraged or anguished by their condition, just mildly self-pitying.”

Not that losing their bodies is a burden. Most of the ghosts are only happy to shed their “corporeal beings,” repulsed about the idea of being trapped again in “a big bag of skin sloshing with water and proteins.” At a mall food court, the narrator of “Countless Strange Couplings and Separations,” kicked out of the afterworld because he is not yet a ghost, is disgusted to inhabit his body again, as he watches “mobs of people… galumphing around inside their fat and muscle.”  

Organized in eleven sections such as “Ghosts and Memory,” “Ghosts and Nature,” and “Ghosts and Family,” each story runs less than two pages. Such spare prose highlights clever opening lines, ironic twists, and crisp, vivid descriptions. (“The sky is the color of an Easter egg dipped twice in blue dye,” reads one glittering example.) In the acknowledgements, the author thanks readers for letting him “test out” many of the stories in public settings. One can see how these distilled, clever ghost stories could, read aloud, thrill readers crowded into a dimly bookstore, or around a neighborhood firepit.

But while brevity may be the soul of wit, in this collection it often gives short shrift to the inner lives of characters. Instead, these miniature stories focus on flights of imagination and big ideas. What is most poignant in these fabulist tales is the sense people and ghosts share about time, for “bodies moved through time as quickly as fire. Ghosts moved though time as slowly as glass.”

How fleeting life is. But how wearisome eternity can be, as the ghosts who visit the living know only too well: “If only people understood how tedious the afterlife could be, the ghosts thought, how starved a spirit could become for motion, activity, fizz, transformation, maybe they could do something better with their lives.” It is this elegiac theme threading through one hundred ghost stories that is so moving.

The Ghost Variations: One Hundred Stories
By Kevin Brockmeier
Pantheon Books
Published March 9, 2021