Friday, November 19, 2021

Ghosts of America - Novel by Caroline Hagood - Reviewed by Mitch Levenberg

Ghosts of America by Caroline Hagood. Hanging Loose Press, 2021. ISBN: 978-1934909713. $18.00. 200 pages

Reviewed by Mitch Levenberg

Caroline Hagood’s Ghosts of America is profound, witty and entertaining. I’d call it a page turner except I never wanted to turn the page. The narrator of the novel is Norman Roth III, Herzog to his friends, great American novelist, masturbator, voyeur, writer of “literary academia, the “overweight ugly balding white guy’s tenured ticket to young tail.” Herzog represents a long line of male writers, writers like the country itself, “formed from the dusk of masculine language, language that has skewered and slighted, misrepresented and misconstrued the role and importance of women since this country’s inception. Who better then to be visited one night, a la Ebenezer Scrooge, by the ghosts of Jackie Kennedy and Valerie Solanas?  Herzog himself is a contradiction. He will gladly “jack off” to Marilyn Monroe but at the same time see something greater than the whole, greater than, as Jackie Kennedy later observes, the “blonde-haired breasts that launched American cinematic romance, but also “as complete as the end of something,” someone the “universe might transfigure her at any time.” Herzog can think about “the fluidity of existence” yet, at the same time admit “how solid it can get in the pants region.”

Herzog’s first visitor is Jackie Kennedy, his muse, his “pixie dream girl,” wife of JFK, president, Womanizer Laureate of the U.S., the man who, in his own words, “accompanied Jacquelyn Kennedy to Paris,” and later, of course, to his own assassination. Indeed, it is Jackie’s powerful narration of JFK’s assassination that sticks with me the most, that twists my own gut memory, that is rendered so terrifyingly beautiful, so painful yet poetic. The scene explodes in our minds like JFK’s own glorious mind “exploding onto Jackie’s skin.”

The writing here is truly “blood writing” at its best. According to Herzog, it’s the writer Denis Johnson, who believes that all writers should write in blood and that the more blood you write in, the more you put your life on the line. “What better way to build sentences,” Herzog states earlier, “than with our own “jets of blood,” again not his own idea, but one taken from Sylvia Plath, one of the greatest blood writers ever.

It’s truly amazing how in this gut-wrenching scene, one of the most beautifully gut-wrenching scenes I have ever read, Caroline Hagood becomes Jackie Kennedy, in both mind and body, as if she herself were in that car, as if her own life were on the line, her words, her incredible imagination evoking both the horrible and the exquisite. Here, Jackie Kennedy becomes the poet laureate of the great American Tragedy, the symbol of the blood-soaked American Dream, of Camelot, not only “deconstructed, (see the title of Herzog’s book on the Kennedys) but destroyed. JFK is Lancelot, his brain bleeding out in the back of that “midnight blue” limo, dripping on a pink dress which only a few hours earlier glittered with hope and promise in, of all places, Love Field. As Jackie says, “That part of his head that wasn’t blown away was so exquisite. I tried to hold it all together. If I could just reclaim the bits of him, all would suddenly be whole.”

Herzog’s next visitor is the ghost of Valerie Solanas, famous for shooting Andy Warhol, but not for killing him. “I’m going to teach you,” she says to Herzog, “how to write a woman.” For sure she is the scarier of the two ghosts, the bad one as in good ghost, bad ghost:  loud, brash, unapologetic, wild-eyed, sloppy, soiled, hungry, (she raids Herzog’s fridge) a “crazy pants,” a “bimbo psychopath,” and in Norman Mailer’s words (see “Norman” as in Norman Roth III) “The Robespierre of Feminism.” She’s also the author of the SCUM Manifesto and the play “Up Your Ass,” titles that don’t exactly roll off the tongue, but who needs tongues? Solanas tells Herzog Ovid’s story of Philomela, imprisoned, raped and tortured by King Tereus who rips out her tongue so she can never tell her story, yet she does anyway by weaving it with purple yarn into a tapestry. She becomes the artist weaving her words, her actions, her very existence into the world. Tongue or no tongue, she cannot and will not be silenced.

This is not a linear book; it is not plot, but premise. It is a tapestry of plots and subplots, a concentric circle of stories within stories. Valerie Solana telling Herzog her story vis a vis Ovid’s story of Philomela and Tereus so flawlessly weaved by the author into this crazy quilt of a novel, “crazy” in this case meaning parts or isolated fragments of things comprising the whole of something. Indeed, this novel reflects the mind itself broken up into many minds. I often felt as if I were not only experiencing what was happening outside a character’s mind, that is by words and actions, but inside it as well. In Jackie’s mind, I am tormented; my heart breaks, I feel the burden of history, its violence and brutality, its poetry and beauty, its possibilities for redemption. I feel sad and frustrated. I feel beautiful and bloody. I like the feeling of haunting Herzog with dignity and class. I like this mind and want to stay for a while. I want to keep trying, haunted still by childhood memories of Humpty Dumpty, to put JFK’s brain back together again.

Inside Valerie Solanas’ mind, I feel pissed and anxious and vengeful but knowing I’m a bad shot, instead of a bullet, I try out my poor swollen tongue, my  against that bastard Herzog. As for Herzog’s mind, I am in it from the very beginning of the novel. At first, I must step over empty whiskey bottles and look lustfully through women’s legs; mirrors are only to look at bodies, to pleasure myself, my mind is only to misconstrue and degrade others, especially women, my heart is to deceive, to hide, to secretly despise myself and others. I enter a room where the floors and walls are sticky, filthy and dark. There is loud, cacophonous music piercing my ear drums. There are shelves lined with decaying books, all containing distorted, misleading words about women. Then, suddenly I turn into another room, clean and bright and filled with blank canvases, with art waiting to be created, with empty shelves waiting to be lined with books dripping with truth and historical accuracy. Finally, and most refreshingly, there are new, blank notebooks waiting to be filled. I feel hopeful. I sense change, redemption.

Herzog’s is the representative mind, the Motherboard where in the end all the other minds will merge to form a new and enlightened mind. We can’t help wonder if he’s willing to take in all these other minds, to change, to experience a metamorphosis. He certainly has a long way to go but he’s willing to do it, to plunge finally into a woman’s mind rather than her body. Now in this new incarnation of his mind he has wild, uncertain dreams. He speeds through women’s bodies turned into tunnels. He goes on a Mecca to Coney Island where he rides the Wonder Wheel and observes a hungry three-legged dog, a final, symbolic descent into the underworld, perhaps before his ultimate transcendence.

For Herzog, this is not just a physical Metamorphosis where he wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into an insect, or a butterfly and still thinks like a man or a caterpillar, but it is a Metamorphosis of the mind and spirit, where Herzog must turn the world upside down, as Jove does in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, where” the Dolphins climb trees, and mermaids stare in wonder at cities now underwater.”

Indeed, Caroline Hagood’s ability to merge the real and the imagined is remarkable. This novel is so well balanced, so flawlessly navigated in what seems to be an unbalanceable, unnavigable world. It is rich in language, in metaphor, it blends, mixes, merges almost everything, the living and the dead, mythology, history, and contemporary culture. At times it can be heavy and dark, but just as often can be funny and satirical. And then there are the ghosts, wonderful, enlightened, beautiful ghosts I can listen to forever. And as for the novel ending in a bang or a whimper, there is neither, but instead there is a “sharp inhale, the heart flutter, then a shot of warmth, then some kind of quiet.”