American Ghosts: A Memoir
A review by Ronald Wright
It has been said of David Plante's novels that they can be read but not described.
The same is largely true of his memoir, American Ghosts. Waking as a child
in terror of a ghostly Indian he imagines at the bottom of the garden, young David
is told by his mother "There's nothing there, nothing, nothing". But
to him "everything was out there", and later in life he admits wanting
"to have everything, to have nothing less than everything". Such a hunger
for knowledge and experience is common enough, especially among writers. But although
this book seems to promise both a personal and historical quest, it seldom ventures
beyond the subjective and imaginary, recoiling from real contact with history,
geography, ethnicity or politics. Plante himself is disarmingly frank about this
and other shortcomings, telling how he took from his Greek lover Nikos "the
criticism that my great weakness in my writing, as well as in my life, was a self-indulgent
lack of engagement with the world".
Despite his stated interest in the family and community past -- a potentially
fascinating past which includes a Blackfoot Indian great-grandmother and French
Canadian fur traders -- Plante does little research beyond a day or two of half-hearted
genealogy in France. He does not visit French Canada, the ancestor of his Franco-Catholic
enclave in the state of Rhode Island, until invited to lecture there at the
age of fifty. And though he speculates at length about his Indian blood, these
thoughts fail to rise above American cliche: the Indian deep within his father
is a Hollywood cipher, a strange, stoic, superstitious, laconic creature of
"the woods". He shows no curiosity in the Blackfoot themselves (a
bison-hunting people of the far western plains) and no awareness that the local
Indians of New England and New France were maize farmers who lived not in the
woods but in sizeable towns (Quebec City and Montreal were inhabited by thousands
when Jacques Cartier arrived in the 1530s). He does not even ask himself how
a Blackfoot woman might have met his great-grandfather thousands of miles to
the east. Oddest of all, for a person with Native American blood, the one historical
question he does raise several times is whether America "belongs"
to the English or the French. The ghosts of the land never escape from a naive
mythology absorbed from French missionary romances and the beguiling fictions
that America prefers to the hard truth of extermination and dispossession.
American Ghosts, then, is a book about its author and his state of mind,
a stifling house of dreamlike images and dark obsessions adrift from the temporal
world. The strongest images -- the early ones before Plante leaves home for
Paris, Barcelona and London -- have a hallucinatory compulsion like the miracles
and mortifications of his provincial Catholicism, a medieval relic lingering
improbably in a stale corner of the New World. His aunt Cora used to show him
her collection of "holy cards" dwelling on the gore of favourite martyrdoms
in pornographic detail: the plucking out of St Lucy's eyes, the lopping of St
Agatha's breasts, and "the disembowelment of Saint Erasmus, his intestines
wound out of him onto a big wheel". Not surprisingly, young David becomes
one of Christianity's psychological amputees, persuaded that the physical world
is at best a prelude to the "hereafter", and at worst a dangerous
seduction that will get him damned.
The self-absorbed intensity of Plante's prose works best in these childhood
years; later it becomes tedious, like the recounting of dreams more compelling
to the teller than the told. Readers hoping for strong attention to style (as,
for example, in J. M. Coetzee's Boyhood)
will be frustrated by the book's unevenness. Some parts are elegantly written,
others so careless they seem unrevised. Plante's subtle, tender account of his
sexual awakening in Spain -- one of the most finely drawn scenes -- is described
only a few pages later as "the most amazingly unique experience of my life."
If in childhood Plante falls under the baleful candlelight of grisly icons,
in adolescence he discovers Thomas Aquinas and the brothers James. He admits
coming to London as a young man "to be a minor Henry James", a fantasy
from which he claims to have been saved by the astute Nikos. But only somewhat
saved: Plante has inherited the Jamesian gift of being able to write for page
on page about nothing very much beyond nuance.
Plante identifies his home community as "Le Petit Canada", a term
that usually refers to old parts of French Canada left south of the border after
the American Revolution. Though he creates an aura of age and authenticity for
his parish, it was in fact a much more recent offshoot founded by migrant workers
in the late nineteenth century. In one of the book's rare sparks of wit, David's
mother asks Aunt Cora if the eviscerated Erasmus is the saint one should apply
to for a constipation cure. Plante believes French Canadians in general and
himself in particular to be "humourless", a judgement American
Ghosts certainly supports. But this is an odd thing to say about French
Canadians, normally regarded by their Anglo neighbours as a fun-loving lot.
If "humourless" truly describes Plante's childhood culture, that culture
must have been a local anomaly. Drink, laughter, dancing, all seem to have been
suppressed to a degree unheard of in Quebec or Acadia. This suggests (though
Plante does not) that his uprooted Franco-Catholicism had already been infiltrated
by the American Puritanism surrounding it.
Plante eventually returns to his parish to find it almost wholly erased: the
old families gone, the graves dug up and moved (the dead friendless against
developers). The few faithful at the rundown Catholic church are now Mexicans.
One wave of migrant workers has been succeeded by another, as they in their
turn will no doubt be absorbed by the great melting pot of deracinated America.
American Ghosts is a deeply American work: a minute self-examination
by a wounded yet perversely callow consciousness. The ghosts interest David
Plante not for their own sake but rather as elements of his personal psychic
Ronald Wright's Stolen Continents: Conquest and resistance in the Americas,
1992, was reissued earlier this year. His most recent book is A Short History
of Progress, based on Canada's 2004 Massey Lectures.