Beginning in the 1970’s, David Plante established himself as a writer singularly occupied with the complicated and competing claims of spiritual and physical influences on human lives. In his novels, especially the widely praised Francoeur trilogyThe Family (1978), The Country (1981), The Woods (1982)he explores the intersections of the visible and invisible, charting the interplay of faith and the body, seeking images that capture the moment when finite material opens up to reveal an infinite reality. The books constitute a sustained quest for wholeness in a fragmented world and for unity in a work of art. (Plante uses this kind of language.) Certainly American Ghosts is yet another attempt, this time stripped of the veil of fiction, to describe how history, ethnicity, religion, and sexuality connect to shape the spiritual life of a writer and his work.
This work irritates as often as it illuminates, feeling willed and protracted, the product of real struggle over many years. While the payoff for the reader is the exhilaration of transcending that struggle, in the text remain too many signs suggesting just how tortuous the path to resolution wassigns detectible in the syntax itself. Few pages unfold with fluency. Sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs, read as if they were literal translations from the German, with curious word order, awkward repetition, extended length, or a turgidity that can momentarily cloud meaning. However, such contorted and ruffled textures coexist with phrases of high lyricism and radiant ease as well. The memoir’s contradictory quality may be unavoidable, even necessary, given that the story Plante has to tell is one of conflict, ambivalence, and paradox punctuated by moments of serene clarity and relaxation of spirit. Balked desire gives way to satisfaction and understanding, which then seizes up in knots of frustration.
Less a traditional memoir than a diary of a spiritual and artistic quest, American Ghosts has that characteristic feel of daily writing, the same unvarnished directness, the detailed but often obsessive, repetitive recording of moment-to-moment experience. Plante admits to being a compulsive diarist, the sort of person for whom events take on reality after they have taken on language. He also confesses (rather late in the book, when readers will already have discovered this for themselves) to being “a totally humorless, unironical Canuck,” someone who needs to hold things in, to be silent, to protect himself from revelation and possible embarrassment. Does Plante appreciate the irony of being such a person and yet having written this book, a book that holds very little in and risks embarrassment by letting it all out? There is no sign of this; a thoroughgoing earnestness pervades the memoir from start to finish. Still, the risks of not remaining silent seem largely to have been worth his taking. This traditional quest narrativein many ways a clichéis saved from portentous self-regard and given a spiky originality by a writer who brings the full weight of his sober, “unironical” personality to bear on it.
It should be said right away that the “ghosts” of the title are no idle metaphors. Ghosts of Plante’s past abound, real, insistent presences which shoulder their ways into his writing and demand attention and space. Plante is one genuinely haunted individual: by his American Indian heritage, his French Canadian background, and, most profoundly, his Catholic upbringing in a Catholic, French-speaking neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island. Added to this mix is the specter of his homosexuality, which he refuses to confront until it, like the rest, intrudes and forces itself upon him, adding to the complicated set of identities he tries to harmonize and embrace.
As a memoir, American Ghosts is very selective about what it remembers. Unlike many such personal accounts which cobble together colorful vignettes and cluster zesty personalities and anecdotes around the writer, Plante’s is an underdramatized, underpopulated affair. For a narrative covering so many years, it boasts a relatively small cast of charactersa few family members, a few friendsand these are mostly supporting players brought on to cast further light on Plante’s spiritual education. One is reminded of similar projects (William Wordsworth’s 1850 volume The Prelude, perhaps) that, no matter what else they do, make it their principal business to record the growth of the poet’s mind. In Plante’s work, the reader is left with a depiction of the...
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