Review: Stay Close, Little Ghost
6” x 9” perfect-bound trade paperback
Tape Tree Press
Review originally published on 1/15/15
Oliver Serang’s debut novel, Stay Close, Little Ghost, is a fantastic ride that gives the reader a mesmerizing combination of being drawn exceptionally close to the heart of its narrator and being distantly haunted by the surrealistic world he encounters.
The convention of the novel is that a fictional Oliver is writing a letter to an unnamed former lover where he relates his experiences of other unsuccessful relationships and his pursuit as a mathematician in solving a famous open problem. The math portions go into some descriptions above the head of this particular reader, but they demonstrate Oliver’s obsessive pursuit for a perfect but elusive solution. As the story moves through his relationship ups and downs, the reader is taken on a deep dive into his inner thoughts and an existential crisis that correlates to him encountering several fantastic events such as the girl with no eyes in the subway tunnel, a woman disappearing into a shadow on a wall, a house with landscape-painted walls that have their own living biosphere, and a little wolf living in his stomach that echoes his conscience.
Although the story is uncommon, there are elements of it that reminded me of several commonly read classics. One of the strengths of the story is how close we are brought in to Oliver and the complex philosophical questions he explores. This is reminiscent of Camus’ The Stranger or even Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The majority of the conflict is inside Oliver’s thoughts but it’s no less powerful or dramatic than traditional outer conflicts.
I was terrified that everything had changed, and I was terrified that nothing was ever going to change. And because those were the opposites, together they filled the whole universe up like water in a balloon and there was nothing but the balloon pregnant with water and the nagging fear, while I stood directionless in the rain and waited for it to pop.
Other elements reminded me of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, but with the opposite forms of a male and Oliver’s fear being stuck outside of an upside down bell jar rather than underneath it. Outside of the jar, there is no protection from relationships and from heartbreak. Outside of the jar are the dangerous visions or hallucinations or whatever we want to label the surrealistic events he experiences.
I kept thinking about everything, about Yuki, about Anne, about you, about all of the games and all of the girls from the year and all of a sudden everything I knew about them, their names and birthdays and everything else, shook free like a caged animal from a little box in my brain and I could feel them all swirled around me like an ocean of heavy water, threatening to pull me under.
This philosophical crisis and these fears shape a very compelling story and for the most part left me rooting for Oliver to ‘win.’ What’s at stake is the success of intimacy. The book makes a great case for how difficult that is. Even on one of his relationship “upswings,” Oliver still encounters the challenge to stay emotionally close to another human being.
She looked back at me hungrily, a little appeased by what I’d said, but still wanting more, and it was like she was knocking at a large oak door, saying Let me in, let me in, let me in. But the door didn’t open and I smiled again and kissed her on the cheek.
That’s a great picture of the beauty and pain of simultaneous success and failure of intimacy. Come on, Oliver, please win!
I do think it is possible some readers may be put off by some of the more fantastic elements, how many metaphors and images move at once, and how some dreams are brought to stronger closure than others. But I also think once the reader begins this journey, he will be hooked. He will enjoy the ride, and in the end, when nothing is left to do but put the book down, he will do so with the lasting memory of a beautiful story.