Debut Fiction Review by JR Walsh1
February 9, 2020 by The Citron Review
Ghosts of You
(Okay Donkey, 2019)
Consider this challenge: Find a book of fiction completely written in second person and narrated in a predictive / imperative future tense.
You will accomplish this if/when you read Cathy Ulrich’s debut, Ghosts of You (Okay Donkey).
It’s about murder, but it’s not a mystery. It’s about loss, but it isn’t saturated with blood or tears. It’s the future, but it’s the present and it can never escape the past. It’s modern noir set in convenience stores, schools, rural townships, and suburbs in swing states.
Compulsively re-readable, this slim volume of thirty-one flash fictions runs a gauntlet of grief. Ulrich is a master of adjusting levels of focus and emotional engagement, even in the face of trying subject matter. There’s quiet, hyper-specific minutiae (“wart beside his left ear, pale skin, bad haircut…wore a scarf even when it was warm”) to draw you in. There are explosive, cinematic scenes (the bonfire burning of an ermine coat as the cops return; “a pepper of gunfire…in the falling rain”) to make you flinch or jump back from the heat and noise. All’s fair game when you’re forced to refocus your entire life in the wake of a murder.
Each story begins, “The thing about being the murdered <XX> is you set the plot in motion.”
Ghosts of You calls out an entertainment and literary formula for the murder-show. Solve female descriptor for XX and sell your idea. Ulrich inserts identifiers that are unyieldingly female specific (Girl, Wife, Actress, Coed, Homecoming Queen, Moll, Princess, Mermaid, Chanteuse, Witch) as well as gender defiant (Clerk, Taxidermist, Hermit, Detective). Each one is a dead woman.
Dead Lauras make the world spin. The plot of David Lynch’s series Twin Peaks begins when Pete Martell calls the sheriff to say, “She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic.” For one small town, everyday events will be distorted by the dead, teenage body of Laura Palmer that washed ashore. In Otto Preminger’s 1949 film Laura, a woman’s lifeless body lies in an apartment, faceless as well, courtesy of a gun. This is also presumably Laura, her portrait haunting the crime scene and eventually the homicide detective.
It’s no coincidence that Laura is one of the names listed in the dedication. Throughout Ghosts of You, each victim has a predetermined definition but we are privy to no names whatsoever. You will project your own names onto these lost women. And you will inscribe your own personal pain onto both the lost and the survivors. Any allusions to your own reading/viewing/living experience will be permitted, encouraged.
“Are you possessed now? Are you her?”
Ghosts of You is subtitled The Murdered Ladies Series, but whoever you are outside the book, within these pages you have certainly been murdered. You are also survivors and possibly guilty of wrongdoing. With the deft flexibility of Ulrich’s language, the ghosts are you and you inhabit those who remain – the haunted. Murdered though you may be, you’re also the reason everyone’s here together.
“Women killed by intimate partners or family members account for 58 percent of all female homicide victims reported globally.” This statistic is pulled from a 2018 United Nations report on violence. It’s murder across continents and socioeconomic divisions; it’s murder where you’re supposed to be safe.
It is significant that every XX is a dead woman and that every XX is written as you. The murders keep coming and you realize the cycle of violence continues, a fact the United Nations can corroborate. Perhaps one solace to be found in Ghosts of You is that victims move from effect to cause, from statistic to catalyst. Those who remain alive must face blame and responsibility tomorrow.
Murder is the present. The future is all aftermath. When you’re the murdered <girl>, Ulrich writes: “They’ll put your picture in the entry at your school, where your classmates can go past and feel the weight of your murder. It’s very heavy. Your classmates will slouch and say it’s because their textbooks are too thick. They’ll complain about the endless assignments on loss. Even the math teacher will focus only on subtraction for a week after your murder.”
You can’t help but think about every school shooting ever; every argument where loaded guns are close at hand; every neighborhood with “That doesn’t happen here” on their outdated welcome sign. There’s no way to talk about the weight of this pain for victims, for families, for bystanders. The absence is so heavy that even small questions weigh tons. Somehow, perhaps in part by using second person narrators, Ulrich gives us a way into the voice of victims that never seems exploitative. She’s no hearse chaser. She’s a vigil organizer who doesn’t blink.
Her descriptions are precise, rhythmic, and often appear in twos and threes. Though she’s given to theme and variation, she’s not afraid to repeat or to circle back for effect. It may be incantation, it may be a character’s lack of knowing what more can be said or running out of words. It is definitely
a twist on the classic melodrama of an action film and when Ulrich’s repetition unfurls, it becomes poetry, music.
There ain’t no Charles Bronsons from Death Wish here. Nic Cage won’t rage against the dying of his wife in a vodka-soaked crossbow rampage. In Ulrich’s story where the gangster lover holds the murdered <moll> in an embrace, the lover vows vengeance. All future plans rewind into a memory of someone else’s gaze, someone else’s interpretation: “Sitting like that, they’ll say, you looked out the window at the sky, your lover’s fingers entwined with yours, the stars, you said to him, the stars, the stars.”
Saying anything new at that moment could add nothing more to the weight of the love.
Repetition of images creates its own pathos. Though Ulrich refuses to use the ash-covered phoenix as a perseverance story, you are awash in shouting feathers, flutterings of butterflies, clapping wings, chirping mouths, and bats rushing out into the night. These are the sounds of life after a life passes, but also when a storm has moved on, perhaps after a winter recedes. The wings provide for the reader an instance of reprieve, hope for peace or change – or maybe it’s the possibility of escape. Though that wish is fleeting, liminal, it’s all you have. Then you must listen even harder.
“You will be the quiet of the highway before a semi rumbles through, you will be the pavement cracked with dandelion sprout. You will be the window at your sister’s place that never quite closes, the whistle-hiss of wind at night.”
Cathy Ulrich’s Ghosts of You suggests that our future may be thirty-one flavors of murder and then some, but sometimes an image or a sound will last far beyond any plot – even one that starts out already out of time.
JR Walsh is the Online/Fiction Editor at The Citron Review. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from Boise State University, where he now teaches English as a Second Language. His writing is in many fine publications, such as Juked, Rougarou, Timber, Grey Sparrow Journal, 50-Word Story, Blink-Ink, The Ekphrastic Review, NUNUM, Esquire, and B O D Y and Litro. For more: itsjrwalsh.com.
Cathy Ulrich is the founding editor of Milk Candy Review, a journal of flash fiction. Her work has been published in various journals, including Black Warrior Review, Passages North, and Wigleaf and can be found in Best Microfiction 2019, Best Small Fictions 2019, and Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions 2017 and 2019. She lives in Montana with her daughter and various small animals.
[…] find a review of Cathy Ulrich’s Ghosts of You over at the Zest section of The Citron Review. It’s a wonderful read, re-read, and […]