The Ghost Variations (2021) by Kevin Brockmeier is a collection of 100 flash stories, all involving ghosts, though the meaning of that word is stretched in some of them. In structure, style, flavor, and tone, the collection reminded me most of Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman, although it also calls up echoes of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges.
The stories are grouped into various sections, such as “Ghosts and Memory,” “Ghosts and Nature,” “Ghosts and Love and Friendship,” and “Ghosts and Family.” In addition, Brockmeier offers up a (“partial”) concordance of themes, listing all the stories that somehow touch on animals, plants, solitude, heartbreak, technology, and other topics.
The stories run a broad gamut of plot, style, and tone. Some are lyrical, almost prose poem-like; others more grounded and prosaic. Some are moving, others thought-provoking, others humorous, though even these vary in style along a spectrum of slyly witty to bluntly bawdy. One in particular (“Playtime”) is an out-and-out horror story, though a few others may qualify as well, if in less creepy fashion. Depending on their background, readers may as well discover references to or plays on other works or to pop culture. Star Trek makes an appearance, for instance, along with the Twilight Zone, an old HBO series, some classic myths/fairy tales, and I’m sure there are several I missed. If there’s a common thread that runs through nearly all of them, it’s that the dead are often just as lost, insecure, and just as befuddled by their (non)existence as we confused living are.
I had a number of favorites, sometimes due to a neat premise, but most often I fell in love with the writing, so most of these fell into the lyrically haunting category. Here, for instance, is the end of “A Story Swaying Back and Forth”: “This — this moment — this was where eternity would take place, not in the glow of paradise, and not in the blackness of oblivion, but in a stillness charged with memory and premonition.” And here is a bit of “A Lesser Feeling”: “They rush here and there, pouring themselves through one emotion after another, like dirt through a row of sieves. Their lives pass so quickly they might as well be ghosts. From any but the most sidelong angle, they seem not to be there at all.” I could quote a good amount more, but I won’t spoil the pleasure of coming across these passages in the reading. I’ll just note that like these two, many of my favorites, beyond the vivid, poetic language, also had a deep sense of warmth and humanity at their core.
As with any collection of short stories, perhaps inevitably a bit more so given the number here the stories do vary in their quality and impact. Some are merely “cute,” others easily forgotten, and a few leave no impression at all. I mentioned how the book reminded me of Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams (one of my favorite books, btw, and one I highly recommend), but that collection is nearly 100 pages shorter, and so is more consistently strong. Here, I wonder if Brockmeier’s goal (I assume that’s what it was) of achieving the nice round number of 100 stories worked against him. I think culling the book by a quarter or so probably would have made for a stronger overall impact, but despite that, the good stories were so good that it’s still an easy book to recommend, though I’d also suggest reading it not in a single sitting, or two, but instead dipping in and spreading the reading out over a week or longer.