Preparing the Ghost by Matthew Gavin Frank is without a doubt one of the more unusual books I have read in a long time. Described as "an essay concerning the giant squid and it's first photographer" it is, in my mind, first and foremost a writer's book. (Not that the natural history isn't fascinating.) It's about a writer (Frank) obsessed with a Victorian era naturalist and photographer (Harvey Moses) who was obsessed with the Giant Squid which he famously photographed in Newfoundland in 1874. There is also much here about humanity's obsession with the Giant Squid and the vast amount of mythology, literature and more that has developed around this still mysterious creature.
One of the most successful aspects of Preparing the Ghost is Frank's authorial voice--he is a key component to this surprisingly personal story and as much as it is about the life of a man in Newfoundland from more than a century ago, it is also, deeply, about Matthew Gavin Frank. On more than one occasion he veers into his own past trying to mine it perhaps for reasons why he has succumbed to this obsession. Standing in front of Moses's home, (privately owned) knocking on the door yet again and hoping for a glimpse of the bathroom where the squid was draped and photographed, Frank can't explain why he is very desperate to get inside. He keeps knocking, he keeps returning, he keeps hoping for a glimpse of where history was made and he knows enough to know that this stubborn persistence is part of the story he is telling and, written well, it is as compelling as every other aspect of the tale.
Preparing the Ghost reminded me a bit of Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence. Very famously, that book is about not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence and in some significant ways Preparing the Ghost is about not writing a book about the Giant Squid. Just as Dyer does write somewhat about Lawrence, so does Frank write about the squid. But there is also much more here about Newfoundland and houses and marriage and family and leaving home and traveling far and fishing and telling stories and lying while taking stories, (like confusion over who the fishermen were who caught the squid), and, of course, it is about how something like a squid could spawn stories that grew into myths and even now, has sparked a book about all of that.
I enjoyed the hell out of this book due in no small matter, I'm sure, to the fact that I've long been fascinated by the Giant Squid. I loved how Frank wrote around and about his subject and thoroughly enjoyed his appreciation of history. It's an odd little book in some respects--the narrative truly jumps all over the place--but Dyer's book is odd as well and what lifts both of these titles is the enormous curiosity and smarts of the authors. They are candid about their obsessions and frustrations and persevered to create something unique to literature. I learned a lot about the Giant Squid while reading Preparing the Ghost but even more so, I learned about writing. Highly recommended.