Graham Joyce's death last week was a huge loss, but at least he's left us with one last confounding masterpiece. The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit, out now in the U.S., is a weird, semi-autobiographical novel in which the fantasy elements are mostly at the margins. And yet, it's a strangely haunting ghost story.
The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit takes place in 1976, when a college student named David decides to go work at a seaside resort in the somewhat unglamorous town of Skegness, instead of going home for the summer. David doesn't particularly want to work for his stepdad, but he's also hoping to learn something about his biological father, who took him to Skegness when he was very young. And soon, David finds himself "haunted" by specters, which seem to be his own younger self and his father.
The real spectre haunting this book, though, is the British class system. David is from a working-class background — the first in his family to go to college — but he's still set apart from the other workers and punters in the resort, because of his fancy prospects. And Joyce carefully paints a picture of a Britain in transition, with old traditions (including the seaside holiday) falling to bits while Thatcher's conservative revolution lurks on the horizon.
The scariest thing in this novel isn't actually a ghost or a mystery — it's the group of racist National Front creeps that David gets pulled into bed with. A couple of his new coworkers, including the thuggish Colin, drag David along to a meeting without telling him where they're going, and David seems to be in constant danger of being cooped into their group due simply to his youthful cluelessness. Meanwhile, David also has an incredibly dangerous flirtation going on with Colin's wife Terri, and men who get too close to her tend to wind up being broken into little pieces.
Joyce weaves in strange real-life details — like the huge plague of ladybugs that struck Britain in the summer of 1976, landing on everything and covering people with a winged carpet. The ladybugs seem so chaotic, and yet so significant, that they feel like they must mean something, in the way of insects in magical realism. Even once you realize they're a real-life phenomenon.
The thing Joyce captures incredibly well in this book is the extreme weirdness of that age where you're still forming your identity, but you've just broken away from your family's expectations. That moment in your life when you're so malleable that you could be almost anyone. Your future is in absolute flux. It really feels like David could get pulled into the orbit of the fascists, or shaped by his doomed relationship with Terri, or spun off in any of a dozen other directions.
And Joyce populates his novel with a whole bunch of memorable, odd characters, from the stoner Nobby to the long-suffering Italian tenor Luca Valetti to Tony, the stage magician who sometimes performs in an incredibly racist "Arabic" blackface. The whole world of the crappy seaside resort feels totally immersive and like a real place, in all its faded glamor.
The novel's ghost story has a fairly prosaic ending and the love triangle (between David, Terri and a dancer named Nikki) sort of peters out. Joyce carefully avoids any kind of narrative climax, in fact — but delivers something much more interesting. In the end, David awkwardly stumbles into being more in control over his life, and actually starts to make better choices. And when he's reunited with his mother and stepfather, there are some brilliantly, painfully vivid scenes that capture the awkwardness of trying to fit back into your old context.
A lot of what's so beautiful and brilliant about this book has to do with tiny moments that build up the characters and their surroundings, and make this world feel like someplace David could belong, even though it's completely different than the world he's supposed to be heading for as a young college student.
In the end, the thing that's haunting Blue Suit isn't just the class system, which turns David into an outsider, but also the future — which the reader knows is going to be very different. The book's ending is surprisingly hopeful and sweet, with David finding a solution not just to his own identity crisis but to that of one of his coworkers. And in the end, Joyce writes: "The future will be what we choose it to be, just so long as we carefully engineer the present. As for the past, it moves like sand under your feet."
That's a beautiful message, and it's the best kind of exorcism there is.