Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain
W. W. Norton
“A Ghost Story”
“A Ghost Story” is from Lucia Perillo’s story collection, Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain (W.W. Norton). Perillo published six books of poetry including Inseminating the Elephant, which was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize. Perillo always wrote prose alongside her poetry and this was her first story collection. She is a former MacArthur fellow. She died in late 2016.
Perillo said this about the origin of her story: You already know that writers are like crows, gleaning from their ostensibly-real lives shiny nuggets that they incorporate into the written nest. I say ostensibly-real because there is an element of fantasy in the construction of any life – maybe writers go to greater lengths than nonwriting people to create an image to slip into, like a garment. Some writers wear the garment and become in fact the hard-drinking, brawling, tellers of tales of Southern Gothicism, whereas for others the garment is made of an immaterial substance. Me, I do not live out my writerly persona in any way that I can detect, but nevertheless I do have a fantasy vision of myself, and it is from this imaginary real life that the crow picks its nuggets.
For a long time, maybe still, I found/find “A Ghost Story” deeply embarrassing, and I have not yet read it aloud in public. The embarrassment stems from the fact that I feel that I am somehow telling a tale about myself, even though I have never been a flagger: none of the elements in the story could be matched to my life. Yet the story borrows heavily from my fantasy of myself as having once been a girl with many lovers, who tottered on the edge of the legal and the criminal. It feels so true. Wasn’t that who I was? Well, no.
The story corroborates the fantasy especially when it shifts into the first person, as if putting of one’s real self at risk give the self a credential, a writer’s license like a driver’s license: I-know-what-I-am-talking-about-because-I-have-been-there. And like I said, the persona is not a pretense. I believe I was in that rental cabin in British Columbia, and this is why I am ashamed for telling you about it.
That’s the one thing I’m sure is real – the shame.
Yelizaveta P. Renfro, writing in the Washington Independent Review of Books, said of the collection: “Lucia Perillo has a poet’s eye and economy, qualities that shine through in the 14 stories that make up her debut fiction collection. That’s not to say that her short stories are minimalist; on the contrary, they are fulfilling and rich and some are quite long. Perillo is a writer who is in full control, who has honed the skill of always selecting not just the approximate word, but the exact word.”