A few years ago, I saw a Picasso exhibit. Not knowing much about the painter at the time, I assumed I’d see his “Woman in a Hat” or “Piano” or other similar paintings. Instead, this exhibit featured his earlier works. I wandered room after room looking at canvases painstakingly rendered with realistic details, proportion and light, and found not one abstract among them. Picasso mastered every rule of art before he broke them all. Understanding the fundamentals lent his abstracts the authority that made them precisely so wild.
But without that base knowledge, art is uninformed and the observer cannot trust the artist. Such is the case with Mike Oborn’s debut novel, Ghost Between Us. Reading this book is a bit like being in a karate tournament. After a page or two, you feel like you’ve been kicked in the head: dizzy, nauseated, and disoriented. Perhaps Oborn fancied the subject matter of his book so radical that it superseded basic rules of grammar.
Just to amuse myself, I started counting incomplete sentences in the first chapter, but, by the third page, I lost track. So, I started over and tried to count complete sentences, but run-on sentences distracted me. Then I hunted for underlined words, misspelled words (like “there” instead of “their”) and tired clichÃ©s. One paragraph started in past tense, flowed into present, then to future, and back to past. Granted, the novel was written in the first person from the protagonist’s point of view, but even interior monologues need some sort of flow to avoid giving readers a headache.
The hero, Matthew Alcott, is a recovering alcoholic with a wicked dichotomy of delusions of grandeur and an inferiority complex. A returned missionary, Alcott sought refuge in the bottle after divorcing a powerful Mormon’s daughter and then disappointing his parents by renouncing the church.
But before he left the fold, he worked in the historical archives. The years spent in the church’s library rewarded his diligence with evidence that the LDS church has its own gaggle of skeletons in the closet. He writes a novel based on his findings, sells it to a New York City publisher just in time for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, and then finds out that the church wants to buy it for $2 million—sort of like a kill fee.
The book is being touted as highly controversial; according to the press release, Oborn’s membership in the LDS church may be revoked because of it. Please—it didn’t tell me one thing that most folks who live in Utah don’t already know.
Nonetheless, these are the facts he finds: Even after the Manifesto in 1890 (that abolished polygamy), Mormons continued to practice polygamy in secret and general authorities were given permission to perform these clandestine marriage ceremonies. The first president and founder of the LDS church, Joseph Smith, married at least 46 times, and one wife was 14. The church has a net worth of close to $50 billion and no debt—all from members’ tithing. Utah leads the nation in prescription anti-depressants. And finally, FBI and CIA retreads take jobs for the Mormon Church.
It’s hard to take anything Oborn says seriously. Maybe publishing this book really is a catalyst for excommunication. But if so, it’s an act of cutting off his membership to spite his face. If he had wanted to publish some groundbreaking work, he should have studied writing. As it is, the text itself is so painful to read that folks will have a hard time finishing it.
In addition to bad grammar, the characters are horribly undeveloped. When he devotes time to description at all, it’s description of women’s bodies. I’m assuming his character’s womanizing is an attempt to illustrate man’s basic desires to procreate with multiple women, thus exposing the rationale for polygamy. It doesn’t work; Alcott just comes off as a prick. Then there’s the predictable plot. But worse than that, as detestable as the LDS church is made out to be in this book, you understand why they might want the book silenced. Just shut this guy up, already.
Oborn needs to take some writing classes, master the basics and then maybe try a short story. As it is, you won’t trust a word he says because the writing is so bad. If this book is used for anything, it will be professors teaching students what not to do. It’s an ex-local writer’s attempt to be a maverick rebel and take the world by storm by exposing the soft white underbelly of the big dragon LDS church.
GHOST BETWEEN US by Mike Oborn, August Ink Publishing, Bellvue, Wash., $12.95