Joplin’s Ghost (2005) by Tananarive Due

Joplin’s Ghost
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Joplin’s Ghost (2005) by Tananarive Due participates in multiple genres–horror, biography and romance–to tell the story of Phoenix Smalls, a fictional contemporary character, and Scott Joplin, the historical “King of Ragtime.” Collapsing the past and the present, Due operates in multiple modes to weave a poignant, frightening, and utterly immersive story that explores how love can transcend time and asks what it means for an artist to be immortal. 

All of Phoenix Smalls’ dreams seem to be coming true: Daughter of a former Black Panther and a Jewish mother, whose family owned a famous jazz club, she has a rich heritage and an eclectic taste in music that expresses itself in her unique sound. Now, through her talents and the management skills of her father, she has the full support of superstar businessman G-Ronn and a record deal with his hip-hop label, 3 Strikes. Phoenix must avoid the violence that overshadows G-Ronn’s success and stifle the creative impulse that threatens to undermine her mainstream appeal. Still, her rise to fame seems inevitable until she falls under the influence of Scott Joplin’s ghost. 

Joplin’s powerful hold over Phoenix begins after a childhood accident, when she is almost crushed by his piano, and intensifies dramatically after a tour stop at his St. Louis home. Following this visit, she loses consciousness for hours as she channels his lost musical compositions. In an altered state, she travels backwards in time and–inhabiting the body of his beloved second wife, Freddie–reenacts scenes of lovemaking, illness, and death, slowly losing her own identity in the process. What began as a musical miracle quickly turns into a nightmare. Serving as Scott’s conduit to the world is a full time job, and Phoenix’s increasingly erratic behavior threatens to destroy everything that she has worked for. Will Scott silence her voice and extinguish her creative light so that he can have a second shot at fame? 

Alternating between Phoenix’s story and Scott’s, the narrative mimics the structure of a multiverse, a space in which past, present, and future occur simultaneously. As Phoenix navigates the complexities of the modern entertainment industry, Scott struggles with the tension between his desire to make musical history and his need to earn a living in Jim Crow America. His drive to create a name for himself–to leave a legacy–is challenged by syphilis, the disease that ultimately robs him of his faculties and ends his life. He haunts Phoenix because he wants what she has–time and the opportunity to fully realize his artistic vision. 

All of this sounds very metaphysical, and it is. However, Due explores abstract subjects like the afterlife and reincarnation in a way that is overwhelmingly physical and, in particular, tactile. For Phoenix, touch in all of its guises–casual and intimate–is an integral mode for understanding the world. Subject to supernatural temperature fluctuations, Phoenix sweats or shivers when Scott arrives, and she vicariously experiences each caress and stroke as he makes love for the last time to a fevered Freddie Joplin. In addition to people, the Joplins also animate things. Indeed, the novel insists on the spiritual significance of physical objects and places by making a piano and a museum the catalysts for all of the narrative’s supernatural action.

It’s this insistence on the embodiment of the supernatural that I love: While it’s difficult for me to imagine an afterlife of ethereal souls lingering in an undelineated space, I can readily grasp the idea that life after death might be a replaying of old impressions, interactions, and gestures in a familiar room. I have reference points for that.

I generally love how the book privileges tactile knowledge, but I was disturbed by the seemingly positive representation of unsolicited touch. In the most egregious instance of this, Phoenix’s boyfriend, Carlos, forces her wandering soul back into her body by having sex with her as she lies unconscious in a hospital bed. According to Carlos’ frightening logic, cognitive functioning and verbal consent are not necessary because, even when it is lifeless, the female body communicates what it wants through obvious signs of arousal. Phoenix is part of a long history of women in possession narratives: the men in her life feel it is their right to manipulate her body whether she consents or not.

While the book does nothing to disrupt this troubling tradition, it is a marvel of character, context, and plot creation. Phoenix’s family and friends are fully drawn personalities; the various cities in the book are vibrant; and, though it oscillates between two perspectives, the storyline is propulsive, without any slack. In the acknowledgements, Due writes that she met the curator of the Joplin House Museum during a book signing in St. Louis and that his tales of the musician’s ghost were the inspiration for the novel. I am grateful to the curator for sharing his story and to Due for giving it a new life in this unforgettable novel. 

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