Self-Portrait with Ghost is a strange and elusive collection, slippery and compelling, defying easy understanding and so drawing your attention all the more.
First: Jin’s writing is so impressive, at times keen and direct, at others more reflective and analytical. Her stories are elusive in the sense that they don’t easily give you that aha moment at their end, that moment that clinches together the whole point of the story and, in doing so, makes it immediately understandable. Instead, they make you look twice, go back and try to put your finger on what eluded you the first time, or else try to make sure that what you got out of the story was in fact in line with what it was trying to do. More than anything, they’re just really interesting stories: I didn’t fully “get” all of them, but rather than that alienating me, it just drew me to them all the more. I didn’t “get” all of them, but I wanted to–and that’s what ultimately made them so compelling to me.
Though all distinct in their own ways, these stories also feel like they’re echoes of each other, particularly in the way that some of them reconfigure themes and ideas from other stories. “Suffering” and “Self-Portrait with Ghost,” for example, both deal with the troubled (?) distinction between reality and unreality, what is real and what is not. In the former story, the narrator attempts to give us an account of Ling, a woman overtaken by an increasing sense of paranoia; in the latter, the narrator encounters the ghost of her dead friend, who forces her to question her approach to her academic work. “Philip is Dead” and “First Love” are another pair that felt complementary to me, both stories that explore how romantic relationships shape–or indeed warp–your sense of self. Where “Philip is Dead” examines this in the context of artistic practice, “First Love” delves more into the nature of want and longing.
“Alone, she inched toward that feeling. It was painful, unbearable, to not have another against which to orient herself. It was also the closest she felt to free.”
Thematically, the stories of Self-Portrait with Ghost are concerned with how we know ourselves through others: in contrast to others, in opposition to them, in imitation of them, or simply alongside them. It’s a collection that’s interested in how we construct our sense of self not just through relationships–friends, lovers, family members–but also through narrative and art more broadly. In some stories like “Suffering,” “First Love,” and “The Three Women,” this is more of a thematic focus, whereas in a story like “The Odd Women,” it’s very much literalized through the inclusion of speculative elements (the only story that’s overtly speculative). When it comes to thematic focus, the title of the collection also effectively gestures at what it’s interested in exploring: “Self-Portrait with Ghost” speaks to how self-portraits, this conception of our selves by our selves, can be based on illusory images we may have of ourselves, or even of others. (That’s my interpretation anyway ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)
“Who are they, and who is he? The patches on Ling’s face are real–this I can see. So she has summoned me in, to read her life, so what is boring and endless might achieve the grace of plot. Because I do pity Ling, pity her suffering and its intractability, how she’s wound her life around herself in these most exquisitely foolproof chains. I pity her so much, I envy her. Would my own mind ever be capable of such imaginative feats as these?”
My favourite stories were “Suffering,” “First Love,” and “The Odd Women,” though honestly I felt like all of them had something that I liked or was drawn to. “The Odd Women” is the real standout here, in my opinion. It’s the longest story, and the most ambitious one, and it absolutely sticks the landing–which is doubly great, because it’s also the concluding story, ending the collection with a nice flourish.
Self-Portrait with Ghost was a collection whose stories I wasn’t necessarily emotionally invested in, but rather one that intellectually engaged me; a “thinking” book more than a “feeling” book–and a really great one at that.