Aaron Thier's debut novel, The Ghost Apple (Bloomsbury), is an impressive and humorous start to a literary career. The satirical book manages to critique diverse subjects such as race, class, globalization, and higher education, yet remains not only a coherent narrative but a highly compelling one. It is a must read for anyone looking for some thought-provoking laughs.
The Ghost Apple focuses mainly on a the struggling Tripoli College, a small liberal arts school first founded on the (fictional) Caribbean Island of St. Regis as an instution exclusively for Native Americans "in perpetuity" in 1794 — and promptly opened to everyone else in 1795. Today the college still maintains a branch campus on the island and is contemplating a financial partnership with island's other major institution, snack food giant Big Anna® Brands. It's a move that doesn't sit well with many, including the visiting professor from St. Regis.
Meanwhile, the school's 70-year-old dean has gone undercover as a college freshman, the football team is rocked with an old slavery scandal, the students are getting fat from the all-you-can-eat pudding buffet, and Big Anna® is testing out a new drug made from St. Regis's native Ghost Apple, which was once used by the now-extinct native culture for its medicinal properties.
To tell its story, The Ghost Apple uses a diverse array of media, including blog posts, emails, student newspaper articles, slave narratives, faculty meeting minutes, and letters from the school's long-dead founder. Yet despite the diversity of the documents and the fact that they comprise the whole of the book without any explicit narrative voice, the picture that emerges from the pages is never muddled nor confused.
The Ghost Apple is thoroughly satirical, and occasionally hilariously so. From the dean's choice of clothing to the mostly serious motion in one faculty meeting to murder one of the professors (and the even more serious motion to have him publicly flogged), the novel manages its own ridiculousness well — partly because so much of it rings true, whether it be the way absurd things can sound reasonable in mandatory meetings; the fact that the football players are "exempt" from grades; or the dean's bemused observation that "It seems that students would rather risk death [from alcohol poisoning] than attend our substance-abuse workshops."
From this jumbled but pointed array of documents and absurdity, we get a clear picture of human nature in relation to power, whether that power be institutionalized slavery and racism, the pervasive force of corporate greed, or the simple faculty politics of a small liberal arts school. It is a portrait in which no one walks away blameless nor condemned, though most everyone is small minded or misguided in some degree or another.
The novel as a whole an insightful and hilarious look at the shape of the modern world — and some of the less savory forces that got us here. And the vision of humanity that emerges is spot on. The Ghost Apple marks Aaron Thier as a definite new voice to watch.