Aaron Thier is concerned. His debut novel, originally entitled Studies in Paradise, was renamed The Ghost Apple by publishers. “I’m worried that people will think it’s the ghost of an apple, rather than a particular imaginary fruit. Because that doesn’t seem very compelling, the ghost of an apple,” Thier says.
Mightn’t the title change draw a whole new audience to Thier’s worthy work? Like pomologists, or even general botanists? “There is a lot of botany in the book, and I have nothing against botanists, so that would be nice,” he says.
Botanist or not, those who enjoy wicked laughs won’t find a more satisfying spring break read than The Ghost Apple. Thier’s jubilant satire begins at Tripoli College, a non-illustrious New England institution founded in 1794 by Israel Framingham Tripoli as a free school for the Carawak Indians of Saint Renard Island, in gratitude for their indulgent treatment of his shipwrecked grandfather. Two centuries later, to stay financially afloat, the college partners with mega-conglomerate Big Anna®, purveyor of snack foods, pharmaceuticals, et cetera. Big Anna® has a special interest in Saint Renard, too—namely its plantations. In response to consumer environmental concerns, Big Anna® has dismantled its smoke-belching threshers in favor of traditional hand harvesting, and a student body anxious for study-abroad opportunities will surely come in handy at harvest time.
The sprawling story evolved from various joke-documents by Thier, including travel brochures, course descriptions, blog posts, emails, slave narratives and the especially side-splitting, whitewashed “History of the Brands, History of the Americas: A Big Anna® Heritage Timeline.” “We encounter these documents all the time and don’t generally think about them as having an author. For me, the joke became that these documents were produced by some crank sitting in a room with some private agenda to express, and the agenda would emerge despite his attempts to contain it,” Thier says. “Then I started to think more about the way that certain historical and political truths underpin all the things we do, inextricably linked to our history as a plantation economy.”
Caught in the middle are Maggie Bell, an African American Tripoli student, and William Brees, the septuagenarian dean of students who’s undercover as an undergraduate (and blogging about it). Their unlikely friendship compels Brees to follow Maggie to Saint Renard, where she’s gone in search of professor-revolutionist John Kabaka. Someone winds up enslaved, someone winds up poisoned—is the “Ghost Apple” to blame? We know from John Morehead Tripoli’s 18th-century account that it is a most curious delicacy: “... I have eaten of the frute which I pluck’d fresh from the tree, and, first, it is by nature so Restringent that it drew my mouth up like a Hen’s fundament, and, two, that it verily swept my Guts clean, from which circumstances I conclude that boyling is essenshial,” Thier writes.
Thier’s delight in trying on voices, anachronistic or otherwise, translates to an exuberant reading experience. “For me, writing comes from language first. It starts with a voice, and the story develops organically,” he says. “Any curious, unusual voice is very compelling to me, and that’s what this book was about, finding all these voices that seemed funny. I especially love that 18th-century prose, the stately progress of it, while it’s also incredibly chaotic and describing these really desperate, terrible situations. It’s a window onto a world when your friend would just crumple to the earth next to you, and that would be a lamentable situation but not unusual.”
The situation on Saint Renard remains lamentable. Through this analogous island, Thier ably confronts the painful and paradoxical aspects of globalization, corporatization and colonialism while maintaining a light touch. As Maggie writes in an email to her twin brother, Chris: “A person could go crazy trying to think through to the truth of it. Plenty of good people eat Big Anna® junk food and wear underwear made by kids in Southeast Asia, and the same people spend their time writing petitions to raise the minimum wage and ban plastic grocery bags. It doesn’t make them hypocrites. It makes them people living in an imperfect world. The only lesson is the basic one, which you don’t have to work on a sugar plantation to learn: Just try every day to be better, and never stop trying.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.