James Brubaker’s We Are Ghost Lit

Mourning Through Metafiction: A Review of James Brubaker’s We Are Ghost Lit by Summer Olmsted

In James Brubaker’s fifth book, We Are Ghost Lit (new from Braddock Avenue Books in 2023), readers will discover a personal journey through the grief Brubaker experiences when his lifelong friend passes away suddenly under mysterious circumstances, but this certainly isn’t a memoir. Rather, this bleak, and very real, premise is skillfully intertwined with metafictional and Sci-Fi elements, creating a poignant work of fiction grounded by Brubaker’s wit and heart.

Several characters narrate the novel: the personified, and often cruel, Universe; the wise, but unintelligible Ghost Black Holes; and the curious Starman. Brubaker uses these characters, along with a few versions of himself, as a way of searching for the meaning behind his friend’s untimely death; and ends up processing his grief along the way.

James Brubaker writes science fiction, musical fiction, and metafiction. His work has appeared in Diagram, Puerto del Sol, Laurel Review, Zoetrope: All Story, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Collagist, and Booth, among other venues. He’s currently the director of Southeast Missouri State University Press and the editor of Big Muddy.

It’s not a new practice to grieve through writing, but Brubaker puts an inventive twist on it. In a hybrid fashion, the narrators vie for control over the story and attempt to determine which circumstances occurred to bring an end to the friend’s life. Most of the timeline alterations are the will of the Starman, a celestial being, who happens to have a fascination with Earth and the life of Brubaker’s friend. This allure is returned, as the lonesome man finds comfort in the constellation watching him from above. The Starman sees him live through heartbreaks, tragedy, and decades of loneliness and depression.

Throughout, Brubaker’s writing is heartfelt and tender—especially he talks about his regret for not helping his friend during these times, and takes solace in the fact that at least the Starman was there. The structure of the book almost breaks down when the Starman does more than observe, though. For instance, when he tries to save the doomed human, the Universe collapses in on itself, and the Starman loses his identity. For some pages, it seems as though the narrative won’t recover from the havoc the Starman has wreaked. Brubaker knows what he’s doing, though, and he weaves the loose storylines back together in a satisfying, yet heartwrenching way.

Readers will enjoy the humor, reflection, and Star Trek references Brubaker brings to a complicated, existential, and harrowing subject. If you’ve lost someone, you know mourning isn’t always straightforward. For Brubaker, it takes inventing an omniscient force made of stars who argues with the Universe and goes to Earth to meet his friend’s parents to accept the permanence of his death.

Everyone wishes they could make someoneone’s life easier and spend more time with a lost loved one, but through tearing the fabric of spacetime, Brubaker realizes he can’t. As you read, Brubaker’s storytelling skills may charm you, and the mystery of what caused a mostly healthy middle-aged man to pass without warning is intriguing, but his hands-on approach to grief will be what keeps you reading.

We Are Ghost Lit is available at Braddock Avenue Books and on Amazon. His short story, How The Future Will Feel, is featured in Issue 21 of Miracle Monocle under the fiction category.

SUMMER OLMSTED is a writer, English major, verse editor at Miracle Monocle, and enjoyer of all things literary.