Tale From the Crypt
An ordinary man working in a mortuary experiences the unexpected.
By Alan Lightman
Pantheon. 244 pp. $23
Alan Lightman's new novel, Ghost, does not contain a werewolf, a vampire or Patrick Swayze. It may not even contain a ghost. No knife-wielding ventriloquist's doll carves up these chapters. If you're looking for hell hounds, you're barking up the wrong tree. Ghost is by no means the scariest supernatural tale you could read on Halloween -- King is still king -- but it may be the smartest, and for that reason it ends up being a hell of a lot more unsettling than a horde of flesh-eating zombies.
A theoretical physicist, Lightman is equally comfortable haunting the humanities -- indeed, he was the first professor at MIT to receive appointments in both realms. Although he doesn't believe in God, a lifetime of studying the heavens has given him an infectious sense of wonder; philosophical questions about the nature of reality hover over all his work and are a preoccupation of his fiction. Einstein's Dreams (1993), his first novel, contained a series of fantastical fables about how time might be experienced in other worlds. And now in his fifth novel, he concentrates on the most fundamental issues of epistemology without ever using any off-putting terms like, say, "epistemology." Instead, Lightman explores the liminal state between knowledge and belief in an eerily quiet ghost story.
The time and place are never specified; details suggest a Western city, maybe 20 years ago. The book begins: "I saw something. I saw something out of the corner of my eye." The narrator is distraught, dizzy, on the edge of panic. A week ago, he "saw something impossible," and a friend has recommended he write it all down. "I don't believe in supernatural phenomena," he insists. "I don't believe in magic or hyperkinesis or spirits. . . . Logic is what holds it all together. . . . My hands are shaking. I'm going to go lie down."
After this feverish first chapter, the novel switches permanently to the third person -- a very measured, thoughtful third person -- and we hear the story of what happened to David Kurzweil, a 42-year-old divorced man who lost his mid-level job in a bank and, out of financial necessity, took a temporary position at a mortuary. It's a tenuous story, impressionistic, almost spectral, that barely drifts forward but remains fascinating throughout. Lightman draws this strange place with a quirky mixture of warmth and the macabre. The family-run funeral home is led by a sweet, agoraphobic man who treats his customers with respect and compassion. The building itself seems slightly surreal, "an endless warren of rooms, some of them hidden and accessible only by interior doors, some without windows." Of course, a funeral home is the perfect place for a ghost story -- something of a clich¿, really -- but it offers special attractions to a theoretical physicist writing fiction. Here, after all, under the extreme pressures of grief and loss, the ordinary rules of emotional reality don't apply, time slows down, and the elemental properties of character are revealed.
But nothing particularly creepy happens during David's first few months on his new job, nothing haunted or ghostly. Until one day while he's sitting with a casket in what's called the slumber room. Lightman tells us that it lasted "for only five seconds." He provides no other details until much later in the story, but just that tiny drop of ectoplasm added to the solution of David's dull life transforms his relations with everyone he knows. "How could he expect anything to stay the same after what's happened?" Lightman writes. "The world has been cut in half."
His girlfriend brushes it off, his employer gently suggests he see a psychologist, but other colleagues are thrilled by the news. "You are like . . . a god, or something," one of them tells him. Soon a reporter calls and wants to interview David. The story, full of exaggeration and silly speculation, incites a media circus that mortifies the mortician but causes business to soar. Despite his vagueness, his unwillingness to make any claims about what he saw, David becomes a cause c¿l¿bre among devotees of the supernatural and a scandalous embarrassment to his scientific friends at the university.
At this point, the philosophical questions rise up in a series of cleverly drawn encounters with experts. Two reasonable-seeming officials from the Society for the Second World come to speak with David about his experience. They introduce him to a scientist who uses computers and mathematics to quantify psychic powers. "We don't want to leap to any conclusions," Dr. Tettlebeim says with faux skepticism. "We must treat such correlations with some caution." But soon he points to an unusual row of numbers and announces, "Here is stark evidence of the force of the mind."
There's not really any doubt about Lightman's loyalties in this debate. His description of an annual meeting of "truth seekers" is a brilliant piece of satire, complete with crazy field reports and kooky evidence decorated with scientific lingo. Beneath the comedy, though, one senses Lightman's sympathy with that deep human desire for transcendence. "There has to be another world," one of the attendants tells David, "because there has to be something after we die. Death can't be the end." Lightman is wise enough to hear that sentiment echoing down through the millennia, and he has no intention of dismissing it simply because it can't be confirmed with a microscope.
But what's more surprising is Lightman's willingness to expose the dogmatism of his colleagues. In one particularly damning scene, the university scientists display their unwillingness to consider radical interpretations no matter what the evidence. Like the charlatans they oppose, they're willing to repress and distort anything that doesn't confirm their conclusions. Courted by believers on both sides, poor David remains helplessly suspended between irreconcilable concepts of reality.
These are heavy questions, to be sure, the kind of philosophical conundrums that might fuel a provocative all-night discussion in the dorm but usually doom a novel. The salvation here is Lightman's graceful touch and his tender insight into David's plight. No matter what your position on things that go bump in the night, you'll be left haunted by his question to a skeptical friend: "If you saw something supernatural, what would you do?" Admit it, you don't know. And that's spooky. *
Ron Charles is a senior editor at Book World. He can be reached at email@example.com.