By Alan Lightman
Pantheon, 256 pp., $23
It is "with a feeling of awe and dread" that Oliver Twist surveys his new quarters on his first evening alone in the undertaker's shop where he has been indentured, and where he observes the indelible sight of the row of coffin lids, "looking, in the dim light, like high-shouldered ghosts with their hands in their breeches-pockets." There cannot be many greater testaments to that resolute orphan's strength of sanity than his ability to sleep in such surroundings.
Most of us, including David Kurzweil, the protagonist of Alan Lightman's moving and somewhat maddening new novel, "Ghost," are made of less sturdy stuff. We avoid thinking about death and eternity as much as possible, and we do our best to avoid places where corpses hang out - mortuaries, cemeteries, and George Romero movies.
The good sense of this policy is affirmed by the experience of Lightman's David, who, upon being unexpectedly laid off from his middling position at a bank, takes an apprentice position at a funeral home. Not long after starting, David encounters "something" in the viewing area of the mortuary, tactfully referred to as "the slumber room." What exactly David has seen remains a mystery for more than two-thirds of the novel, but he clings to the moment, desperate to make some sense of it and therefore of a certain absence in his own life. David feels that he "has been searching for something in a way that other people have not," and the ghost - or whatever it was - might be the answer.
"Ghost" runs on two tracks, and this track, the story of how what David has seen reconfigures his perception of himself, and how it influences those who are closest to him, is powerful. David is a sad man, a specter himself, and Lightman draws him expertly: living below his means in a shabby boarding house among a cast of ne'er-do- wells right out of Cannery Row, lying to his aloof mother about the importance of his job at the bank, and eight years after the divorce, continuing to pine after his ex-wife, even as he carries on a relationship with a comely librarian who loves him passionately.
All of these characters are revealed by David's brush with the "something." His mother, for instance, is so excruciatingly serene about the event that it causes her son to realize that she has been something of an empty vessel all along. Then there is the reappearance of David's ex-wife, Bethany, who is exposed once and for all as a restless, destructive force. When David asks her why she has come back to see him, she says, gallingly, "I thought something was different with you. Something . . . maybe interesting." Bethany is just one ghost in a book of them, all of the regrets, misunderstandings, and nagging concerns of one man's life. Everyone has a few of these, and the novel's supernatural mechanism is a wonderful device for exploring them.
Where the novel falters is on its second track, which is allegorical. In succession, David's encounter becomes the subject of a newspaper article, he is drawn into the kooky embrace of a group called "the Society for the Second World," he is chased like a Beatle by people who want him to use his powers to contact their deceased loved ones, and finally, he finds himself at the center of a climactic public debate between the Second Worlders and a gang of haughty university professors. The point that Lightman is trying to make is well-taken: Everyone involved is so desperate to prove the dominance of their particular belief system, spiritual or scientific, that a reasonable discourse is impossible, and we're all pulled farther apart.
To get there, however, Lightman employs a degree of contrivance that throws the reader's understanding of the novel's world out of whack. Even as David never publicly says what he saw - he does not provide either the newspaper or the Society for the Second World with a firsthand description of the "ghost" - the clamor of interest grows and grows. The illogic of this is distracting. Maybe we can allow for one newspaper story, and maybe the arousal of a few believers, but the ongoing sensation is a considerable stretch.
At the same time, it throws the heavy-handedness of the argument between the spiritualists and the scientists into stark relief. "These people should be put in jail," declares one of the censorious professors, while the grasping spiritualists determine that a vague irregularity is irrefutable proof of the second world.
Whatever compelled the author to burden his novel with this unnecessary subplot, the book bears up anyway, carried by several extraordinary characterizations. Martin, the owner of the mortuary and a surrogate father to David, quotes his own father as saying that at a death, "part of the grief was that each member of the family was mourning his own mortality." Those coffin lids are lined up along the wall, and once you've seen them, they can't be unseen. The ghosts are us.