Into a forlorn life, a miracle - or is it?

Review Novel

October 28, 2007|By Tim Rutten | Tim Rutten,Los Angeles Times


By Alan Lightman

Pantheon / 248 pages / $23

The Trappist mystic Thomas Merton once remarked that, if he were walking down the street and a miracle occurred on the sidewalk in front of him, he'd cross to the other side and do his best to ignore it.

Merton wasn't expressing skepticism about the existence of the miraculous, simply a reservation about its relevance to the lives of men and women, who must work out even their salvation in the world of reason and the five senses. There's a trusting, austere kind of heroism in that, especially for those - like Merton - who believe that reason and the senses are inadequate to the task.

David Kurzweil, the protagonist of Ghost, Alan Lightman's elegantly provocative and understated new novel, makes the opposite choice from Merton and refuses to ignore the miraculous when it thrusts itself upon him, unbidden and unwanted. Mayhem ensues in what was, to that point, a classic life of quiet desperation. Yet the integrity with which David clings to his "experience" - and the confusion it engenders in him - suggests something heroic.

Ghost is the 12th book by Lightman, whose previous novels include the widely admired Einstein's Dreams and The Diagnosis. The author was trained as a theoretical physicist with degrees from Princeton and Caltech. He has taught for some years at MIT, where he was the first professor to hold joint appointments in physics and the humanities. Much of his work as a physicist has centered on relativistic gravitational theory and how stellar operations proceed in conditions of great density.

In Ghost there is a palpable gravity, a sense of how the well-ordered accommodations that too often pass for life sometimes can implode under the unimaginable weight of the unexpected.

When we meet David, he is a forlorn man badly shaken by just such an event. In the years since his wife divorced him, David has gone on working his job as a mid-level number cruncher in a bank. He lives in one of the rental apartments carved out of an old house and takes all his meals in the next-door diner. He has a tenuous connection to a girlfriend, Ellen, but most of his enjoyment comes from the library books he devours up in his room and from weekly strolls around a nearby lake. He regularly visits his widowed mother in a nearby town.

All this normality is shattered when David, heretofore heralded as a model if unambitious employee, is abruptly laid off without explanation. After months of unemployment - most of them spent reading Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - David answers an ad for an apprenticeship in a local mortuary - or "funeral home," as Martin, its fourth-generation proprietor, gently insists that it be called. David gets the job and finds himself drawn into an enveloping, almost familial new normalcy presided over by the agoraphobic Martin and his shrewd but equally kind wife. The rest of the staff consists of minor characters Lightman has sketched in with the economical humanity that is one of this fine novel's several pleasures.

All this literal and emotional hush is shattered when David, in the "slumber room" where bodies are laid out for viewing, sees "something" - a kind of cloud that appears to emerge from a corpse, regard him with "intelligence" and then vanish.

David is not a believer and is, by training and temperament, a rational empiricist. Still, as unsettling as his experience has been, the one thing he cannot do is ignore it. What follows from that drives Lightman's narrative in both predictable and unexpected directions. When he confides his experience to his landlady, she begins to spread the story of what she accepts as a ghostly apparition to others. Soon, it's in the local newspaper and David is besieged by grieving families who want him to communicate with their dead loved ones, by enthusiasts of the supernatural, by academic skeptics from the local university and by - naturally enough - more reporters.

None of these is more persistent than the Society for the Second World, a group of paranormal "researchers" convinced David is in touch with an alternate reality. Their chief researcher, Dr. Tettlebeim, comes to the funeral home and insists that David sit facing a box containing a small computer programmed to generate random numbers. When the computer generates what Tettlebeim discerns as a pattern, he pronounces David capable of manipulating something he calls "the intentionality" ... and, of course, he runs to the newspapers.

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