Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Book Review: Ghost by Alan Lightman

After losing his job at a bank, David Kurzweil takes an unlikely position at a funeral home. One night in a viewing room, for just an instant, he sees something he describes as a vapor hovering near the casket. David cannot reject what he has seen but cannot reconcile it with the physical world. The story of his sighting leaks to the press, and he finds himself in the middle of a controversy between scientists and believers in the supernatural. David struggles to understand his experience amidst those who believe him without question and those who question him without believing.

Ghost is a novel of ideas, and readers expecting a supernatural thriller will be disappointed. The novel begins with David speaking in first-person and suitably shaken. He has seen something that defies reason, and nothing can ever be the same. The first-person narration falls away quickly, and I felt cheated by the switch to third-person. It changed the story from an experience to an observation, distancing the protagonist from the reader.

Lightman has said that character depiction is the toughest part of writing for him, and that weakness is the chief problem with this novel. The quirky accessory characters in Ghost were sketched out with great potential, but Lightman failed to color them in. The members of the Society for the Second World, the three women in David’s life (mother, girlfriend, and ex-wife), the men of David’s rooming house, and the mortuary workers all seem as vaporous as the novel’s eponymous ghost.

Lightman waits until the novel’s near-end to describe what David saw, and even then the description is vague and unsatisfactory. However, it is not the author’s intent to tell a ghost story; thus, the particular manifestation of the supernatural being is irrelevant. What I enjoyed most about Ghost was the idea that a tiny moment can change your entire outlook, can make you find or lose faith. When you experience something that you thought could never happen, it makes you question everything you know. If A is no longer true, what about B? What about C? The point of the novel is not what David saw, but how he, as a contemplative, intelligent man, evaluates the inexplicable.

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