29 May 2009

Ghost, by Alan Lightman

I loved Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams, which does for time what Calvino's Invisible Cities did for space - a rather more impressive feat, I think, because personally I find it much more difficult to conceptualize different kinds of time than different cultures, and Lightman manages to create a text that's simultaneously explanatory and lyrical. So I had high hopes for Ghost. The back of the book tells us that it's about a guy who sees something out of the corner of his eye that "no science could explain", which sets him off on a "thought-provoking exploration of the divide between the physical and the spiritual, between science and religion". Now, this kind of exploration tends, in my opinion, to be really poorly thought out and uninteresting, or worse, trite and cliche. It's often poorly disguised conversion propaganda. This is a pity, because it's actually an interesting topic, and, handled well, could be fascinating. And I believed that Alan Lightman was a guy who could handle it well.

Unfortunately, I was not entirely correct. I mean, I was to some extent, in that as far as the science-religion question goes, the novel does an excellent job presenting different sides of the issue. The problem is, it's not at all compelling as fiction. The characters are sort of wan and uninteresting, their interactions are unconvincing, and you basically don't really care about any of them. Which makes it that much harder to care about the metaphysical portion. The novel attempts to show how unacceptable such self-exploration can be in society, which is a worthwhile point, but seems exaggerated - not because it is, I think, but because it's hard to believe that these characters could ever stir up such a ruckus. 

What the novel gets right, I think, is how a perfectly rational person who believes in science, etc, but has a "supernatural" experience, can be conflicted about what they've perceived, and strongly resist simply dismissing something they feel so strongly to be true. There's this moment where David, the protagonist, really feels like he's affecting a random number generator. And the prose, for once, kicks in, delivering a really visceral sense of some kind of powerful feeling moving through his body. Later, arguing with his scientist buddies, he wants to agree with them, but also can't help believing that the feeling was real. It's an interesting point - one that the novel doesn't really get at - which is that this debate is often one of emotion versus intellect. Some people feel that supernatural stuff exists, others don't, and it's a. hard to argue someone out of a feeling, and b. hard to think of an example where one has feelings that confirm, rather than refute, science. This latter point is kind of curious, I'm going to puzzle over it some more. 

But to get back to the book - mostly, the novel is boring. And it's not even that long. It's flat and overly talky, but without delivering the intellectual pay-off that one would expect from so much deliberation. Really, it can best be described as tepid. 

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