Excerpted from Ghost by Alan Lightman. Copyright © 2007 by Alan Lightman. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Alan Lightman is the author of six novels, including the National Book Award finalist The Diagnosis, a book-length narrative poem, two collections of essays, and several books on science. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Granta, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and Nature, among other publications. A theoretical physicist as well as a novelist, he has served on the faculties of Harvard and MIT, and was the first person to receive a dual faculty appointment at MIT in science and in the humanities.
Q: The main character in your newest novel GHOST works in a funeral home. David K is a rational man who, as the book opens, cannot deny to himself that one day, at work, he saw something irrational, not of this world—an image, or spirit, something he can not explain as a trick of the eye. What are you hoping to establish by opening the novel this way?
A: I think that the opening of any novel should forcefully draw the reader into the world that the writer has created. Much of the action of GHOST takes place in the interior mental world of the main character, David K, as he agonizes over his unexplainable metaphysical experience. I wanted to throw the reader immediately into that tortured state of mind. The first chapter differs from the rest of the novel in that it is a first person narrative, while the rest of the book is third person. I intended here for the first person voice to be immediate and gripping and disturbing. David's metaphysical experience really launches the action of the book. All the foundations of his life—his understanding of the way the world works and his relationships with people—are thrown into chaos after that defining metaphysical experience. Rather than give a slow lead up to that moment, I decided to begin a few days after it has occurred, describe David's extreme disorientation without describing the apparition itself, and then backtrack in time. In this way, I hoped to create suspense at the very beginning of the book and a strong forward motion.
Q: David struggles to maintain his integrity as reporters, academics, and members of the "Society for a Second World" converge on him. What are the different agendas of each of these groups?
A: The reporters are mainly interested in titillating their readers, taking advantage of the public's fascination with ghosts and the supernatural. The academics have a more divided agenda. All the professors are in agreement in wanting to protect the integrity of their university from anything intellectually dishonest. However, they part ways on their sympathies toward the supernatural. Most of the humanists argue that the supernatural, in its broadest terms, is essential to human culture and includes such things as religion, poetry, and the creative imagination. Most of the scientists are adamantly opposed to any whiff of the supernatural. The scientists, in particular, want David to renounce his "metaphysical experience" as an educational lesson to the all-too-gullible public. The members of the Society for a Second World, on the other hand, rejoice in David's metaphysical experience and in his apparent psychic powers and want to use him as a "poster boy" to promote their own beliefs in the supernatural. David gets caught in the middle of these various agendas.
Q: The incident in the funeral home reawakens the most painful parts of David's past—the loss of his father as a child and the failure of his marriage—just as he is beginning to gain a foothold in the present. Given all his troubles, is David a narrator to be trusted?
A: That's a good question. There are a couple of reasons that I don't completely trust David as a narrator. First of all, he seems to have unrealistically idolized the two most important women in his past: his mother and his ex-wife. His memories of his ex-wife, in particular, clash with the recollections of other people who knew her. There is an irony in these mistaken idolizations, since David considers himself a highly rational and realistic person. Secondly, David is thrown into complete confusion and disorientation by his metaphysical experience. He is forced to turn his world upside down, questioning what is real and what is not real, questioning everything he believes in, questioning his own mind. I would not find such a person completely trustworthy. At the same time, David gains my sympathy because he is so sincere, and he seems to have some self respect.
Q: Your novel has an atmosphere of strangeness to it. For example, you don't place it in any particular city, state, or even country. What were you trying to achieve here?
A: The atmosphere of strangeness is intended to resonate with the themes of the supernatural versus natural in the book and to leave the reader with a haunting feeling. In addition to not placing the scenes of the book geographically, I also stretch and warp time in various places, so that the reader is never completely sure when events occur, the time interval between events, or even the time it takes to climb a flight of stairs. Both of these features—the lack of place and clear time sequence—give the novel the feeling of an allegory. Some of the novels of Franz Kafka and Jose Saramago also omit any specific geographical setting and, in doing so, create an atmosphere of strangeness and allegory.
Q: Who are some of your literary influences?
A: I love writers who are able to artfully weave big ideas into their novels, writers like Kafka, Saramago, and Dino Buzzati. I am also enamored of the writers of magic realism, like Borges, Calvino, Marquez, and Bulgakov. For sheer language, few people can surpass Michael Ondaatje.
Q: Since you seem to like ideas in your books, how do you handle fictional characters? Why not simply write an essay about your ideas?
A: The special power of fiction is emotional. A novel creates an entire world, and if the reader is successfully invited into that world, the reader's imagination is fully engaged and the voyage becomes an emotional experience. Nonfiction does not have this kind of emotional power. (Nonfiction has other assets, of course.) In order to create a compelling fictional world, even in a novel of ideas, the characters must be fully realized and alive. If the characters simply become mouthpieces for the author's ideas, the reader will stop believing in the characters and will be rudely yanked out of the fictional world. The emotional experience ends. So the writer of fiction, even a novel of ideas, must endeavor to create fully alive characters. In GHOST, I tried to make David's girlfriend, Ellen, David's ex-wife Bethany, his boss Martin, and even some of the minor characters like Ophelia, fully three-dimensional and real. I tried to inhabit them and to listen to them talking.
Q: You've written four previous novels. How does GHOST fit with your previous body of work?
I would compare GHOST most closely to THE DIAGNOSIS in that both novels take on large social themes. However, in general, I want each of my books to be very different from all previous books. I value originality.
Q: One of the recurrent themes of our culture is the divide between what we believe and what we know, between those who embrace the supernatural and those who are eager to dismiss it. How does this discussion inform your novel?
A: For some years now, I have been extremely interested in the debate between science and religion, skepticism and faith. It seems that as science progresses and learns more and more about the universe, the debate only grows sharper and shows not the slightest signs of fading. William James wrote a lot about the role of religion in our culture. So did James Joyce. Whether you are a firm believer or an aetheist, you cannot deny that religion and belief in God and the supernatural have been deeply ingrained in our culture for thousands of years. I am fascinated by why we believe what we believe. (See, for example, the cover story of the New York Times Magazine, March 4, "Why Do We Believe?" by Robin Marantz Henig.) A 2005 Harris poll found that 70% of Americans believe in angels, heaven, life after death, and the existence of miracles.
In GHOST, both the groups of people who believe in David's psychic powers and those who do not believe staunchly defend their positions, regardless of any new evidence that is brought to bear on the question. Such beliefs, on both sides of the question, are beyond rational evidence, They stem from something very deep and visceral inside us and represent a fundamental schism in world view. Do we live in a single world, governed by the laws of nature and in which everything has a scientific explanation? Or do we live in two worlds: a scientific world, and a second world, parallel to the first, in which the supernatural exists? In one scene, David has a sharp discussion with a professor of chemistry, pushing him harder and harder about his beliefs. Finally the scientist admits that there are NO circumstances in which he would believe in the supernatural. The members of the Society for the Second World are equally intractable in their opposing belief in the supernatural.
In GHOST, I treated religion as a subcategory of the metaphysical. The metaphysical includes all phenomena that are not explainable by science. It also may include, as the character Mr. Chee claims, the world of the imagination.
Q. What do you make of the recent explosion of books that offer views on the divide between science and religion, bestsellers like THE GOD DELUSION by Richard Dawkins, THE END OF FAITH by Sam Harris, and BREAKING THE SPELL by Daniel Dennett (all featured in a recent issue of TIME magazine)?
A. Although an atheist myself, I am troubled by parts of these books, especially the book by Dawkins, for its complete dismissal of religion. Dawkins is tone deaf to the religious experience, to what it is that makes many people believers. In GHOST, I have tried to provide a more nuanced treatment of the difference in world views of skeptics and believers. I have tried to get inside the body and mind of characters who believe and also of characters who don't believe. I have tried to understand both kinds of characters and sympathize with them. Especially, I have come to understand the very personal nature of David's metaphysical experience—even though it happened only once to him—and to value David's own respect for that experience.
Q: As a scientist, would you say that there is room for religion and faith when it comes to unexplained phenomena?
A. There is a limited view of religion that makes it compatible with science. You can believe in a divine creator, or an intelligent designer, and also believe in science, as long as God stops acting after the universe is once created. Science will never be able to prove or disprove the existence of a Creator. However, a God who intervenes once the universe has been set into motion and performs miracles is incompatible with science. Phenomena occurring in this world that do not follow causal laws cannot be accepted by science. My attitude as a scientist is that any phenomena that we now observe must ultimately have scientific explanations, even if we do not know those explanations at the moment. If someone else claims that a particular unexplained phenomenon is a miracle performed by God,
then I respect their point of view but cannot agree with it myself.
Q: As both a novelist and a physicist, your career spans both the arts and the sciences. In what way to you think that dual career helped lay the foundation for GHOST?
A: Good question. I feel that my experience of having lived in the scientific community for many years allowed me to give an accurate description of the scientists' reactions to David's metaphysical experience and to the subsequent psychic tests. I know the world view of those guys, and I know how they talk. At the same time, as a novelist, I was able to inhabit the bodies and minds of the nonscientists and to have sympathy with them. Thematically, GHOST explores the divide between the natural and the supernatural, skepticism and faith, science and religion, and I hope that my background as both a scientist and a humanist allowed me to approach these oppositions with more understanding and sensitivity.
From the Hardcover edition.