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  • Ghost
  • Written by Alan Lightman
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  • Written by Alan Lightman
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Written by Alan LightmanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Alan Lightman

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On Sale: October 23, 2007
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-375-42529-5
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A stunning new novel about an ordinary man's encounter with the extraordinary, from the author of Einstein's Dreams.David Kurzweil, a quiet man with modest ambitions, was taking a break at his new job, when he saw something out of the corner of his eye. Something no science could explain. Suddenly David's life is changed, and he soon finds himself in the middle of a wild public controversy over the existence of the supernatural. As David searches for an explanation, we embark on a provocative exploration of the delicate divide between the physical and the spiritual, between science and religion as only Alan Lightman could provide. Combining a beautiful narrative with provocative ideas, Ghost investigates timeless questions that continue to challenge the truth as we know it.

Excerpt

I saw something.

I saw something out of the corner of my eye.

It’s been a week, but I still have that awful image in my mind. It burns. I close my eyes, and I see it. I open my eyes, and I see it.

But . . . where are the words to describe it?

I feel nauseated. I stare at the glass of water on my desk, wanting to drink. I stare at the glass of water. The flat top of the liquid looks so strange to me now, a silver ellipse, quivering like my stomach, trembling with each tiny vibration—my nervous foot tapping on the wood floor, a voice in the next apartment, my breath.

I need to settle myself. I haven’t slept well for a week. In bed, I lie awake and think. My hands are shaking. I can barely write. Now I’m looking at my hands, wrinkled yellow skin, veins crossing and branching. I feel dizzy. I can’t look at my hands anymore. Where can I rest my eyes? I see a pencil, stubby and blunt like a dull knife.

How can something happen that isn’t possible? I don’t know. Black is white. White is black. Up is down, down is up. Perhaps I imagined it.

I think that I saw something impossible. Am I crazy? I’m not crazy. Let me calm myself and figure out how to say this. I’ll pick up the dull knife of a pencil and write.

For breakfast this morning, I had a fried egg and two slices of dry toast, like anyone else, what little of it I could keep down. Before that, I shaved. I dressed. What else can I say? Just at this moment, I’m sitting at my desk by the window. I can look outside and see the street in front of my apartment building, children kicking a red ball back and forth, houses, mailboxes, garbage cans, a glass bottle in the grass, a laundry line with damp clothes draped over it. Isn’t that just normal life? Or I could turn around in my chair and look at my room. I’ll do that. I see a bookshelf and books, some wedged in sideways. I see my bed, half covered with the quilt my ex-wife gave me. I see a standing brass lamp with a crooked linen lampshade. A box of crackers on the table, cracker crumbs. A glass of water on my desk, this pencil, this pad of paper.k

The Pythagorean theorem, I still know: The square of the hypotenuse equals the sum of something or other. It has to do with the sides of triangles. Would a crazy person at age forty-two be able to remember anything about the Pythagorean theorem?

I’m beginning to feel dizzy again. The nausea comes in heaving cartwheels. My hands. I can’t write. I should just breathe slowly. Breathe. Breathe.

Let me read what I’ve written. Okay. My eyesight is good. I mention eyesight because I think I should list all the relevant factors. You see something weird, and, of course, the first thing you question is your eyesight. Or your mind. I want to put down in writing what I can. I’ve tried to tell a few people, but I can’t find the words. Even now, I can’t find the words. Ellen suggested I write it down. I’m not sure what she thinks, whether she really believes me. We were having dinner at her favorite Indian restaurant, she flirting with the waiter as she always does, half trying to make me jealous and half just being herself, and she held my hand after I told her and said I should write it down.

Where was I? My eyesight. When I go to the optometrist for my biannual examination, I can read the bottom row of letters on the chart. As a child, I was always the first one to spot the school bus coming. I could see the tiny yellow speck in the distance, just the smallest glint of yellow. My friends thought that I was cheating, that what I really saw was the cloud of dust trailing the bus, but I saw the tiny yellow dot. I’ll admit that I’ve never needed such good eyesight for any practical purpose. My books have regular-size type. When I worked in the bank, the numbers were never so small, but I could have read them if they had been.

My hearing is also good. When I saw what I saw, I didn’t hear anything unusual. I have no recollection of any sound at all, aside from the ticking of the clock in Martin’s office.

And I don’t think I’m at all . . . how should I put it . . . suggestible. I believe that’s the word. Never in my life have I been suggestible. At a party years ago, a hypnotist tried to put me under and failed. He said I was not “suggestible,” and then he looked at me as if I were a man unable to fall in love. If I could travel back to that party years ago—I think I was in my mid-twenties—I would tell that guy and everyone else that I am happy not being suggestible. I prefer seeing the world as it is.

I feel slightly better. I managed a sip, and I am holding it down. Breathe.

Now my head is beginning to boil. And the cartwheels are flying again. I wish I hadn’t seen what I saw. I want the world to go back to where it was a week ago. The thing lasted only a few seconds. A few seconds. Why can’t those five seconds be smudged out and erased? What is five seconds in the space of a year, or even a day? I must have imagined it. I caught it only out of the corner of my eye. Just a brief hovering thing in the corner of my eye. What was it? Where are the words to say what it was? The thing looked so real, as real as my handwriting at this moment. Could I imagine something so real and so bizarre at the same time? I was feeling fine that day. I wasn’t having headaches or eye problems or strange thoughts. My mind was clear. That morning, I arrived at the mortuary at nine, as usual. I made some phone calls to locate a death certificate, I met with Martin, I helped a family pick out a casket. And then, in the late afternoon, in the slumber room, that’s when it happened.

I don’t believe in supernatural phenomena. I don’t believe in magic or hyperkinesis or spirits. When I was a child, my aunt told me that the seasons are needed for plants to grow, and that the sacred Spirit of All Living Things re-creates the seasons each year. With all due respect to my aunt, the seasons are caused by the tilt of the Earth. The Earth is just a big ball of dirt out there in space, and it happens to have a tilt to its axis. It’s a proven fact. Eons ago, some meteor hit the Earth by accident and cocked it over at an angle. In summer, the Earth’s axis points toward the sun, making us hotter. In winter, it points away from the sun, making us colder. What could be more logical? Cause and effect. No tilt, no seasons. It’s physics, or whatever. It’s like the Pythagorean theorem.

I’m exhausted.

What? What? How long did I nod off in my chair? I should look at my watch on the bureau, but what does it matter. Time has passed. The shadows have moved through the room. I’m just writing down everything that comes into my head. It’s something to do. I should go out for a walk, call Ellen, anything. Somewhere in my apartment there’s a novel I would finish if I could bring myself to read. It’s a novel by a Japanese writer about an umemployed man who sits at home all day and gets pornographic phone calls from strange women. It rained Friday. I came home from work, walked next door to the diner, and asked Marie to bring me some hot tea. Then I just sat at the window of my apartment and watched the sheets of rain falling outside. I didn’t go out for supper. It was raining too hard, considering that my galoshes have holes in them. Some of the tenants ventured out and returned laughing and sneezing and dripping pools of water by the front door. Marie, bless her heart, stayed late to make sandwiches for us housebound tenants. She personally brought over the food and delivered it to each person’s apartment, humming some show tune.

Marie often stays late at the diner or here in the apartments, even though she has her own family to take care of—a bedridden husband with multiple sclerosis and a grown son who gambles away all his money and lives at home. Occasionally, her son comes here, knocking on doors and asking for a loan. Just a one-week loan, he says. He has a sad face, and he always tells a heartbreaking story. Then Marie chases him off, he begins screaming at her, she screams back at him. From time to time, I do give him a little money.

Voices trickle in from the hall. Henry. George. Raymond. Someone else I can’t place, a new tenant. Most are middle-aged men like myself, single, living on moderate incomes. A few younger guys, trying to save. A few women and married couples. Although I’ve been here for several years, I still don’t know any of the other tenants well, certainly not as friends. We see one another at breakfast. We pass in the hall, or at the laundry in the basement. I’ve come to realize that I don’t want any friends here. I’ve had friends in other places and at other times of my life. To be honest, I don’t mind being alone. I read. Something changed after Bethany left me. I wanted to be alone. I hate living alone, but I want it at the same time.

I’m just writing. It’s something to do. I don’t even know if everything I write is true.

I’ve got to hold my burning head very still. Or I should lie down. Perhaps Marie can get me an icepack for my head. But I shouldn’t burden her with another task on her day off. Today she should be home with her family, or at church. Early this morning, she came into the lobby downstairs wearing a beautiful dress and pink high-heeled shoes and said that she was on her way to church but just wanted to stop by and “tidy a bit.” That was hours ago, and she hasn’t left. I can hear her singing in the hall. Marie truly seems to enjoy the place, all the more so because it used to be a rambling old house, with a sitting room downstairs, and she says it has a “coziness” to it.

Marie believes in the supernatural. When I told her what I saw, she replied that she wasn’t surprised, with my working in a mortuary. She said that spirits remain in the body for three days after mortal death. And she spoke the word mortal with an emphasis. Marie believes that she has received certain signals from her dead mother, such as odd chirpings of birds and doors suddenly opening by themselves. She reads the astrologer’s report in the newspaper.

Logic, I should say to Marie. But I don’t want to upset her. Marie has been extremely kind to me, and she earns very little for her long hours. But I want her to understand. Cause and effect. The tilt of the Earth. Am I repeating myself? I want to say to her: Logic is what holds it all together. Without logic, anything could happen. People could turn into frogs. The Moon could suddenly fly off into space. If one illogical thing happens, then a million illogical things can happen. The entire world might come apart piece by piece, like when you pull a stray thread on the sleeve of your jacket. The fabric starts to unravel. And once it starts to unravel, nothing can stop it. First the sleeve comes undone, then the shoulder, then the lapel.

Marie has been asking questions about what I saw at the mortuary. Yesterday morning at the diner, she came over and sat next to me and she said, “You’ve been chosen.” I realize now that I shouldn’t have told her anything. “I imagined it,” I said to her. Maybe I did imagine it. “No, you didn’t,” she said quietly. Then she asked me to take her to the mortuary, to the slumber room. I shouldn’t have told her anything.

I feel ill. I’m not sure anymore what I know and don’t know. It’s Sunday. Yesterday was Saturday. I should go out for my walk by the lake. I should visit Ellen, do something. But my hands are shaking. I’m going to lie down.


From the Hardcover edition.
Alan Lightman|Author Q&A

About Alan Lightman

Alan Lightman - Ghost

Photo © Michael Lionstar

Alan Lightman is the author of six novels, including the international best seller Einstein’s Dreams and The Diagnosis, which was a National Book Award finalist. He is also the author of two collections of essays and several books on science. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Granta, Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and Nature, among other publications. A theoretical physicist as well as a writer, he has served on the faculties of Harvard and MIT, where he was the first person to receive a dual faculty appointment in science and the humanities. He lives in the Boston area.

Author Q&A

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 pastthe loss of his father as a child and the failure of his marriagejust 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.

Praise

Praise

"Elegantly provocative. . . . Fine and deeply thoughtful fiction."—Los Angeles Times"Supple. . . . Engaging. . . . A substantial achievement."—The New York Times Book Review“Fascinating. . . . Brilliant. . . . Explores the liminal state between knowledge and belief.”—The Washington Post Book World “Powerful. . . . Looks at the spirit that moves us.”—Boston Globe
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Alan Lightman - Ghost

Photo © Michael Lionstar

10/8/2014

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  • Ghost by Alan Lightman
  • October 14, 2008
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $14.95
  • 9780375713439

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