A strain of syrupy romance undermines the novelist's surrealistic strengths. Throughout his fiction, Carroll (Glass Soup, 2005, etc.) has displayed an imaginative gift for conjuring alternative realities. So he does here, but the results read like a Nora Ephron movie made from a lesser Vonnegut novel. Our heroine is the improbably named German Landis, an art teacher with an innately sunny disposition who "simply didn't understand people who moped. Life was too interesting to choose suffering." Yet German herself is suffering from her recent breakup with Ben Gould, a moodier fellow with a passion for cooking. The two of them had been rapturously in love until Ben takes a spill while walking Pilot, the dog he had gotten for German, hits his head on the curb and almost dies. He should have died, according to the metaphysical forces swirling around him. Enter the ghost, who happens to be a woman with the Chinese name of Ling. She was supposed to be Ben's, though why Ben would have a female ghost with a Chinese name is never really explained. Neither is much else that transpires. Ben's near-death experience ruptures his relationship with German, though the two share custody of the dog. Not only can Pilot see the ghost, but the dog can converse with it, while neither Ben nor German are aware of the ghost's presence. Ling falls in love with German. Ben finds himself capable, for reasons neither he nor the reader understands, of inhabiting the psyche of another woman who has survived a near death experience. He invites German to meet this woman, as if this will explain everything. The woman can see German, but not Ben. So it goes. Ultimately, the romance requires Ben and German (and Pilot) tocome to a deeper understanding of life as "a very complicated board game but no instructions how to play it." Meanwhile, the gods must come to terms with mankind mastering its own fate. Love conquers all, as if there were any doubt.
Jonathan Carroll's novels give new meaning to the idea that readers must "suspend their disbelief." In them dogs talk, people travel effortlessly between present and past moments in their lives, and ghosts and angels are ubiquitous. Submitting to this experience is like watching a film by David Lynch or listening to the ambient soundtracks of Brian Eno -- characters do unpredictable things, worlds seems to morph in and out of each other -- and Carroll's writing, which is sometimes classified as fantasy, sometimes as science fiction or horror, inspires similar extremes of devotion and discomfort in readers. You either delight in entering a universe where nothing makes sense and comprehension is less important than a willingness to be taken for a wild ride, or you turn away, frustrated that there is nowhere to get a foothold in this surreal and shifting landscape.
Carroll's 13th novel, The Ghost in Love, features a man named Benjamin Gould, a waiter who's given up on his dream of being a great chef and who was supposed to die when he slipped and hit his head on an icy curb. But due to a glitch in the cosmic system, Ben is still alive and accompanied by a female ghost named Ling. Why Ben's ghost would be a female is never illuminated, but Carroll does tell us that "a Chinese farmer invented the idea of ghosts three thousand years ago as a way of explaining to his precocious grandson what happens to people after they die." In honor of him, all ghosts have Chinese names. Ling's purpose seems mainly to be helping Ben reconcile with his estranged girlfriend, German Landis, a rangy, Minnesota-born kindergarten teacher whose "predominant characteristic was that she emanated a powerfully positive aura." Ling is frustrated in this quest by the fact that there are no rules to follow -- as she explains to her boss, the Angel of Death, ghosts only know how to tidy up the messes created by dead people, not ones who are still living -- and by the fact that the longer she hangs around Ben the more her ghostly powers start to diminish, as Ben begins acquiring them.
Among other supernatural abilities, Ben can experience the thoughts and sensations of a stuffed animalcollecting dental assistant named Danielle Voyles, who, like Ben, was supposed to die but didn't, when a ballpoint pen got shot from a crashing plane into her skull. (In another of the book's many absurdities we learn that Ben's talking dog, Pilot, is actually the reincarnation of his Italian ex-girlfriend, Dominique Bertaux, who was flung from the back of the Vespa Ben was driving when she let go to wave at a field of passing cows).
Carroll is an inventive writer, and The Ghost in Love is full of gorgeously imaginative moments. There are strange creatures called "verzes" who appear as guardians when certain characters are in danger. They look like bulldogs except that they have no ears and luminous white skin, "like the part of a white candle closest to the lit flame." That skin is covered with thin purple veins that turn out to be writing -- doodles and what look like "hundreds of tiny, detailed images." Cancer, in the Carrollian realm, takes the form of pink, pearlescent clouds that move "swiftly and low to the ground like thin, beautiful fog" -- if the clouds stop for you, then you will succumb to the disease. There are also memorable scenes that seem to gesture toward larger themes. A picnic where Danielle gets to converse with all the incarnations of her former self, from ten years old to ten-minutes-ago, appears to be a meditation on identity, and the degree to which our past selves determine our present. Similarly, a scene near the novel's end, in which all the negative aspects of Ben's psyche come to life as motley crew of street fighters, is clearly a rumination on how we're all made up of competing selves.
But these glimpses of the book's grander ambitions remain only that. Because there are so few rules governing this world, and because what rules do exist seem made only to be broken, the novel never expands into something that is greater than the sum of its parts. In the unsettling fictions of writers from Kafka to Stephen King, and even the more recent, realistically grounded work of Susanna Clarke and J. K. Rowling, readers accept that extraordinary events occur because they trust that they are not wholly arbitrary: Gregor Samsor's transformation into an insect has some greater thematic resonance; Harry Potter's struggles with Voldemort are part of a larger story about his development from youth to adulthood.
In The Ghost in Love, events happen randomly and without meaning: German can't see Ling for the first half of the novel, but then in an instant she witnesses the ghost standing in Ben's bathroom, with no explanation for the transition. Ben reconciles with German at the book's ending by defeating the belligerent aspects of his personality, but there is no sense of what is at stake in this reunion, or how it solves the problem of his "life in death." In contrast to the wayward protagonists of previous Carroll novels like White Apples and Outside the Dog Museum, Ben and German feel like stock figures -- so quickly drawn, and so lacking in agency, that it's hard to feel invested in their breakup.
In even the most disordered literary realms, from Alice in Wonderland to the labyrinthine fictions of Borges or Calvino, consistencies of tone and theme and character exist which make the author's stories cohere as independent worlds. With The Ghost in Love, Carroll creates a domain that, for all its intrigue, is too amorphous to be fully transporting. --Andrea Walker
Andrea Walker is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker. Her reviews have appeared in Bookforum, The Hartford Courant, and the Times Literary Supplement.