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An Undertaking

Are ghosts for real? Author Alan Lightman weighs in.

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David Kurzweil isn't the "suggestible" sort — the sort to believe in the supernatural, the paranormal, and the otherwise inexplicable. A hypnotist who couldn't hypnotize him once said as much. Kurzweil says so himself: "Logic is what holds it all together." And by "all," Kurzweil means the world as we know it, the world "as it is," the observable, testable, verifiable world of cause and effect.

Which doesn't mean Kurzweil isn't searching — searching for "something unseen behind common experience, some totality" to be glimpsed between the "cracks," as in that crack between the worlds of the living and the dead.

But what is Kurzweil to do when, alone inside the funeral home where he works, he sees, one day at dusk, a vapor exiting (or is it entering?) the body of a dead woman? More than a vapor, Kurzweil claims, but how to describe it? It seemed to him alive. It had "intelligence." It looked at him. Seconds later, it was gone.

Not for long. The memory of it haunts him, and when news of a "ghost" reaches outside the funeral home, a newspaper reporter hounds him about it, a psychic researcher tests him on it, and scientists at the local university ask him to deny it. But no denying the life-changing effects of Kurzweil's vision on the man himself and those closest to him: his co-workers, his girlfriend, his ex-wife, and his widowed mother. Where are the words to describe the effects? In Alan Lightman's new novel, Ghost (Pantheon).

Lightman, a native Memphian, is a theoretical physicist by training, but he's also a science writer, essayist, and best-selling author of the novel Einstein's Dreams and National Book Award finalist in fiction for The Diagnosis. He is also the first person to receive a dual faculty appointment at MIT in science and the humanities, which puts him in the perfect position to pose David Kurzweil's questions and our own — questions about the limits of science and religion, about the powers of reason and faith, and about the present, which is fleeting, and the past, which is faulty with memories. Questions too about the passing of time itself: Is it the ticking of a clock, or sunlight crossing a room, or the ripples from a stone tossed in a stream?

What are we to make, though, of David Kurzweil, a 42-year-old man who served nine unambitious years working at a bank (he's a wiz at numbers), only to be downsized right out the door? Mortuaries "repulse" him, and yet he applies for a job in one. He lives alone and comfortably enough in an unremarkable apartment. His reading, however, is anything but commonplace: Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations), Antoine Lavoisier (Elements of Chemistry), Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan), and Charles Darwin (The Descent of Man).

He's also divorced, but his ex-wife of 12 years still has hold of him emotionally, to the distress of his girlfriend, who is otherwise the essence of understanding. His widowed mother is something of a cold fish, and yet he admires her, while it's his father who lays claim to one of Kurzweil's fondest childhood memories, and yet he's a father dead now for decades. Add to these plot points Kurzweil's metaphysical speculations and his run-in with an apparition, little wonder that when Ghost opens, the man is one step from a nervous breakdown. But it puts him in good company with his funeral-home boss, who suffers from a panic attack after venturing into the unpredictable, sometimes violent outside world.

That's a lot of plot points to fold into this narrative, which is, on the one hand, a family drama and, on the other hand, an extended meditation on what Kurzweil calls "the world underneath" — the extrasensory spirit world. You can take that to include a world of ghosts, a world for some of us true enough. Or is it the equally mysterious world of the imagination, unmeasurable by the standards of science but true just the same?

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