A ghost in the machine of living and dying

In Jonathan Carroll's novel, a glitch in heaven's computer stymies the Angel of Death. In Jonathan Carroll's novel, a glitch in heaven's computer stymies the Angel of Death. (Rebekka Bakken)
By Ren�e Graham
Globe Correspondent / January 9, 2009
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As befits modern lives overstuffed with beeping gadgets and vibrating gizmos, everything in "The Ghost in Love" goes awry due to a computer glitch.

Not any old technical difficulty, mind you, but an otherworldly system meltdown - yes, even computers in heaven aren't immune to viruses - that leaves Ben Gould very much alive when a nasty fall on a slippery sidewalk should have killed him. So now Ben is literally the living dead (or the dead alive, perhaps), going about his days, walking his dog, and lamenting a break-up with his beloved girlfriend, German Landis, who knows something isn't quite right with the man she still loves.

Oh, and about the love-struck spirit of the book's title. It's Ling, a kind of spectral personal assistant who arrives moments before what should have been Ben's death to escort the newly departed on his final journey. Now, at the urging of his boss, the Angel of Death, Ling sticks around to figure out what happens when a man somehow gets more time when his time should have been up.

It's a ringing testament to the sublime talents of author Jonathan Carroll that the baroque premise of his latest novel doesn't play like an extended "Twilight Zone" knockoff. Yes, one is asked to suspend disbelief, but Carroll never expects his readers to check their brains at the door. He's too smart a writer to condescend with creaky gimmicks out of the afterlife playbook such as tunnels awash in blinding white light.

Instead, he has written a vigorously imaginative book filled with moments of wonder and terror, designed to alter how we perceive the most mundane people and moments, whether it's a malodorous vagrant or dogs with a penchant for wandering around in the wee small hours.

At first, only Pilot, a cranky shelter dog rescued by Ben and German, can see Ling. Well, not just see Ling, but talk to the ghost inhabiting Ben's apartment, since the language "Dog" is spoken only by canines and the dead. (As for Ling's moniker, apparently all ghosts have Chinese names.)

Ling creates sumptuous meals for German, but she can neither see nor savor them. Cooking is one of the few earthly pleasures Ling enjoys - unlike the Angel of Death, who loves good pizza, and the movies of Carole Lombard and Veronica Lake. Still, for these two visitors, being on earth is about business, not pleasure, though there's little either can do about Ben's odd situation.

In this crafty novel, Ling and the Angel of Death are like overwhelmed but diligent employees who spend their days methodically identifying problems and concocting solutions. They could be insurance adjusters, and the fact that their work is ushering people from this mortal coil is both incidental and gently reminiscent of Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda's understated masterpiece "After Life." In that film, those who have recently died spend a week with interviewers at a way station between earth and heaven deciding which single memory they will carry for eternity.

Memories also come fast and furious for Ben, as well as German and Danielle Voyles, someone else who seems to have experienced the same burden (or is it a benefit?) of eluding death. Carroll easily could have turned his unpredictable story into another mushy "Ghost" or "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" (which the Angel of Death, a fan of black-and-white films, would likely enjoy). And yes, there are piquant passages here about the fragility of life and the persistence of fate. Still, the author never forgets that at its core, this is a ghost story, and at times, ghost stories are meant to be downright terrifying.

Popular culture is littered with projects, both good and bad, that dwell on the ways common lives can collide with the ethereal unknowns that may await us all. With "The Ghost in Love," Carroll has created one of the best in recent memory: a freewheeling fantasy deeply grounded in its everyday humanity.

Renée Graham is a freelance writer.

THE GHOST IN LOVE By Jonathan Carroll

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 308 pp., $25

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