Ben Gould has a life-changing experience: that is to say, he dies after cracking his head on the sidewalk. Or at least he was meant to die.
But he isn’t dead.
That’s causing all sorts of complications for the world—both for the inhabitants of the here-and-now, and for those in charge of the afterlife.
One part love story, one part surreal discover-yourself-quest fantasy, and one part a celebration of lives of people in their pasts and in their present, Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love is like walking through a dream: the good bits, the weird bits, and the nightmares.
In a way, the title is deceptive: Ben himself isn’t a ghost, but happens to have a ghost named Ling hanging around him—his guiding ghost to the afterlife he isn’t following properly, an Asian supernatural construct, who’s fallen madly in love with the woman Ben lost through apathy after his strange experiences.
And yet, as one explores Ben’s life—literally and figuratively—the title turns out not to be deceptive at all.
Because The Ghost in Love is a dream.
In particular, it’s a dream centered on Ben. This isn’t one of those “and then he woke up” stories, but a story about our internal worlds of dreams, wishes, beliefs; and also, incidentally, about the supernatural creeping into real life. Ben’s experience of not-dying is part of a breakdown of the natural order of things, and that affects the real people in his life as well. Reality meets individual meta-realities, the one that each of us normally only experiences in the vagueness of dreams.
The dreaming quality of The Ghost in Love is is no surprise; this is Jonathan Carroll, and he excels at introducing surreality to reality, in a manner akin to Neil Gaiman, though Carroll’s worlds walk farther into the realization of internal metaphors than even Gaiman’s Sandman ever did. If Gaiman’s stories present a world one step removed from the familiar, Carroll’s are a good three tall steps up, with an excellent and dizzying view of the everyday world.
Gaiman’s mythology is rooted in traditional folklore, augmented by modern thoughts and twists. Carroll improvises more, and as a result his stories can feel far more disconnected, but that’s the point.
The “mythology” of The Ghost in Love is just the start of its breaking point with reality, and in a way it’s probably how death works, if there is an afterlife: unexpected and not what anyone has been raised to believe in. How angels and ghosts and Heaven work together is unique.
The story-telling style of The Ghost in Love is uncommon, as it’s told from a third-person omniscient point of view that merges inside scenes themselves (and very well done, a difficult feat for any writer). This is a perfect choice, because while Ben is the central character, the exploration of the thoughts and internal lives of those around him are also important, expressing in the fluid motion of stream of consciousness the central themes of the book, which by necessity must go beyond Ben himself. We get a rounded picture, a philosophy of life and meta-life, from the viewpoint of many different people, including minor characters who would only be walk-ons in other books.
Sometimes one gets the feeling that minor characters, during the writing of the story, developed into major ones. One such is Danielle, who shares Ben’s undying experience (shrapnel from a small plane crash had been driven forcefully through her head) and with whom he sometimes shares—in an almost possession sense—her unlife experiences. (And no, they aren’t zombies, though Danielle has a very impressive… and soft… scar, and I’m leaving it at that.) Danielle is a brilliant supporting character; I loved the scene where she met her past selves, which turned out to be the pivotal point in Ben’s quest.
This aspect of shared individual experience includes Ben’s dog, Pilot, by the way (or, rather, Ben’s and his former love, German’s, dog. You know, it’s like stepchildren after the parents separate). Pilot plays an important sentient role in the book, a very amusing one, though he’s not by any means an oddity in this world. Here, all animals are sentient and live secret lives and dogs know much more about the layers of reality than humans do. He (and the other occasional animals) are not simply humans in furry quadruped varieties but still think very much in terms of doggy (or kitty, ratty, birdie) terms.
And perhaps this inclusiveness is the most annoying part of the book: not because there is too much of it, but because there’s sometimes not enough. Secondary characters, from German and Ling to even Pilot and Danielle, step back about 85% from the end1 and flatten. Actually, earlier than that, Ling is already being marginalized by a Ben who, in dream terms, is becoming ever more lucid and adaptive to his new situation. I have a tendency to fall in love with secondary characters—and heck, she’s in the title of this book—so this turn of events soured things for me. They still participate, but Ben glows, almost Gary Stu-like.
Yet this reduction of the secondary characters is arguably the best way for the story to develop and to have a natural climax (inevitable though fortunately not predictable). This is a dream after all, and if you know dream interpretation, I’ve probably given you a very strong hint as to what’s really going on.
The book ends in a way that may be unsatisfactory on first blush, but it really is the perfect ending for this tale that is both Ben’s dream and the dream of others. Ben passes the torch without knowing it, just as Danielle passed the torch of undead meta-reality to Ben earlier.
And it all ends, just as it began, with love.
Thank you, Kindle progress bar.