Quite unusually, Alan Lightman is both a theoretical physicist at MIT and a National Book Award finalist for his novel The Diagnosis. Given that as a scientist his life's work has been grounded in empiricism, it may seem odd that Lightman would wade into the murk of spirituality and the supernatural, even if only in fiction. That is exactly where he ventures, though, in his new novel, Ghost, which tells the intriguing story of a man whose life is turned upside down when he sees an apparition.

The setup feels a bit like an episode of Six Feet Under. David Kurzweil, a bookish, middle-aged man, who has recently lost his longtime job as a bank clerk, becomes an apprentice at a family-operated mortuary. He discovers he is well suited for this different type of work. Watching Martin, the 72-year-old, fourth-generation undertaker, perform embalming duties proves more compelling than off-putting, and David finds he also has a talent for dealing with bereaved families. Working at the funeral home is tranquil and oddly comforting for David, whose personal life has been something of a vacuum. But the serenity abruptly ends one day when, alone in the slumber room, David gets a fleeting glimpse of a vaporous apparition hovering above a corpse. He does not believe in supernatural phenomena, so he tries to dismiss what he has seen, but he cannot get the vividly real episode out of his mind. Foolishly, he shares the details of the incident with the motherly owner of the diner where he takes all of his meals. Word soon spreads among the lonely men who live in his boarding house, and then the local newspaper gets wind of the story. Suddenly, David is the reluctant poster boy for spiritualists and other side adherents.

The attendant notoriety upsets the agoraphobic Martin, though it revives business at the funeral parlor, as more and more families start bringing their business there in hopes that David can communicate with their departed. Soon at the center of a bitter power struggle between the Society for the Second World and the unbending scientists at the nearby university, David is himself uncertain of what he actually saw and how it fits in with his own long-standing skepticism. People continue to flock to David for insight he does not have, and even his ex-wife returns after eight years of complete silence, throwing a wrench into David's developing romance with a level-headed librarian. What plays out is part comedy, part tragedy, as the frenzy over David's elusive vision grows completely out of control. Predictably, neither side is willing to yield in the slightest, and the whole enterprise becomes an exercise in interpreting evidence to support preconceived beliefs. As David struggles with his place in the controversy, he revisits his own life the death of his father when he was still only a boy, his arm's-length relationship with his elderly mother, the failed marriage he still broods over (and, reading between the lines, seems to have totally whitewashed). What becomes apparent to the reader is that the ghost of the title not only refers to the vaporous vision in the slumber room, but to David himself, who has been living his life with a spectral lack of connection.

For the most part, Lightman carefully avoids setting Ghost in an identifiable time or place (some references, and most of the characters' names suggest England, but terms like high school imply it is set here). This choice gives the story a nice timelessness. The opportunities are rife for exploring all kinds of theories and points of view, which Lightman does without allowing the narrative to flag. Indeed, the novel's greatest strength is that it never squarely comes down on either side of the spiritual divide. Lightman, who himself professes atheism, has a respect for believers that translates into credible, sympathetic characterizations (if anyone is mercilessly lampooned, it is the non-believing academics). David has no philosophical bone to pick, and clearly neither does Lightman, which makes Ghost a thought-provoking novel of ideas that allows us to make up our own minds assuming we can set aside our own pesky preconceptions.

Novelist Robert Weibezahl lives in California.

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