Jonathan Carroll's latest novel, The Ghost in Love is the latest of thirteen genuinely magical fantasy novels in which the author makes magic the way Fred Astaire danced: effortless, simple, wondrous.
In the Ghost in Love, Ben and his girlfriend German have just broken up a long-term relationship that seems to have been as wonderful as love can be (Carroll has a special gift for bringing happy family relations to life). Now they are on the outs, and sharing custody of Pilot, their shelter-dog, and every time they meet to swap the dog, their hearts break anew.
Ben should have died the day he got the dog, when he slipped on ice and broke his head. But he didn't. So the Angel of Death sent Ben's ghost, Ling, to earth, to investigate why the universe has stopped obeying its divine destiny. Ling is hopelessly in love with German, and the ghost is also a fantastic cook (as is Ben), so whenever German is due to come over, Ling spends the whole day cooking elaborate, invisible meals for her, while chatting morosely with the dog (all ghosts speak Dog).
That's all in the first few pages. Then it gets weird.
Carroll's standard formula for his novels is to introduce us to wonderful people living magical blessed lives, lives so achingly rendered that you want to crawl into the page and snuggle under the covers with them. Then he smashes their lives like sand-castles, and his wonderful people fall apart while magic unmakes them, rewriting the rules of their world to reveal hidden truths about love, family, self-regard, self-loathing, and other emotionally charged subjects.
In Ghost in Love, Carroll does this again, but even moreso, using a kind of dreamlike fluidity to constantly rewrite the rules of his world and its magic as evil and good tear apart the lives of Ben, German, Pilot and Ling and the people around them. The story grows ever-more existential, allegorical and weird as the pages fly past.
But it's all handled so gracefully that the dream-logic never falters. Carroll is the omnipotent god of his characters and situations, and he is totally in control of every variable, so that we trust him throughout, even though he never plays fair.
And the message, the conclusion in the end? Without spoiling things, I'll say this: The Ghost in Love contains genuinely profound and illuminating truths about the way that we love others and ourselves, and about the power of owning up to your bad deeds, and about the danger and wonder of nostalgia for our simpler pasts.
I've read and enjoyed all thirteen of Carroll's novels, and this one is going right on the shelf with the others, and will occupy the same oft-visited part of my mental landscape wherein dwell his other magical books.