A strain of syrupy romance undermines the novelist’s surrealistic strengths.
Throughout his fiction, Carroll (Glass Soup, 2005, etc.) has displayed an imaginative gift for conjuring alternative realities. So he does here, but the results read like a Nora Ephron movie made from a lesser Vonnegut novel. Our heroine is the improbably named German Landis, an art teacher with an innately sunny disposition who “simply didn’t understand people who moped. Life was too interesting to choose suffering.” Yet German herself is suffering from her recent breakup with Ben Gould, a moodier fellow with a passion for cooking. The two of them had been rapturously in love until Ben takes a spill while walking Pilot, the dog he had gotten for German, hits his head on the curb and almost dies. He should have died, according to the metaphysical forces swirling around him. Enter the ghost, who happens to be a woman with the Chinese name of Ling. She was supposed to be Ben’s, though why Ben would have a female ghost with a Chinese name is never really explained. Neither is much else that transpires. Ben’s near-death experience ruptures his relationship with German, though the two share custody of the dog. Not only can Pilot see the ghost, but the dog can converse with it, while neither Ben nor German are aware of the ghost’s presence. Ling falls in love with German. Ben finds himself capable, for reasons neither he nor the reader understands, of inhabiting the psyche of another woman who has survived a near death experience. He invites German to meet this woman, as if this will explain everything. The woman can see German, but not Ben. So it goes. Ultimately, the romance requires Ben and German (and Pilot) to come to a deeper understanding of life as “a very complicated board game but no instructions how to play it.” Meanwhile, the gods must come to terms with mankind mastering its own fate.
Love conquers all, as if there were any doubt.