Monday, April 22, 2013

Principia Phantasmatica

For what it's worth, we at the Egg believe in ghosts.  Not necessarily ectoplasmic ghoulies clanking chains, the existence of which seems improbable at best, but certainly in what the Bowen theory people call "spooks in the system," patterns of action and reaction that can carry over from one generation to another, shaping the lives of people who do not understand them, and which can only be driven out when they are identified clearly --  called, as it were, by name.  History, especially the history of a family or of an institution, is all about being haunted and exorcised.

Which brings us to Rebecca Stott's novel Ghostwalk.  We picked the book up a few months ago, and last week, while all hell was breaking loose nationwide, we read it -- taking advantage of an opportunity to immerse ourself in the alternate realities of geneticists and alchemists, Cambridge University, and Sir Isaac Newton's lifelong fascination with the color red.

As you might guess from the title, this is a ghost story.  A specter is haunting Cambridge, and a series of mysterious deaths in the 1660s seems connected to an ongoing series in the early 2000s.  An historian, writing a study of Newton's alchemical work, has drowned.  Her son, a research geneticist, hires his sometime lover to complete the book.  Meanwhile, the town is troubled by outbreaks of vandalism and violence that appear to be the work of an animal-rights group, which has made the geneticist its particular target.

It sounds complicated, but it isn't really.  The cast of characters is small, and the story is not hard to follow.  It takes her a while, but Stott manages to build some genuine suspense, as we try to discern what is real and what is unreal, and of real things, which are natural and which supernatural.

It would be easier to follow if the prose were less affected.  The narrator, Lydia Brook, speaks in the first person, addressing her lover Cameron Brown in the second; on a few occasions she drops into the third for no evident reason.  This is annoying enough.  She rambles a bit, indulges in unnecessarily florid descriptions and unimpressive bits of wordplay.  This is a first novel, and here is where it shows.  Nonetheless, the story is plotted well enough, and the characters are drawn sharply enough, to keep things from getting too boggy.

As for whether you like the story or not, it will depend (we imagine) on how you feel about ghost stories and/or about Newton.

Ghostwalk is part of a distinctive sub-genre, the so-called "antiquarian ghost story" associated with M.R. James -- himself a Cambridge don.  Stories like this generally involve academicians on holiday, doing some sort of ordinary historical research.  They are, by nature, full of dusty documents and obscure details about dead people, not infrequently accompanied by maps, footnotes and appendices.  Ghostwalk provides all of the above; better yet is the fact that the dead people are ones who really lived.  Needless to say, we at the Egg are the sort of people who like everything better with footnotes, up to and including our ice cream.

As for Newton, well, he was in his own lifetime, and remains to this day, one of the most celebrated of all Englishmen, "a national hero" as one of Stott's characters calls him.  This has made him an attractive character for deconstruction:  back in the 1960s, John Barth portrayed him as a pederast, Dan Brown put him in the Priory of Sion, and a Rob Cohen detective adventure movie is said to be in the works. (Of these, weirdly, Brown's version seems likeliest.)  A pioneer in mathematics and physics, and therefore one of the creators of what we mean today by "science," he was at the same time greatly preoccupied with things that we do not today consider scientific at all.  His interest in alchemy, perhaps under the influence of secret societies such as the Rosicrucians, has moved one historian to call him "the last sorcerer."  This is the heart of Stott's story.

And yet, strangely, she makes no mention of his other related interest, which was Christian theology.  Newton wrote a great deal of highly speculative (read:  heterodox) theology, dealing with Biblical hermeneutics and eschatology.  None of it was published in his lifetime, but modern scholars are well aware of it.  Since Stott is concerned with events of the 1650s and 60s, and Newton wrote his theological tracts after 1670, it is possible that she doesn't find them germane.  But it is hard to imagine that her characters, obsessed as they are with climbing into Newton's mind, would simply set this aside.

It is ironic that one of Stott's images for human relationships, whether those of separated lovers or of haunter and haunted, is quantum entanglement, "spooky action at a distance."  This idea comes not from Newtonian physics but from the quantum mechanics that partially supplanted it.  But of course science -- whether the science of light or of inheritance -- is not what Stott is trying to talk about.  neither, for that matter, is the dubious mixture of physics and metaphysics known as alchemy.  These are just metaphors for the interplay of love, ambition and rage that hold people together down through the years.

Ghostwalk is not for everybody.  But if you are interested Cambridge or Newton, and especially if you are interested in the past and how it haunts the present -- sometimes ruinously -- then this is worth a look.

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