Common Sense and Coincidence : When ghost story meets love story, it’s all part of ‘a divine symmetry’ : MADELEINE’S GHOST, <i> By Robert Girardi (Delacorte Press: $21.95; 356 pp.)</i>
Novelists tend to be a suspicious lot--suspicious of simplicity, of ideas that pose as truths or of situations that pretend to be real. In this century we’ve seen the novel’s self-reflexive tendencies taken to an extreme. Thanks to those wily tricks of the great modernists, it is a more slippery form than ever, and the most ambitious novels tend to be full of interruptions and self-conscious ironies, with their plots tied into tough dialectical knots.
There are exceptions, of course. There are sophisticated, ambitious novels that set out to tell an absorbing story from start to finish, without any flashy narrative tricks.
“Madeleine’s Ghost,” Robert Girardi’s debut novel, is just this kind of book--immensely engaging, lavish in its descriptive details, with a good, engrossing story to tell. Even though, as the title suggests, a ghost is a key player in the plot, the novel doesn’t offer any metafictive mix of realism and supernaturalism. This is not a book in the tradition of, say, “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” where ghosts mingle freely with mortal characters. Nor is this a novel about eerie, fantastic mysteries, in the manner of Poe. “Madeleine’s Ghost” is solidly realistic, despite its uncanny visitor, and from the start it promises to connect all the disparate pieces of the plot.
For this is what any good story does, at least in the most conventional sense: It lays out pieces of the puzzle and then puts them together into a neat, satisfying whole. It is an operation that might be unfashionable but is deeply admirable. Girardi doesn’t interrupt or digress from his central story. Every piece of this narrative puzzle is relevant, and implicit throughout the novel is the Dickensian commitment to solution: Everything will be explained in the end.
One of the ways Girardi brings together his cast of characters is through coincidence--a device that was one of Dickens’ favorites. But contemporary readers have lost some tolerance for coincidence--we’ve come to see realism and coincidence as incompatible. How impressive, then, that Girardi uses coincidence so boldly, and through most of the book so cleverly, reminding us that coincidence can still have an important place in realistic fiction.
The first and most influential coincidence occurs at the beginning (though its significance won’t be apparent until the last few chapters). The narrator, Ned, applies to Father Rose, priest of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Brooklyn, for a research job. After leaving the graduate program in French history at Georgetown University, he has come to New York to work--or not to work--on his thesis. He can barely pay the rent on his Brooklyn dive, so he’s eager to find a part-time job. As it turns out, the research project involves a 19th-Century nun who came to Brooklyn from New Orleans to help the poor.
Father Rose wants to assemble the information to have Sister Januarius beatified, and he hires Ned to help him.
But the research is, at first, a low priority for Ned, who has to deal with the rambunctious ghost in his apartment. The ghost has a touch of malevolence and on the opening page of the novel is busy dropping stones from the ceiling of the apartment while Ned hides under the kitchen table.
There are other events--Ned hears odd sounds in the apartment and the furniture moves mysteriously. He reacts with somewhat muted fear, confusion and common sense. “Perhaps I am going mad, " he tries to reason with himself. “It would be nice to go mad, absolutely insane, free of the mundanities and responsibilities of life, every day a holiday.” But his answer to himself is blunt: “Unfortunately I am as sane as a piece of toast.”
So the ghost is not a manifestation of insanity. Nor will it prove to be quite as strange as the wonderfully eccentric characters who populate this book. There is Chase, Ned’s New York friend, who is afflicted with a degenerative bone disease and whose Gypsy heritage happens to come in handy when it’s time to conduct a seance. There is Molesworth, Ned’s ex-roommate and drinking buddy, “a loud, obnoxious bayou-trash Louisianan with filthy habits and a beer gut the size of Lake Pontchartrain.” Most importantly, there’s the infatuating, self-destructive Antoinette, Ned’s former lover from his school days in New Orleans.
The novel follows Ned through a steamy summer, during which he travels between New York and New Orleans. The ghost in his Brooklyn apartment, we know from the title, is Madeleine’s ghost, so one of the mysteries the book promises to solve is the mystery of Madeleine. Who is she, and why does she fix her attention on poor Ned? And what does Sister Januarius have to do with the ghost? The author manages to keep our curiosity fresh throughout, partly by teasing us with hints of coincidental connections between the ghost and the nun and partly by intensifying the romantic story of Ned’s recurrent involvement with Antoinette.
The two cities, New York and New Orleans, are major characters in themselves. Girardi seems to delight in his description of the streets of New Orleans, the Louisiana bayou, the heat, the food and drink. But his narrator remains stubbornly disgusted with New York City. At the beginning of the novel the city is full of rats and garbage, and is described by Ned as “one vast conspiracy, a riddle whose answer has been cleverly concealed from us.” At the end of the novel he describes all cities as “blank spaces on the map under the say of strange and savage tribes, where life is cheap, law is unknown, and wild, inexplicable passions rule the mob.”
Such total castigation of urban life is evidence of an implicit attitude that would have benefited from a little novelistic suspicion. “Madeleine’s Ghost” is ultimately a moral tale--religious faith triumphs over urban squalor. The nun reveals herself to be a saint. The coincidences that follow form Ned’s involvement in the Sister Januarius research might be, at the final call, the manifestation of “a divine symmetry.” Ned even goes so far as to suggest that he has been chosen by God for this particular work. It could prove hard for readers to accept this explanation--the novel would have been stronger with a touch more skepticism.
But “Madeleine’s Ghost” is so much fun to read, its pieces so carefully arranged, that its moralism (and a sentimental epilogue) can be ignored. Part love story, part ghost story, always absorbing, it is in many ways a remarkable achievement, especially so when we remember that it is the author’s first novel. Girardi tells a satisfying, memorable tale with masterful skills.