Slice-of-life after death

Joy Nicholson is the author of the novels "The Tribes of Palos Verdes" and "The Road to Esmeralda."

IN a standard ghost story, the acute separation is between the dead and the living. In David Long's "The Inhabited World," however, it is the separations between the living and the living that cause the most trouble.

A very depressed Evan Molloy has shot himself dead. Only, instead of reaching the oblivion he was seeking, he finds himself catapulted back into this world -- sans body, ego, any detectable presence. No one can see or feel him, so he's left to drift, quite literally, from room to room of his former house, spying on the series of new tenants, musing over their habits, convinced his fate lies in "keeping an eye on them."

His memory of his former life is patchy, the reasons for his suicide unclear. He figures he's reckoning with the "punishment" of watching life unfold without him. Of the suicide itself, he's "steeped in aftermath, as changed as steam is from water, as water is from ice."

The bulk of "The Inhabited World" is a series of flashbacks from Evan's life -- the book's most engaging passages -- interspersed with snatches of the emotional lives in the house since his death. When Maureen Keniston moves in, fleeing her married lover, we never quite come to know what this woman found desirable in her egotistical physician friend, but we do see how her anguish ultimately jolts Evan awake emotionally, causing him to revisit his own troubled marital history and extramarital love affair. "It's all right there," he thinks later, after recovering the memories, "everything previously held back, the tiles that finish the picture."

This is clearly Evan's story -- even as he picks apart Maureen's every houseguest, hairstyle and furniture choice. In fact, Maureen is more of a fleeting presence than a fully fleshed-out character: "Her face is moist at the temples, flushed. Evan stands aside but notices the subtle rise of temperature as she passes -- what a bare wall might feel when sunlight crosses it."

Maureen is neither confidant nor friend to Evan, but rather a mirror for him to look into. Pre-Maureen, Evan believes he simply suffered from "the failure to remain alive," a sort of post-traumatic death disorder. But the longer he watches her, the more he regrets his failure to have dealt more fiercely with his own earthly relationships. This "regret" theme is much mined in literature and film, but Long makes it fresh with his haunted house setting. The dead Evan can't get his life back, but he can try to make sense of it.

Who knew a passionate sexual fling with a co-worker, the "nervily intelligent, olivey-muscled" Frannie Marx, might lead Evan to so much pain and, ultimately, a complete sense of emotional numbness? The affair certainly didn't feel tawdry to Evan when it began. Quite the contrary. "Though he could never stay long, he woke happy, as if exempt from time.... The sex took place in her west-facing bedroom, the remains of the sunlight strained through a thin cloth curtain with a pattern of cornflowers. Their skin ran with sweat. Rivulets, soaked hair. Sometimes Evan broke down laughing."

But Evan can't handle lightness. While alive, it was his nature to look for, and find, fault in every corner of himself. Unhelpfully, he was married to the stolid Claudia -- with whom life was comfortable, safe, but often joyless. Claudia's not a bad woman. But she's enough of a martyr that their married life seemed to exist on a steady diet of furrowed frowns, eggshell-walking and endless apologia.

Although Evan had coolly called it quits with Frannie, Maureen wrestles to connect with her lover when the possibility of connection has long passed. Long intelligently points out that the endless talk, rehashing and revisiting after a love affair is one way of trying to avoid suffering -- of not letting die what needs to die. But so is denial, the harsh cutting-off of what might have been beautiful. In love, Evan tried the latter while Maureen wavers toward the former.

Is it worse to be alive and unconscious -- like Evan used to be -- than dead and awake, the way he is now?

Long is a lovely craftsman, with alternating sharpness and gentleness to his style. His portraits of relationship breakups are snapshot clean, often devastating.

"Doggedly he delivered the message he'd come to deliver. Frannie kept her cool. Her face assumed a look he knew from work, consternation kept in check. She put on water for tea, motioned toward the kitchen chair. You think it's irrevocable, she said. This decision?

"Irrevocable, he thought. What a word.

"She said, I mean, Evan, is there any chance you'll see it differently in a few days?

"Evan said, honestly, he didn't think so.

"Frannie set the tea before him and handed him the plastic honey bear. She told him it made her sad, that was all. Just very, very sad."

When one reads "The Inhabited World," an hour can pass unnoticed -- a hallmark of wondrous writing. More impressive, though, is the novel's empathy and forgiveness for all benighted lovers.

For example, even though Evan marries Claudia twice, and doesn't get it right either time, his earnest intentions toward her are never cruel. Long delicately shows that his protagonist isn't callous or mean about his affair with Frannie during his first marriage, just empty of the courage it takes to turn that relationship into something more than his marriages ever could be.

Evan's ultimate response is based on fear: the desire to maintain a painless status quo. Still, he can't help but compare his lover with his wife. "Despite the old wisdom, Evan wasn't sad after sex with Frannie. Often he was so used up he didn't know he'd gone to sleep until he woke fifteen minutes later. Frannie's leg twined with his, her fingers, cool now, drawing lines on his forehead. With Claudia he was frequently restless, even claustrophobic, after making love, especially if it was afternoon or early evening, still light out." Even knowing such hollowness awaits him, he returns home to Claudia. He doesn't trust his "lack of sadness" -- his actual happiness -- with his lover.

This equivocation might be depressing, but it isn't, because in death Evan becomes a spirited spirit, a more courageous thinker. Evan does get his groove back, but of course it's too late. He only half accepts his limitations. He reaches to comfort Maureen but can't physically move an errant hair off her face. He wants to punch her lover but of course can't connect his fist with flesh. Still, Evan tries, again and again, to link up with the world. Now just a spectator, he is finally ready to participate. In some ways it's too late, but in other, more internal ways it is not.

"The Inhabited World" is reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day," in that it concerns itself with the choices we make, how both pain and pain avoidance shape us. Evan yearns to feel alive, but life itself is too frightening. Death, then, is a second chance to blossom. His new existence is startling, lonely, a little weird, but for Evan, it will have to do. *

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