A Reunion of Ghosts
By Judith Claire Mitchell
400 pages, $26.99
By Stephanie Shapiro
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Where to start describing this quirky, profound, tragic, morbidly comical family saga? Probably with the title.
Everybody has read, or at least heard of, James Lipton’s “An Exaltation of Larks, The Venereal Game.” Back in the 1960s, Lipton supposedly dug into some medieval books about hunting (venery) that used collective nouns describing what they named: a murder of crows, a herd of buffalo, a gaggle of geese. He put them all together, along with some that he has admitted making up. Then he added some impressive engravings from the Victorian era and has made a bundle of money on it ever since, updating the book from time to time.
Only after 300-some pages of “A Reunion of Ghosts” does Judith Claire Mitchell mention some of Lipton’s inspirations, but not Lipton or the book. Normally, this would be a big so-what, but she has included, at the front of the novel, three pages of “Names of Persons Mentioned in A Reunion of Ghosts.”
The “Persons Mentioned” include Albert Einstein; Abe Beame (former mayor of New York City); Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee adept at American Sign Language; Son of Sam - just that, not the murderer’s actual name – for three pages. There’s Rooty Kazootie but no Lipton. Yet Mitchell’s term for the three sisters who agree to commit suicide together on the New Year’s Eve before Y2K is the Liptonesque “A Reunion of Ghosts.”
Ghosts do populate the narrative, beyond its central characters. Mitchell jumps right into the saga in 1976 with a tattoo spiraling around the calf of one of the sisters, Delph, the youngest. All three live in the rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment their grandparents first rented after World War II.
Mitchell frames her novel by setting out to make sense of the tattoo and the curse. The tattoo reads, “the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the 3rd & 4th generations.” The tattoo year is 1976, when the only people with tattoos were “sailors, drunks and” well, never mind.
The sisters believe they are under a curse brought on by their great-grandfather Lorenz Otto Alter, a Nobel Prize winner, inventor of a fertilizer that unexpectedly morphed into chlorine gas in World War I and Zyklon A and B in World War II. His achievement is his undoing.
The sisters are the fourth generation; all three are childless and believe the curse will end with them. The family, dogged by several suicides and a couple of murders, also is afflicted with general messed-up-ness. The family tree included in the front of the book yields eminent scholars, millionaire businessmen and brilliant women – and all retain a greater or lesser streak of superstition.
When Lady, the eldest sister, attempts suicide on her own, she ties a noose to a rusted-out water pipe that of course breaks and floods the apartment building. Vee, the middle daughter, suffers round after round of breast cancer. A double mastectomy is of no help: the disease spreads to her bones.
Vee’s doctor gives her six months to live, ending on New Year’s Eve, so the three pick that day to die together. But in the Alter family’s world, nothing goes as planned. Relatives long believed dead show up unexpectedly, including one letting herself into the apartment while Hurricane Floyd destroys phone and electric service on Long Island. This “ghost,” the sisters’ Aunt Violet, also suffers from dementia with intermittent lucid intervals, and the sisters never know if she is recalling actual events or suffering delusions – or lying.
Judith Claire Mitchell has constructed a true family saga here. The work is more modest in some ways than Thomas Mann’s 1901 “Buddenbrooks” or John Galsworthy’s 1921 “The Forsyte Saga” but more ambitious in other ways (“Downton Abbey,” anyone?). It is more modest with fewer characters and less rumination by them but more ambitious in the cosmic questions that slide, never fully resolved, from the 1880s to the dawn of the 21st century.
Mitchell already has polished her writerly skills to a high degree and uses them well here. She develops her characters, researches the eras in which she sets plot action, explains the issues her characters fret about or decide to change.
One example is the great-grandmother, Lily, a proto-feminist in the early years of the 20th century. She is the first woman to earn a Ph.D. from a great German university, with honors, for all the good it does her. Her husband’s fame and academic rank eventually distort her into an early Stepford wife. She develops a crush on her dissertation adviser and when he dies, she writes, then burns, a letter to him every day. She becomes a confidante to Einstein’s first wife and is pleased that when Einstein eventually wins a Nobel, he has to give the money portion of it to Mileva instead of to his second wife.
The brilliance endures, generation after generation. The sisters, in their 40s, continue dorm room conversations over the years, taking them to advanced levels. “A Reunion of Ghosts” goes fairly deeply into “acausal time,” in which events occur, not in a sequence, but according to meaning. Past, present and future are a delusion, and time is just a series of random moments played out in random order. The characters do a great deal of pondering about coincidence and synchronicity, and everything is related.
When conversations and thoughts get too complicated or profound to show by means of plain narration, Mitchell has various characters look at the issues from different angles. Plentiful credit is accorded to Jung, Einstein and Ecclesiastes. She even has included a bibliography, since the original fictional Alters were inspired by the true-life Fritz Haber, a Nobelist in chemistry, and readers are free to try to untangle the facts from the fiction.
Despite the rigor of some of the topics she raises, the author avoids intellectual snobbery. She has written this book “about the beautiful human instinct to make jokes in the face of what is painful and terrifying.” How else explain the sailboat that Lady’s dentist employer names “The Tooth Ferry?” She’s got a million of ’em – puns, word games on every page. One character is described as “satyrical” for his lusty ways.
The lists, charts and bibliography come in handy, especially with the family’s habit of naming its daughters after flowers: Iris, Veronica, Lily, Rose, Violet, Dahlie (German for dahlia) and Delphine, for delphinium. Vee is short for Veronica, Lady a child’s mispronunciation of Lily. Aunt Violet’s sudden appearance only adds to the (deliberate) confusion.
Instead of chronicling the descent of a family from a noble generation through intermediate stages and finally to one of clueless materialists, “A Reunion of Ghosts” preserves the human qualities of all the characters as they navigate through time. She in no way idolizes the past.
“We’ve all married Henry the Eighth,” the Mileva Einstein character comments to Lily Alter about their scientist-husbands’ extramarital interests. So many parallels fill “A Reunion of Ghosts” that mentioning more of them now might take the edge off the reader’s enjoyment of Mitchell’s word and mind games.
She never underestimates the intelligence of her reader. Perhaps she doesn’t mention Lipton’s book because she assumes we all know about it anyway.
Stephanie Shapiro is a former News writer and editor.