This novel contains some interesting speculation on the nature of existence. Rebeck, who is able to see ghosts, aligns himself with Bishop Berkeley:
“Man searches constantly for his identity . . . He has no real proof of his existence except for the reaction of other people to the fact. So he listens very closely to what people say to one another about him, whether it’s good or bad, because it indicates that he lives in the same world they do, and that all his fears about being invisible, impotent, lacking some mysterious dimension that other people have, are groundless.”
Like Buster Keaton in Beckett’s Film, Rebeck is attempting to prevent himself from existing, by avoiding being seen. In the end, however, he cannot avoid being seen by his own consciousness (which, in the novel, is personified by Klapper).
The ghosts attempt to exist by being seen. They are able to see themselves and also see one another. However, the personas they display are based on their recollections of how they behaved. They can’t act naturally – since they don’t have bodies – so they try to walk and stand and in general behave like they think they behaved when alive. In the world of Beagle’s novel, they will slowly lose this awareness, or stop caring about it, and eventually disappear.
The growing love between Michael Morgan and Laura Durand parallels the growing affection between Rebeck and Klapper that will eventually lead Rebeck to leave the cemetery. Rebeck has lived there for nineteen years, which is significant since Beagle was nineteen years old at the time he wrote the book. Beagle’s use of the love stories makes the case that it is love that leads Rebeck to return to the world, i.e., that causes him to exist again. I am certain that for this reason this book mattered a great deal to Beagle, and that is why – as is evident – he put so much effort and artistry into it, because it was his way of telling himself that at the age of nineteen it was time to enter the world and begin existing.
From a technical point of view, the dialogue goes on a little too long. Beagle makes the same mistake many authors make when writing dialogue in fiction – as opposed to in a play – of thinking that since he doesn’t have the physical presence of the actors to put a point across he needs to stress it verbally. This is a mistake. In fact, what he is demonstrating is that he can’t tell when enough has been said because he can’t hear the actors having to speak his words.
This is a book that touched me deeply on account of its air of wistful melancholy, and the tart humor that appears unexpectedly from time to time (mostly from the raven).