Is it that Anthony Hopkins has become so powerful and pervasive an icon of contemporary culture that it is no longer possible to see the world that stretches from The Silence of the Lambs (1991) through Howards End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993) to Shadowlands (1993) except through his, which is to say his characters’, eyes? Or is it, rather, that the repression for which Hopkins is surely cinema’s modern master has become so pronounced an element of postmodern culture, the flip side as it were of late capitalism and carnival excess, the “haunted ashen look” on the faces of the characters in Don DeLillo’s paradigmatic postmodern fictions? Whatever the answer, Ghosts, Irish writer John Banville’s ninth novel, is surely a work with a role or two for Hopkins, though the repression here is just as certainly of a different order, less a mask for the psychologically perverse than an occasion for the stylistically and intertextually dazzling. No less intricate in design than intriguing in its “coagulating” plot, and no less lyrical in its language than ludic in its structure, Ghosts is a work not of supernatural chills but instead of comic terror, at once painterly, theatrical, dreamlike, learned, and mad (the madness not of Edgar Allan Poe but of Vincent Price playing Poe). Its subject-to the degree that it has one-is the relation-ship between the real and the imagined, the old art-versus-life business done up in postmodern drag.
The complications start early. The novel begins on an island with the arrival of seven castaways whose day’s outing came to a sudden end when their drunken captain sailed their boat onto a sandbank. There is Sophie, the black-clad, “mildly famous” photographer whose work-in-progress, on various ruins, is entitled Tableaux morts. Then there is the beautiful Flora, “like one of Modigliani’s girls,” who claims to be twenty-one but who may be two or three years younger and whose job it is to care for the three children, Alice, Pound, and Hatch “with his pixie’s face, violet eyes and pale little clawlike hands.” Finally there are the two men, the aged Croke and the enigmatic Felix, “a thin, lithe sallow man with bad teeth and hair dyed black and a darkly watchful eye.” Those already on the island prove no less curious and no less literary in their lineage. There is the once-famous art expert Professor Silas Kreutznaer; his typist, Licht, a man of indeterminate age who has a wonderfully improbable penchant for self-improvement schemes and who, as it turns out, owns the house in which he seems little more than a servant; and the novel’s unnamed narrator.
Echoes of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest can be heard throughout Banville’s novel (as it can through so many postmodern, postcolonial, and postmasculinist texts-Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books , John Edgar Wideman’s Philadelphia Fire , and Angela Carter’s Wise Children , to name only three). As clearly discernible as they are self-consciously situated, these echoes are just as deliberately complicated and compromised in various ways. The Professor, for example, ought to be the novel’s Prospero figure but is not-is in fact connected by patronymic not with Shakespeare’s master magician at all but instead with that far more prosaic Prospero, Robinson Crusoe, whose name before it was anglicized had been Kreutznaer. Similarly, the seven visitors derive not only from The Tempest but from the American television series Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967, itself a retelling of Robinson Crusoe ), from Luigi Pirandello’s absurdist play Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), and figures from various paintings, including one entitled Le monde d’or which exists only in Banville’s fiction. The island itself, for all its barrenness, appears just as semantically and intertextually overrich and overdetermined as the characters. Prospero’s island is also Devil’s Island, Hades, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, William Butler Yeats’s Innisfree, Oscar Wilde’s Reading Gaol, the Count of Monte Cristo’s Chateau d’If, and the destination noted in the title of Jean Antoine Watteau’s famous painting Embarkation for Cythera (1717). The island is also a painting in its own right, framed by water.
Ghosts resists the reader’s, like the narrator’s, efforts “to understand things, in however rudimentary a fashion. Small things, of course, simple things.” It resists these efforts because, as the narrator understands and the reader must leam, “there are no simple things”:
The object splits, flips, doubles back, becomes something else. Under the slightest pressure the seeming unit falls into a million pieces and every piece into a million...
(The entire section is 2002 words.)