Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Book Review: A Dark Matter by Peter Straub

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in the UK / in the US]

"The charismatic and cunning Spenser Mallon is a campus guru in the 1960s, attracting the devotion and demanding sexual favors of his young acolytes. After he invites his most fervent followers to attend a secret ritual in a local meadow, the only thing that remains is a gruesomely dismembered body-and the shattered souls of all who were present.

"Years later, one man attempts to understand what happened to his wife and to his friends by writing a book about this horrible night, and it's through this process that they begin to examine the unspeakable events that have bound them in ways they cannot fathom, but that have haunted every one of them through their lives. As each of the old friends tries to come to grips with the darkness of the past, they find themselves face-to-face with the evil triggered so many years earlier."


As per his mini-bio in the back of the book, Peter Straub has "written nineteen novels and won, multiple times, every award his expanding genre bestows," and so it follows that readers will come to A Dark Matter with a certain measure of anticipation. With what is perhaps his most ambitious fiction to date, however, Straub does not go about systematically catering to expectations. Far from it, in fact; though its tangled narrative stems from a seemingly simple premise – one man in the modern day must piece together the mysterious events that shattered and scattered his adolescent peer group – A Dark Matter is a difficult novel from the first page, wherein the semantic significance of the word 'obstreperous' brings a flood of difficult memories back to Lee Harwell.

Our protagonist is a reasonably popular novelist, treading water when we join him in search of his muse. He doesn't flounder for long: when Lee comes into possession of a late police detective's tell-all memoir, inspiration hits him like a ten tonne truck. To his surprise, the manuscript ties into the very events that his wife, the wonderful Eel, has hidden from him for decades. The desperate lawman's last-ditch attempt to expose a serial murderer represents something else to Lee, however: it is a way in, at long last, to the hidden history of an eventful few weeks in the 1960s.

All those years ago, Lee alone saw through Spencer Mallon, a wandering guru with so-called psychic abilities; the rest of his friends bought into the handsome stranger's supposedly spiritual powers wholesale. Lee's stubborn scepticism sets him forever apart from the awful events that followed Spencer's sham seduction of his nearest and dearest, in which an evening in a meadow left its susceptible young participants variously confused, crazed, blind, missing without a trace or, in one case, eviscerated as if by some nightmarish creature.

So far, you might say, so-so. Any reader with a passion for the horror genre will surely have come across one iteration or another of A Dark Matter's premise before, but Straub's approach is more unique. The underpinning narrative of his nineteenth novel is indeed Lee's, and further, the first version of the dark matter at its creeping, beating heart is his - an imagined, fictionalised interpretation - but the writer, not to mention the reader, derives a gathering understanding of the shocking events in the meadow only from those who experienced it first-hand. Throughout A Dark Matter, Boats, Hootie, Meredith, Dill and the Eel all state their respective cases, and each has a different tale to tell.

Straub does an admirable job of maintaining some sort of equilibrium between so very many perspectives, rendering them distinct from one another and yet binding them despite their dissonance; despite the countless contradictions and confusions and hallucinations. Together, the myriad individual slants coalesce into one single, intangible thing... a question, in some senses, voiced by Lee himself as he embarks on the journey of other-discovery that makes up the bulk of the narrative: "Is evil innate, and a human quality, or is it an external entity, and inhuman in nature?" For all its strengths, and let's not beat around the bush, they are many – Straub is an esteemed, award-winning author for good reason – the single most disappointing thing about A Dark Matter is that it never answers that question satisfactorily.

Then again, explanations are rarely as exciting as the endlessly promising questions that beg them; better, in the end, for some enquiries to remain unanswered. That said, A Dark Matter would be a considerably more rewarding read were it a little lighter on the mystique. There is ambiguity everywhere, and perhaps that is precisely the point, but it is not a point that resounds so easily by itself – for uncertainty to be truly useful in a narrative, there must exist some sort of backbone against which to measure it. For there to be a self, there must be an other. Clearly, Straub is not without such awareness: as one demon with an old-time New York accent observes to Eel, "Millions of dumbbells believe that death is evil, as though they thought they should be immortal. [But] without death, you would have no beauty, no meaning," and so, lacking any substantial counterpoint, the borderline lunatic musings of the teenagers who go with Spencer to the meadow are not so effective as they could have been.

Yet, for all its imbalance, A Dark Matter is a piece of literary entertainment just short of sublime. Straub knows very well how to spin a tale and his characters are extraordinary specimens, lively and surprising - particularly Hootie and the aforementioned Eel. A few of the narrative's beats are somewhat suspect, but we can only admire the experimentation of such an established author. I did not love A Dark Matter, this much is true, but as one particular hallucination would be quick to point out, hatred is not the opposite of love, and it is certainly an easy thing to admire Straub's nineteenth novel – if not to fall entirely under its metaphysical spell.


A Dark Matter
by Peter Straub
March 2010, Orion Books

[Buy this book on Amazon
in the UK / in the US]

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