Saturday, April 24, 2010

Books: Dogs of varying ages attempt to learn tricks of diverse vintage.

The origin-story of Peter Straub's latest novel, A Dark Matter, can be profitably compared to the origin story of Stephen King's latest novel, The Dome.

King's "new" book is actual a manuscript from the '70s that he decided to dust off, unaware that its basic premise was the central gag of The Simpsons Movie. Despite King's interest in format exploration (from the serial publication of The Green Mile to pioneer efforts at electronic publishing), there's something telling that he's pushing 30-year-old work out now, and that sits just fine with everybody. It seems appropriate, fitting even for an author who famously revisited his own masterworks again and again, who dredged up his early career nom de plume to produce a work two decades later.

By contrast, Straub's new novel owes a debt to the work of Brian Evenson, a genre warping author whose sadly under-recognized work sits at the weird intersection of pulp and experimental art. And I don't mean this in some "I saw some similarities" clever critic way: Straub's introduction not only thanks Evenson for the inspiration, but mentions that one specific scene in the novel is modeled off a scene in Evenson's own The Open Curtain.

When King needs inspiration, he looks back. When Straub needs inspiration he finds it in the work of a guy who not only wrote one of the definitive texts on the mindbending prose of Robert Coover, but who also contributed a story to a collection of stories that takes place in the Halo game universe.

This is not to say that one approach is necessarily better than the other. In fact, there's a sort of quality assurance that comes with King's approach. Like a top level athlete, King has perfected his performance in a highly specific and limited field. The pleasure of King is the pleasure of knowing that you're in the hands of a master, and that mastery is predicated on the idea of him doing the very thing he's mastered. When I was young, I remember people who weren't particularly into boxing making jokes about how upset they would be if they bought the pay-per-view Tyson fight and Tyson ended it in a minute and some change. But these were the folks who never bought in to a fight. The people who paid to see Tyson do his thing never complained. That was the point of seeing Tyson. Reading King's like that.

Straub's something different. The pleasure of reading Straub is the pleasure of watching a master restlessly push himself to find the limits of his own talent. Straub's interest in the New Weird, that liminal genre of fantasy and postmodern lit, which Straub dubbed "the New Horror" in a recent anthology he edited, has kept him on the vanguard of his chosen field, but that comes with a price. King's like early career Tyson: the result is rarely in doubt. Struab's newest work is more like a tightrope act. It requires skill and training and the careful dexterity of a master, but it still courts disaster. And whatever the outcome, it's interesting.

I wish I could say that A Dark Matter was a triumph, but it's more interesting than successful.

Yet another autopsy of the '60s, A Dark Matter plays with shades of understanding. It's a tragedy about the inability to communicate wearing the Halloween mask of a horror novel. At its core is story of a group of friends who, in their youth, were pulled into the orbit of a somewhat sinister, but mostly pathetic guru. Their cult of personality disintegrated when a black magic ritual when awry and one of their number died in the process. The novel follows the one friend who didn't attend the ceremony - now an adult who made his fame and fortune writing a thinly veiled fictional treatment of the event - as he tries to piece together what actually happened that day.

The curious thing about A Dark Matter is that is isn't exactly Rashmon-like: Nobody disagrees about the most significant details of the event, so the event in question is never really a mystery. (To be fair, Rashmon isn't very Rashmon-like either - like the term "Kafkaesque," which is used when things are Orwellean, the adjectival form of the proper noun has proved more useful in day-to-day conversation and has long since overwhelmed the details of the real; which is, perhaps, the most Rashmon-like thing about Rashmon.) The result is a spiral narrative structure. With each retelling, the events of the disastrous ceremony are fleshed out and told with greater nuance or given a slightly different spin. The pattern is pleasurable, but the major downside is that there's no dramatic tension. We know, from the start, who survived, what happened, and who paid for it. It's a novel that begins by telling you exactly how it all ends.

The spiral structure of A Dark Matter is a bold move. It basically throws down the gauntlet. It disarms the most obvious and powerful weapon a genre writer's got in his arsenal: plot. Sadly, it's a bold move that Straub can't quite pull off. Wrapped in the familiar trappings of a "what happened" '60s tale, the narrative innovation seems oddly out of place; like a 2D movie shoehorned into 3D, the novel feels like a story he had on hand that he then forced into the this curious structure.

Still the spectacle of a master who could have phoned it in trying a trick that undermines one of his greatest strengths is bracing. It's the kind of no-net risk taking that should be encouraged. By incorporating the innovations of the New Weird, and doing so on such a broad and deep level, Straub hits the reset button on his writing development. He reverts back to novice level and pulls off a noteworthy debut. Is it polished, perfect? Far from it. But it has the energy of an explorer behind it. It's a hell of a trick.

Ironically, after forty years of writing, Straub's become a new voice to watch.

By contrast, Sarah Langan's Audrey's Door is firmly in the young novelist's wheelhouse. Returning to the surrealistic supernaturalism of her debut novel, The Keeper, Langan's latest welds a sympathetic drama of damaged, haunted losers to a haunted house plot heavily influenced by landmark works like Rosemary's Baby and Repulsion. There's also hints of Farris's And Then We Came to the End and even satiric evocations of the shallow tropes of post-Sex in the City chick lit.

In this case, the titular heroine, scarred by the insanity of her alternately smothering and negligent madwoman mother, attempts to create a new life in Manhattan. Her reinvention leads her to a eccentric high-rise apartment with a sinister secret. The building, designed by a demon-haunted insane genius, is a conduit for Lovecraft-ish menaces from beyond, and Audrey appears to be the key to unleashing this unnameable horror on the world.

The joy of Aubrey's Door comes chiefly in Langan's specific mastery of a style of horror all her own. Langan's feeling for her protags, the attention she lavishes on the details of their inner lives, is unique among modern horror authors. Often horror characterization is a matter of making characters sympathetic enough to give the horrors that descend upon them some sharpness. Langan, by contrast, relies on the unlikely proposition that a human being, rendered with sufficient honesty, will always become a dramatic locus of sympathy because they will seem alive, and all humans would rather see life prevail over death. Langan's characters don't need to be likable, just real. The confidence Langan places in the empathic capacity is the single greatest act of respect for fans that you'll find in genre lit - any genre - today.

Admittedly, there is a nearly oppressive air of familiarity here. Langan's moved much of the action to an urban setting, but she can't resist a long interlude in a recession ravaged Midwest town that resembles the struggling small towns of her first two works. This interlude serves as an odd allegory for the artistic project of the book; Langan is ready to move on, but still has to wrestle with the material that so strongly defined her early voice. (The mother/daughter relationship at the core of the book is another handy allegory for the creative tug-of-war being worked out in these pages.) There's a familiar shagginess to the end. Endings are the hardest things to pull off and a particular weakness of Langan's, though she gets credit for daring something completely new to her novelistic work: a (qualified) happy ending.

Langan dares less than Straub does with his book, but she gains more from her less ambitious bet. Fans of Langan's previous novels, especially The Keeper, will find much to dig here. Audrey's Door won the Stoker, and with good cause. Still, there's a nervousness about the book that suggests Langan's impatience with her own tools.

With the next novel, I hope Langan pulls a Straub.

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