A Dark Matter by Peter Straub
Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
09 August 2010
A Dark Matter addresses one of the fundamental problems of personal identity: given that our sense of self is entirely composed of fragments of memory and experience, how are we to deal with a memory so traumatic that it has the power to both define a life and to ruin it completely? A moving and beautifully written meditation on remorse, memory, and language, Peter Straub's latest novel provides us with a solution to the problem. A solution that is both profoundly unsatisfactory and joyously correct.
Lee Harwell is a successful writer; he lives in a large house, his publisher allows him to work at his own pace, and he has a gorgeous and intelligent wife. In many ways, his life is enviable. This makes it all the more puzzling when he reacts to a strange man being thrown out of a coffee shop with feelings of anxiety, anger, and inconsolable grief. As he wanders around his kitchen in floods of tears, Harwell gradually pieces together what it is that is really bothering him—the man ejected from the coffee shop kept shouting "obstreperous", an oddly ornate and strangely inappropriate word that drags Harwell back to memories of Hootie Bly, a high-school friend who now languishes in an insane asylum, unable to utter anything other than quotations from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Hootie lost his mind in a meadow near the local university. He lost his mind because he decided to follow the shady occultist Spencer Mallon. What he saw in that meadow defined his life. It defined all of their lives, even that of Harwell who pointedly refused to countenance the possibility that Mallon might be anything other than a fraud. Now, decades later and with old age advancing upon the group's remaining survivors, Harwell decides to visit his old friends. The truth must out. What happened in that meadow must be established. It must be discussed. It must be processed. Once and for the good of all.
A Dark Matter owes as much to the kids-come-together-as-adults-to-confront-their-pasts trope from works such as Straub's own Ghost Story (1979) and Stephen King's It (1986) as it does to Akira Kurosawa's film Rashomon (1950). The novel is structured around a series of vignettes. Each vignette explore the same traumatic event from a different perspective. Each perspective is written in a style that reflects the psychological idiosyncrasies of the individual witnesses. This somewhat singular structure not only allows Straub to engage in some stunning exercises in style, it also serves to create a feeling of momentum. A momentum towards the truth.
The first run-through is Harwell's. Having not been there and having been locked out of all subsequent discussions by his refusal to follow the group and "go with the flow," Harwell is desperate to process the event through fiction, but it is always fiction written at one step removed. This particular bite of the apple takes the form of a short story written from Hootie Bly's perspective and unsuccessfully pitched at The New Yorker. It serves both to inform us of the general shape of the event (without really filling in any details) and to awaken in us a hunger for the truth. Straub does this by filling the story with the kind of stylistic quirks which, in the context of a work of fiction, are kind of cool but which, in a factual context, serve only to cloud the mind and obscure reality:
He saw it whole, he saw it pure, for in his imagination the meadow had been untouched by everything that had touched them. (p. 76)
A beautifully composed sentence to be sure, but what does it actually mean? Harwell's story-within-the-story awakens in us a need to know what happened in that meadow. This desire to learn the truth and pierce the mystery draws us into A Dark Matter, it drives the plot and imbues an incredible sense of urgency into what are ultimately descriptions of a bunch of old people sitting around talking about their youth.
The second run-through is an altogether different affair. While it gives us a much clearer picture of what happened than the first run-through, its language and style are just as off-putting. This vignette is written in the voice of a psychopath, a woman who is fiercely intelligent but endlessly manipulative and utterly ruthless in the pursuit of her goals. This emotional and intellectual detachment is immediately obvious in the vignette's prose style. Indeed, while the first vignette traded truth for the power to evoke feelings and moods, the second vignette's writing is eerily flat and unadorned. The disconnect between the simplicity of the vocabulary and the surreal fantasia of the events being described is, at times, downright eerie:
A king was riding on a bear, waving his arms and thrashing every which way, and a queen, an angry queen, was shouting and pointing here and there with a long stick—the Bear King and the Roaring Queen, Meredith called them. (p. 234)
While Lovecraft-style purple prose can serve to hide a lack of detail, the same is true of a style that is completely neutral. The effect is to suggest that it is not style that is an impediment to conveying truth, it is the need for us to use language at all. Meredith's account could not be clearer in its description of the facts and yet reading through the second vignette, one cannot help but wonder what it is she may have held back or what subtleties may have been ironed out in her simplistic choice of language. Again, Straub uses style to build and reinforce a sense of mystery. To suck us in. To drag us onwards.
The third vignette comes very close to what appears to be the truth. It is told from the perspective of Hootie Bly who, by this point in the novel, has weaned himself off Hawthorne and expanded his vocabulary to include a host of other novels. However, while Hootie can now express himself more clearly, he is still obliged to speak in quotations, something Straub reminds us of in the opening sentences:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was intensely dark and radiantly bright. What you knew was only what you thought you knew, nothing more. It was about Oneness. It was about Allness. (p. 263)
This playful riff on the opening to Dickens's The Tale of Two Cities begins a vignette peppered with literary allusions. However, unlike Harwell's attempt to capture Hootie's vision, Hootie's testimony is informed by the facts and not by the impressions of others. His version of the event in the meadow is seemingly accurate, insightful, and disturbing, but because we are aware that it is Hootie who is speaking, the vignette still manages to leave us unsatisfied. Hootie was present at the event but he was also an outsider to its workings. What were those figures they saw? Is Hootie's tale in any way constrained by his limited vocabulary? Again, Straub carefully increases the momentum.
A Dark Matter is a novel that builds relentlessly towards its final vignette. Lee Harwell's wife Lee Truax (a.k.a. "The Eel") is introduced early in the book but is kept entirely off-stage until the finale. Harwell frequently mentions her in words filled with quiet awe, a feeling of deep respect and love that is clearly shared by his old friends whose stories all invariably paint Truax as a terrifying intellectual force of nature. By the time the Eel meets up with the rest of the group, Straub has established her not so much as someone merely capable of speaking the truth, but as an almost Christ-like spiritual figure able to grant redemption and rebuild lives:
The footsteps reached the bottom of the staircase. I pushed my hands into my pockets and leaned forward, unable to keep from grinning. The two men not married to the Eel revolved toward the door like weathervanes. Small, slender, in a sleeveless black tunic and black linen trousers, a long colourful scarf wound round her neck, Lee Truax moved confidently into the living room. [ . . . ] Her steady internal flame, illuminating from within, rode as always with her, like a familiar spirit. (p. 339)
As with Mrs. God (1990), Straub has released two versions of the story told in A Dark Matter. A substantially longer and, according to Straub himself, "looser, sloppier, more wild-eyed" alternate version of this novel was published under the title of The Skylark. This is the title given to Truax as a result of the role she plays in the event in the meadow. It is a name that sums up her beauty as well as her elevated position. However, while the narrative relentlessly builds towards the final vignette containing Truax's account of the event, her account itself falls oddly flat.
Given the amount of stylistic flair displayed by Straub over the course of the novel and the extent to which all the characters seem to look to Truax as the voice of truth and reason, readers of A Dark Matter can rightly feel underwhelmed by what Straub actually does serve up at the book's conclusion. Far from being as powerful and disturbing as some of the other vignettes, Truax's account is little more than a series of jumbled up picture postcards from beyond. Enigmatic and yet vaguely Christian in theme, the images described by Truax explain nothing and evoke surprisingly little.
However, if we press beyond our Hollywood-honed instinct to seek narrative closure in spectacle then Straub's downbeat ending starts to make a lot of sense.
A Dark Matter's stylistic pirouettes tell a story about the insufficiencies and limitations of language as a means of dealing with the world and our memories of it. Memory is so central to the way in which we construct our sense of self that to write down or articulate those memories can only simplify them and, by that process, simplify us. All of the characters in the novel have been profoundly scarred by what happened in that meadow and a clearly articulated truth cannot change that. It cannot provide redemption or escape. Indeed, one of the most moving scenes in the novel comes when Hootie Bly breaks free of his linguistic prison:
Hootie Bly, the focus of everyone's gaze, including that of Pargeeta Parmenendra, who had appeared from some nowhere close at hand, lay perfectly still, hands palms up, the tips of his shoes aimed at the ceiling. His eyes found Greengrass. 'Don't do that,' he said. 'Take it back.' (p. 146)
Despite the bizarre beauty of Hawthorne's prose, Bly's heartfelt but inarticulate cry of rage captures the moment far more precisely than mere poetry ever could.
What the Eel's account offers is not Truth or Insight but closure. The novel builds her up as a spiritual figure not because of her capacity for speaking the truth, but because she comes to embody the hopes of her husband and friends. They all desire release from their shared guilt and memory, they all desire redemption and so they build the Eel up into an entity capable of delivering that redemptive truth. In a sense it simply does not matter what it is that she says. The important thing is that she says it and that they hear it. The true climax of A Dark Matter takes place immediately after the final vignette ends as the group falls to discussing the ending of George Stevens's Shane (1953), another story with an ambiguous and potentially unsatisfying resolution:
The conversation felt anticlimactic to all, and dropped into frequent silences where the only sounds to be heard were the clicking and scraping of silverware on china. Ice cubes rattled in a glass of grape juice. (p. 394)
The fact that a story dealing with serial killers, plane crashes, wizards, demons, and gods resolves to such a moment of domestic calm speaks to the characters' true motivations. They did not put themselves through painful introspection and self-analysis in order to discover the truth. They did it in order to escape to some kind of normality and away from lives which, for far too long, have been dominated by a surreal and traumatic event that took place in a meadow near a university.