- A Dark Matter
- Doubleday, 416 pp.
Novelist Lee Harwell is having breakfast at his favorite Chicago diner when a hostile homeless guy shouting a single word—obstreperous—interrupts his meal. He’s unsettled by the encounter and finally realizes why. The homeless man reminds him of his childhood friend Hootie who has been confined to a mental hospital since the sixties and communicates only in single words and literary quotations.
Lee’s memory of Hootie is connected to a larger mystery that has haunted him for decades, a mystery that began when four of his friends—Hootie, Dill, Jason and a girl nicknamed Eel who is now his wife—fell under the influence of a charismatic 60s-style guru named Spencer Mallon.
Even at 18, Lee was immune to Spencer’s apocalyptic message—“Everything is everything”—and labeled him a charlatan posing as a shaman, like so many others of the era. His friends, however, eagerly lapped up Spencer’s teachings and even more eagerly followed him into a meadow for what was intended to be a dress rehearsal for a ritual Spencer claimed would change their lives. He was right about that.
Lee has been trying to get his wife to share the secret of what happened that day ever since it happened. All he knows is that before the ritual was complete, one of Spencer’s acolytes was killed horribly, another disappeared completely and Hootie was so badly traumatized that he retreated into the comfort of madness.
Unable to shake the feeling that it’s time to shed light in a dark corner of his own life, Lee abandons the novel he’s writing and throws himself into research for a non-fiction book about what really happened between his friends and Spencer Mallon. Eel (who now goes by her real name, Lee) wishes her husband well but ponders how far he’ll be able to track the story back.
To her surprise, the other survivors—except for Meredith Bright, who was Spencer’s lover back in the day—seem eager to come forward and unburden themselves of the horror they witnessed. Each one tells a slightly different story, though, and as Lee excavates the past, it begins bleeding into the present in unexpected ways. As his eyes are opened he wonders if he shouldn’t have remained blind.
Perhaps the most illuminating conversation he has is with Meredith, who has married well and has no intention of trotting out her nightmares for public consumption. She does give Lee one piece of the puzzle that helps him fill in the gaps from the other stories, though, and her memories of the surreal things she saw when Spencer opened a door into the back of the universe are the more real for being recited so unemotionally.
We are reminded forcefully, even viscerally, of the old warning about messing with the paranormal, “Do not conjure what you cannot put back.”
Straub uses the classic Rashomon formula to reveal the story within a story but in the process, he builds the mystery into something that he can’t possibly pay off. He also tests the limits of our patience with his languorous setup. The framing device reveals all the pitfalls of dual time-frame stories and as is often the case, we find ourselves much more interested in what happened back in the 60s than in what’s happening now.
Like the reader, Lee is more interested in the past, which haunts him both literally and metaphorically. There are a lot of references to Hawthorne, including one phrase from The Scarlet Letter that he finds particularly evocative—“Hast thou enticed me into a bond that will prove the ruin of my soul?” Every time Straub repeats the phrase, it’s a signal that the reader needs to pay close attention.
Words matter. They matter to Lee and they matter to the author and there’s a distinctly literary bent to the tale even though the plot is genre-bound. Lee is, after all, a writer. The story sometimes gets lost in those words however. Straub conjures up bits of poetry and forgotten short stories (there’s a riff on “The Lady or the Tiger?”) and spins it all in a creative centrifuge along with a healthy dose of horror. It’s entertaining, but there are also times that the more words are spilled on the page, the less we understand what went on and we grow impatient for the author to get to the point.
The characters are intriguing and one of the strengths of the novel. Mallon comes across like a mixture of Rasputin and Charles Manson and Robert A. Heinlein’s hero Valentine Michael Smith from his cult 60s novel Stranger in a Strange Land. Mallon is almost entirely absent from the present-day scenes and we miss him.
Much is made of the “twinship” of Lee and the Eel (which we realize at a certain point is “Lee” spelled backwards). When “Lee” tells the various bits of the story from the various points of view of the players, Straub does a very good job of capturing the others’ voices. This is particularly true of Hootie, who loves ornate, obscure and archaic words so much, and Meredith, who took away a brutally selfish message from her encounter with the uncanny.
Some of the characters took surprising detours in their lives after college and Straub makes them plausible, even when their parts of the tale include some things that are decidedly not likely. In fact, one of the unlikeliest aspects of the story is a relationship between one of the characters and Spencer that has carried through to the present day. We just don’t buy it and it adds an element of artistic contrivance on top of the whole story.
This is a stylish novel but ultimately style subsumes substance. The constant change in point of view and in time period and the elliptical way the story itself unfolds eventually creates a sort of narrative Tesseract and we find ourselves lost in it. The pay off to the novel’s long narrative wind-up is not sufficiently satisfying and the result is a story that’s mundane, somewhat derivative and ultimately disappointing.