Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Review of "Marriages" and "Under Venus" (by Peter Straub)

In a lot of respects, I'm a lucky person.  Not as lucky as I'd wish to be, but luckier than a lot of people.  For example, I have a job that I enjoy most of the time (not always, but at least four days out of five).  Lots of folks don't even have jobs, and lots of people who do probably don't enjoy them as much as I enjoy mine.  Heck, even the ones who make significantly more money than I make are probably, in many cases, also significantly less happy with their jobs; fun jobs and great paychecks do not always go hand in hand, after all.

That doesn't mean, however, that I wouldn't abandon my job in nine seconds flat (that's the amount of time I figure it would take to chuck my keys at someone and make it to my car) if, somehow, an opportunity arose to write this blog for a living.  I would.

And IF such a thing should ever come to pass, one of my goals for the blog would be to expand its scope to include other authors whose work I love: Larry McMurtry might be tops on that list of runners-up (although his subject matter might simply call for a separate blog), but there's also Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester, Frank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, Clive Barker, Harlan Ellison, H.P. Lovecraft, Alan Moore, etc.  In all of those cases, I'm nowhere near as knowledgeable as I'd like to be.  And then there are the Richard Mathesons, Isaac Asimovs, and Neil Gaimans of the world: people whose work I'm almost sure I would love, but have somehow never found the time to read.

And don't even get me started talking about how many things there are that I'd like to write about in the world of movies and teevee.

However, I DO want The Truth Inside The Lie to include at least a few side-trips away from the Stephen King universe, and to that end I've started reading the novels and stories of Peter Straub.  I'm not totally unfamiliar with Straub: obviously, I've read The Talisman and Black House (co-authored by Stephen King [he said, as if you didn't already know that]), but I also, at the time of my initial devouring of King's works twenty years ago, read several Straub novels such as Ghost Story, Shadowland, Floating Dragon, and Koko.  I remember liking all of them -- and LOVING Ghost Story -- but I never made keeping track of Straub a top priority.

I've decided to change that, though, and to start by working my way through his bibliography, chronologically, beginning with his first novel (1973's Marriages).  This is not going to happen all at once; in fact, I'd be surprised if I got to more than three or four of them a year, which puts my completion date somewhere in the 2020s, I think.  But that's okay; I'm not planning on going anywhere, and who knows ... maybe some Bill Gates-esque mahfah'll stumble onto this post, feel charitable, and wing a few mil at me in a gesture of fool benevolence, at which point in time I'll get to accelerate my schedule considerably.  Unlikely, but not quite impossible.

Until then, though, we're stuck with the time I've got, which has been sufficient to allow me to finish Straub's first two novels, Marriages (a rather self-consciously Serious work from a young writer who had not found his voice) and Under Venus (a considerably better novel, albeit one which did not see publication for over a decade after its composition, by which point in time Straub's fortunes as a novelist had changed quite a bit).

So let's dive in for a look at these early novels by a man who is one of the few people who can legitimately claim to be a creative peer of Stephen King.

Let's start with Marriages, and let me begin that by saying this: I did not enjoy reading this novel.  I found it to be pretentious, excessively self-aware, frustratingly structured, and -- worst of all -- dull.  In reading it, very few pages went by without causing me to think that I ought to be spending my time reading something else, something that would actually entertain me.  But on I slogged, and eventually there was light at the end of the tunnel, and then I was out.

Having achieved a bachelor's in English during my misspent college years, I'm no stranger to reading things I didn't enjoy ... although my luck along those lines was actually not too bad.  (I did have a notably tense encounter with Faulkner's abysmal -- yeah, that's right, I said it! the fuck you goan do bout it? -- Absalom, Absalom, which I was assigned for one class.  I struggled through about a third of it before finally deciding that life was too short for me to be putting in the effort required to enjoy Faulkner; I decided instead to drop the class.)  Reading things that disinterest you is something you have to train yourself to do while in school, so I am by no means a novice when it comes to plowing through something I don't actually want to be reading.  I've been out of school for quite some time, though, and those muscles -- along with lots of less metaphorical ones -- have grown rather flabby.  I built them back up a bit in reading Marriages, but not a whole heck of a lot; from almost the first page, my attitude toward this novel was one of exasperation and disinterest.

I say that in an effort to temper my attitudes toward Marriages a bit: it is true to say that I did not enjoy reading his novel, but it's also true to say that I didn't put a great deal of effort into enjoying the book.  If someone else out there wants to put in the necessary work and mount a vigorous defense of Marriages, then I'd say they were most welcome to do so; and when and if that happens, by all means, send me a copy so that I can read it.  If I find myself to be wrong in my assessments of this novel, I'll happily cop to it.

Here's a brief plot synopsis: while abroad, an American businessman (Owen, who narrates the novel) meets a supposedly alluring an alluring woman (referred to only as "the woman" [cue vicious eye-roll]) and begins cheating on his wife with her.  Because Owen's sister-in-law is a bit of a nut-job who gets in trouble in Israel, thereby conveniently requiring that Owen's wife leave the story for a month or so, he and "the woman" are able to take an extended trip together, and during that trip they lover, they quarrel, they walk, they read, and and they talk.  They pick up a hitchhiker at one point, and in the novel's most thrilling scene -- I'm not kidding about that, either (don't let the snark fool you) -- Owen thinks he sees someone he knows.

I dulled that down a bit ... but only a bit; this is dull stuff: Owen is so forgettable a character that he may just as well be named Borington Yawnsaplenty III.  If there were a movie version, he'd be played by someone utterly forgettable like Jason O'Mara or Eddie Cibrian; there are no characters traits, no charisma, nothing worth remembering.

That's a major problem for a novel.  (It's one Straub had not entirely managed to solve during the writing of his next novel, Under Venus, either.)  Compounding that problem is another: the novel's convoluted structure, which bounces around repeatedly from one time-frame to the next, with no particularly compelling reason as to why the novel ought to have been structured as it is. An example seems in order.

In the first chapter of Book One, there are five sub-chapters, structured thusly:

(1) takes place in what we must consider to be the "present" (it represents a vantage point from which Owen is reminiscing about the events that form the plot of the novel)

(2) consists of a remembrance -- from the vantage point of the present -- of something that happened to Owen when he was a teenager

(3) is a scene between Owen and his wife Morgan wherein they meet an old teacher of hers for dinner.  This scene is set after the start of Owen's affair with the woman, and is mostly presented not as a reminiscence from the same vantage point as in sub-chapter 1, but rather in the more limited style of present-tense first-person point-of-view.  However, Straub breaks this style on a few occasions to present earlier point in Owen's history.

(4) is a reminiscence of the first trip to Paris Owen took with the woman.  This trip, if I recall correctly from the context provided by the rest of the novel (I might be incorrect about this, and I freely admit to being too lazy to reread sections to find out), takes place after the dinner scene from sub-chapter 3.

(5) is a quotation from a letter the woman sends Owen once their affair has ended, and to which the novel frequently returns.  This sub-chapter also returns to the dinner scene between Owen, Morgan, and the teacher.

This takes place over the course of barely more than ten pages.  Now, if this sounds to you like a daring high-wire feat of structural execution, then let me suggest that Marriages might well be a novel you are going to greatly enjoy.  If, on the other hand, you've read the above break-down and thought "Huh?!?," or "Wha---?!?," or simply rolled your eyes, then we're pretty much on the same page.  And to be honest, it's even worse than it sounds: I provided more context than Straub provides; for most of the novel, readers are left to their own devices in terms of figuring out when in the story's chronology specific scenes are taking place.

Devil's advocate time again: there's simply no way that Straub was unaware of the difficulties his structure presents.  It must have taken a considerable amount of effort to produce; I don't think he succeeded, but even failing must have taken some real doing.  So, again, let me emphasize that while I didn't enjoy this novel and am of the opinion that it's kind of a piece of shit, I am open to the possibility of being convinced that I'm wrong.

Either way, it's inarguable that Straub structured Marriages as he did very deliberately.  The question, then, is this: what effect did he wish to achieve with the structure? Does it benefit the narrative? Not in my opinion.  The characters?  No; it doesn't even feel as if Straub was particularly interested in the characters at all.

The themes?  Well ... again, I'd say no, but I suspect that Straub -- at least at the time of the novel's publication -- might have disagreed with me about that.  The problem is, I don't entirely feel as if I understand what the themes of the novel might be.  There is a vaguely-defined exploration of the notion of Americanness versus the theme of Europeanness (witness the novel's opening sentence: "Months after everything had happened and my marriage had returned to the peaceable baffled war that most marriages are, I recognized that all of us had been American, though it was a condition we had all, to some extent, tried to escape."), and it's possible that within this context the structure holds some meaning.

For me, though, the structure is a complete failure.  Even if it had been executed as well as humanly possible (which it wasn't), I don't think it would have been to the novel's benefit.  I think Straub only achieved robbing himself of the opportunity to present his ideas in a coherent fashion.  In fact, in choosing this type of structure, it's possible that Straub became guilty of the very "Americanness" he so desperately wanted to find Owen guilty of embodying.  Owen is a married American businessman, but rather than simply being that to the best of his abilities, he finds it necessary to pursue intellectualism, adultery, French peasantry; Straub, who would later prove to be a skilled storyteller, is finding it necessary here to pursue Literature.

What's going on beneath this novel, I suppose, is that Owen represents America, "the woman" represents what Americans pursue thanks to our excess of ambition, and Morgan represents ... what?  The real America, the placid existence we ought to be thankful we already won?  I don't know; maybe that's it.  It's all very jumbled, and never adds up.

I'm finding it to be deadly dull even writing about this novel, so I'm going to wrap this up pretty quickly.  A few more brief notes before I go:

  • I can accept the notion of a nameless narrator.  It works just fine in Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and while I've not read Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca, it was apparently no hindrance to that novel's success, either.  However, I have a very difficult time accepting a nameless character like "the woman." If the narrator doesn't know the character's name, that's one thing; but there is no indication that this is the case for Owen in Marriages.  Instead, Straub is trying to make some sort of point.  I don't know what it is; if it was anything other than to anoy me, I consider it to have been an abysmal failure.  No, I just can't buy into "the woman": Owen knows her name, and yet he never once thinks it, and that is fucking ridiculous.
  • Why didn't Straub make Owen a writer, or a teacher, or some other artistic type?  The constant theme of the reading of books is fine and all, but it doesn't quite mesh with Owen's job (he's a "manufacturer"), which is poorly-defined and scarcely explored.
  • Yawn.

 Let's move along to Under Venus, Straub's second novel.  It wasn't published second (that was Julia); in fact, it remained unpublished until it appeared in Wild Animals, a 1984 omnibus edition that collected Julia, If You Could See Me Now, and Under Venus.

Like Marriages, Under Venus is realistic literary fiction; no ghosts, no ghoulies, no supernatural or science-fictional elements.  In other words, it's atypical of most of Straub's work, and -- together with Marriages -- represents an alternative career trajectory that never came to fruition.  Under Venus shares many of the concerns evident in Marriages: it's about a serially unfaithful husband, the mysteriously alluring woman the pursuit of whom obsesses him, and the ensuing complications.

However, this time Straub is in vastly better control of his own talents, and while Under Venus is not a great novel, I found myself mostly engaged by it.  There are multiple reasons for this, at least in comparison to Marriages: its characters are more richly drawn; the prose is more restrained (and more successful); the structure is less maddening; and, while Straub's end-of-a-troubled-decade themes don't all come off, some of them work sufficiently well.  As I've made repeatedly -- ponderously? -- clear, I'm no fan of Straub's first novel, but reading Under Venus made me glad that I put in the minimum effort and at least finished reading Marriages: without that experience, I would not have been able to see Under Venus for the leap forward that it is.  And here's a hunch: when I get to Julia, which I expect to actually enjoy (gasp!), then I suspect it's going to prove to have been even more beneficial for me to have done my prep work with these early novels.

That's the future, though, and this is the present, so let me ramble for a bit about Under Venus.  It is the tale of Elliot Denmark, another expatriate American; unlike Owen in Marriages, though, Elliot is returning to his original home for a visit.  Like Owen, he's prone to screwing around on his saintly wife; and, like Owen, he's mostly a blank as a character.  However, unlike Owen, he has a relatively colorful cast of supporting characters, most of whom help to make Elliot himself more interesting simply due to spicing up the things that are going on around him.

For example, in Marriages Owen's paramour d'adultery, "the woman," is a lot less alluring for readers -- this one, at least -- than Straub seems to want her to be; in Under Venus, the equivalent character, Anita Kellerman, is not particularly better-drawn as a character in some regards, but benefits from having, you know, a name ... and is also sufficiently withdrawn from Elliot so as to provide some realistic tension in their relationship.

Even better, the other character with whom Elliot engages in adultery, Andy French, is a massive improvement upon the equivalent character in Marriages (Joanie, Owen's sister-in-law): she is no Mildred Pierce or anything like that in terms of being a classic character, but she is intriguing, and it's easy to see why Elliot would be immediately drawn to her.

The plot of the novel involves Elliot and his wife, Vera, having returned to America so that he can conduct a concert of his own music at the university where he once taught.  The married couple find themselves in a less bloody Capulets-versus-Montagues scenario involving a civic battle over the decision to develop or not develop a piece of woodland.  Owned by nuns, who are moving elsewhere, the land's development is greatly opposed by Elliot's father, whereas his father-in-law is one of the major forces pushing for the development.  The central force behind the development, however, is Ronnie Upp, a man who, like Elliot, is involved with Anita Kellerman; the extent of that involvement, and its specifics, are a big part of the story.

If this sounds like dry stuff to you, well ... it is fairly dry.  However, I found myself becoming more and more interested in it as the novel progressed, and while it never quite managed to catch fire for me the way a really great novel can do, I never found myself staring at the wall rather than reading (something which happened frequently while I was "reading" Marriages).

One element of the novel which intrigued me was a running subtheme involving Elliot's -- and/or the community's -- run-ins with wildlife, such as foxes and wolves.  In a couple of scenes, Elliot encounters wounded and bleeding foxes, and there is a running subplot involving a wolf which is supposedly making occasional interloping attacks on community pets and children.  As Elliot is observing one of the wounded foxes, Straub describes the animal: "It was a perfect, quick, alien little creature."  Straub is, obviously, using the wild animals -- and one might at this point beneficially recollect the title of the omnibus in which Under Venus made its premiere appearance -- as symbols: dually, as both an example of the danger of encroaching upon nature and as an example of the need to tame and master nature.

However, Straub is up to somewhat more complex tricks than that: in his hands, the animals also represent the wild, unknowable, and unattainable -- yet nevertheless alluring -- aspects inherent in human relationships.  Elliot catches a glimpse of the fox, and is so startled and charmed by it that he pursues it so that he can observe it at a closer range; fundamentally, his approach to Andy French -- and maybe even to Anita -- is exactly the same.  We are all alien to one another, to a lesser or greater extent, and that theme is reinforced in most of the novel's key relationships: Kai Glauber, Elliot's uncle-in-law is a reclusive writer who has been toiling away on a study of Goethe for decades, and is also a cypher to everyone he knows, even to the ones who think they know him; Ronnie Upp, the wealthy land developer who is so close to Anita, is so alien a presence to Elliot that he spends the vast majority of the novel as a character talked about but never actually seen; and so forth.

The tension underlying Under Venus, then, seems to be tension between the romantic side of our nature ad the practical side; it is the tension between the urge to know everything about others and the inability to ever truly know anyone.  This is reflected in the ideological battle over whether to develop Nun's Wood, and these thematic underpinnings are what sustain the novel.  Straub was working awfully hard to carry this sort of weight in Marriages, but he ultimately failed; here, he succeeds, and doesn't seem to have had to work anywhere near as hard to do it.


So, summary time:

Marriages -- read it if you are interested in Straub AND are a bit of a masochist, or if you are uninterested in Straub but are a total masochist.

Under Venus -- read it if you are interested in Straub and/or Literature (but are not too insistent that it be great Literature, and not merely decent Literature).

Otherwise, skip 'em both.

I suppose that's all I've got to say on the subject of the early novels of Peter Straub.  I'm looking forward to getting to Julia, his first supernatural novel, but I doubt that's going to be this year; not with 11/22/63 coming out soon.  (Side-trips are great, but when the reason for this blog puts out a new novel, all other activity ceases.)  I'm hoping to be able to write a good, solid review of that when it comes out, after which I think I will be tackling the unexpurgated edition of The Stand, at which point in time my 2011 reading-n-writing dance-card will be officially full.


  1. It brilliant writer Peter Straub! Cordial greetings from Poland for Him!

    1. Dear Anonymous in Poland, greetings from Alabama and thanks for reading!