Monday, May 28, 2012

A Review of "If You Could See Me Now" (by Peter Straub)

The last time I reviewed a Peter Straub novel, it was Julia, his first foray into the horror genre (and also, essentially, the beginning of his career).  Prior to that, Straub had written two dramas, Marriages and Under Venus, the latter of which was not actually published until 1984 but was written over a decade earlier.  I reviewed those novels as well, and my assessments ran something like this: Marriages was simply not very good; Under Venus, unpublished though it may have been at the time, is a decent book, a definite improvement over Marriages; and Julia represented a vast leap in quality over Under Venus.

In 1977, Straub followed up the successful Julia with If You Could See Me Now, another Gothic horror story, and the writer took yet another significant leap in talent.  Have you ever watched one of those time-lapse videos of a house being constructed?  You begin with an empty field or something (Marriages), and then suddenly there is a flurry of activity, and you've got a wooden frame (Under Venus).  Next thing you know, workers moving at the speed of light have put up walls and a roof and windows and given the whole thing a coat of paint, and bam!, you've got a house (Julia).  In this hypothetical scenario, the video doesn't stop: instead, you realize that the workers were only building a guest house, and the next thing you know, there's a mansion standingbehind it.

At the risk of straining my metaphor, If You Could See Me Now isn't quite a mansion -- the mansion was his next novel, Ghost Story -- but it's certainly a quantum leap from Julia.  For a bit of context, 1977 was the year Stephen King was experiencing his own quantum leap forward with The Shining, and while If You Could See Me Now is maybe not in the same league with that masterpiece, I can definitely say that I loved it.

The novel is the story of Miles Teagarden, who narrates the story in a first-person voice that is both curiously detached and vehemently passionate.  It's an odd tonal mix, and there were times over the course of the novel when it caused me to feel like Straub was overreaching a bit.  In the end, though, I came to the decision that it was probably quite natural for Miles the narrator to be a bit flaky and untrustworthy, because Miles the character has precisely those qualities, too.

Here's the setup: in a pivotal introductory chapter, Miles is thirteen.  He is in rural Arden, Wisconsin visiting his grandmother.  Also visiting: his precocious 14-year-old cousin, Alison Greening.  Miles is utterly infatuated with Alison, and she seems to be at least passingly preoccupied by him, too, because she coerces him into making a vow: that twenty years hence, no matter what they are doing in life or where they are or who they are married to, they will meet in Arden.  Then ... well, then the two of them go skinny-dipping, and some things happen.  Probably not what you're thinking, either.

This opening chapter is in third-person narrative, and that's a crucial decision on Straub's part: when, in the next chapter, he shifts into first-person from Miles' viewpoint, and stays there for the rest of the novel (with the exception of occasional police statements from various characters), it doesn't take us long to figure out that Miles himself may not be the world's most reliable narrator.  In fact, those police statements act almost as proof of it; each of them shows us Miles in a different light than he has been showing us himself.  Naturally, the question arises in our mind each time as to whether the characters making the statements are reliable; sometimes they seem to be, at other times, they seem not to be.  The vast majority of the novel is a highwire act wherein Straub is deliberately -- and very effectively -- keeping us off balance on the subject of whether Miles is or isn't crazy.

But because of that masterful decision to present the prologue in third-person, we always have a core of truth that we can fall back upon.  The future is unknowable, and even the present is in constant flux, but the past is concrete; we may continually peel back new layers of knowledge about it, and therefore change our knowledge of it, but in its essence it never changes.  "Will be" shifts, and "is" is slippery; "was" is solid.

The bulk of the novel is set almost twenty years after that prologue.  Miles, a divorcee whose ex-wife has died in an accident, returns to Arden; he has gotten permission from his cousin Duane to stay in their grandmother's old home, and here he plans to complete work on his dissertation about the books of D.H. Lawrence.

Miles, of course, is really there because he plans to hold up his end of the vow with Alison, and he abandons even the barest thought of the dissertation almost immediately.  Here's a mild spoiler: Alison is dead, and has been dead for quite some time.  And yet, Miles seems certain that a little thing like death is no matter; Alison is going to hold up her end of the vow, alive or not.  (Technically, it's a spoiler for me to reveal that Alison has died.  Straub certainly presents it that way when he "reveals" it, well into the novel.  However, I find it hard to believe that anyone would read this book and not know Alison is dead virtually as soon as Miles takes over as narrator.  Straub seems to have wanted to hold that out as a surprise, but on that score, he kinda failed.  And that's okay; the novel works better if you know it in advance.)

Complicating Miles's situation is the fact that Arden has recently suffered a couple of murders.  The locals are, to say the least, worked up over this, and it doesn't take long at all for the suspicious eye of the collective small town to fall on the nearest Outsider: i.e., Miles.  Nobody wants Miles to be there, including Duane.  He does find a few allies: his Aunt Rinn, a spooky old lady; Miles's second cousin, a wild-child teenager who is also named Alison (after the original); and Alison the second's boyfriend Zack, a weirdo who owns a motorcycle and some complicated opinions on society.

When I read Julia, I did so somewhat tentatively; it's a good book, but a little chilly, a little mannered, a little reserved.  Some of that may have to do with the London setting.  When I began reading If You Could See Me Now, I was under its spell from practically the first sentence, and I stayed there for the duration; some of THAT undoubtedly has to do with the Wisconsin setting.  Now, I've never been to Wisconsin in my life, and I don't know that circumstance is ever going to take me there.  I have, however, been to Clanton, Alabama; I was born there, and while I never lived there, my grandparents did, so I spent a decent amount of time there as a child.  I had no trouble at all transposing my memories of Clanton over Straub's descriptions of the seemingly-fictional Arden.  Because of that, I felt a connection with If You Could See Me Now that is atypical of the way I connect with most fiction.

It is by no means a perfect novel.  There are times when I felt like Straub wasn't quite getting it right when it came to treating Miles as an unreliable narrator: on occasion, Miles says or does things that are obviously ridiculous, and he seemingly does so only so that we -- and the townspeople of Arden -- can remain halfway convinced that he is a lunatic.  At other times, certain characters' attitudes toward Miles seem implausibly harsh; and at other times still, it seems as though certain characters, given how they feel about Miles, ought to take very simple courses of action regarding him, rather than the circuitous and convoluted courses they actually take.  In other words, Straub wants to take the story in certain directions, and he occasionally does so as the expense of logic.

Those are relatively rare occasions, however, and even so, the novel works emotionally in the places it briefly stops working logically.

You won't get squat from me on the subject of how it all turns out.  All I'll say is that while there were occasional moments of doubt along the way, I loved this novel from the first sentence to the last.

Really, what more do you need than that?


  1. Humm... It sounds great. I think I might be interested in reading this one in the future. :)
    Nice post!

  2. I got some bad news on the subject of unreliable narrators. All narration is unreliable. As King observed in On Writing, Meaning in fiction is a tricksy business.

    From the that standpoint, the two greatest lies ever put on paper are "Once upon a time" and "This is what happened".

    I've got to say, while I think started out okay, for Peter Straub has taken a kind of sad dive in quality.

    I don't know about others, but for me it started right after Ghost Story when he wrote Shadowland. I remember Stephen King praising the book so naturally I'm thinking "I'm There".

    When I started to read however, well...The key word here is Excess. He's too much interested in erratic behavior and a little too reliant on the gross out beyond the point of believability.

    That's how I'd describe what's wrong with a lot of his later work. He's enamored of Excess. Those aren't my words either, there Straub's. On his website here's what Straub himself to say about the writing of Floating Dragon:

    I first began to butter my own bread by driving a succession of Staedtler Mars-Lumograph 100 B and Blackwing 602 pencils across hundreds of sheets of paper. Undead things in bandages, ancient curses, paranormal powers, the inanimate alarmingly animated, spontaneous combustion, visionary apprehensions, human beings uniting into ad hoc families to combat hideous literal evils, ghosts, ravening beasts, beckoning mirrors, vampiric entities, external horrors, that whole gaudy blaring blinding circus of metaphor made real – at a level just below consciousness, I had decided to take my leave of all this dear, goofy imagery by wrapping it all together in one gigantic package and then… blowing it up! Anything like restraint or good taste was verboten; the aesthetic was grounded in a single principle, that of excess.

    As a narrative rooted in the principle of excess, Floating Dragon proceeds through a series of sustained, escalating set pieces toward a climactic moment of outright lunacy. Our band of illuminated heroes bursts into “Bye, Bye Blackbird;” a shotgun mutates into a glowing, outrageously phallic sword; a literal dragon explodes into a mountain of fire; an entire town more or less detonates. It is completely shameless. However, it is not without a measure of deliberate and conscious craft.

    Deliberate craft maybe, however I don't think it helps either Dragon or Shadowland. For me, as I said, his infatuation with literary excess hasn't helped his later work such as "A Dark Matter". Maybe it's just me, but after Ghost Story, things go downhill real fast.


    1. Well, I can't speak to that yet, but I'm planning on finding out relatively soon.

  3. Straub's Miles Teagarden comes off as either crazy, a killer, or a man haunted by a revenant of Alison ... and it's a page turner. I read it in my early 20's, and again in my 40's and it is still a chilling story.

    1. Agreed. I loved that novel.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. I tried posting this question, but it didn't go through...

    Who are Duane's parents? I'm only 60 pages into the novel but I must have overlooked how he is Miles's and Alison's cousin. I know Miles's mom and Alison's mom are sisters, so... I dunno. Sorry, I know this is a stupid question but it's bothering me and I was hoping you could help! My apologies, since this review is a couple of years old and you might not be able to remember right off.

    Great book so far though, and amazing review! :-)


    1. Sorry, Cody, I can't help with that one. I've got a crappy memory, so it'd be even money as to whether I'd've remember that right after reading the book!

      Glad to hear you're enjoying the book. I loved it.