Friday, January 26, 2018

A Review of Peter Straub's "Koko"

Koko, released in 1988, was Peter Straub's first solo novel since 1984's collaboration with Stephen King, The Talisman.  Straub had been a bestselling author in his own right before The Talisman, but the team-up with King brought with it a new level of public interest (and scrutiny).  We'll return to that idea in a bit, but first, it might be helpful to briefly recap Straub's career up to this point:
1973:  His first novel, Marriages, is released.  A would-be mainstream literary novel (i.e., not supernatural or fantastical or horror-based in any way), it failed to get much attention from anyone.  Noteworthy for structural and stylistic experimenting that is cleverer than it is effective, it reads like the work of a writer determined to impress college English departments the world 'round.
1974:  His second novel, Under Venus, was finished in 1974 but would not be released until 1984.  This was not for lack of trying on Straub's part; it's just that nobody would publish it.  Like Marriages, it is mainstream literary fiction; unlike Marriages, its author appears to have had at least a vague interest in story and character.  Not a great novel, but a step up.
1975:  Straub turns to the ghost story with Julia, his first supernatural novel.  This seems to do the trick for him, and from this point forward he seems to be a novelist with purpose.
1977:  If You Could See Me Now, another horror novel, is released.  If Julia was a promising novel, If You Could See Me Now is that promise nearly fulfilled.  The next novel IS that fulfillment.
1979:  Ghost Story becomes Straub's first bestseller.  A thick, challenging read; it is every bit as experimental as Marriages, but in a successful manner.
1980:  A fantasy novel about magicians, Shadowland wins Straub his first World Fantasy Award.  This is not the first time his fiction has explored the idea that the line between reality and fantasy -- or between truth and falsehood -- is exceptionally thin, but it reads almost like a culmination of those ideas.
1983:  Floating Dragon is released.  In many ways, this feels like Straub's master's thesis on the subject of horror literature (in much the same way Stephen King's It would be a few years later).  If I'm not mistaken (and I might be, since I haven't read most of the remaining books in his bibliography), he would not return to the genre in this manner for quite some time to come, if at all.
1984:  The Talisman is released and spends twelve weeks as the New York Times #1 bestselling hardback.  This collaboration between two of the world's best-known horror novelists is something of a curiosity in that it's ... not really a horror novel.  Sure, it has horrific elements; but really, it's a fantasy novel in the Tolkienesque vein.
That brings us to:
In a 1993 interview for Horror Magazine, Straub said that Floating Dragon had represented him going as far as he could go with "supernatural special effects."  He said, "It would have killed me to try to top it or done anything again in which I used the conventional mechanics of the supernatural. The very idea of it caused real despair."  He had, of course, immediately returned to the supernatural -- or, at least, the fantastical -- with The Talisman, but it's possible he did not think of this collaboration in precisely the same way he thought of his own work.
Let's let Straub expert Bill Sheehan explain what happened next.  Here's what he had to say about it in his book-length inquiry into Straub's fiction, At the Foot of the Story Tree (which no Straub fan should be without):
In the aftermath of this complex act of collaboration, Straub's pen fell temporarily silent.  Having produced four large, increasingly ambitious works of the fantastic in just under six years, he found himself suffering from creative exhaustion, compounded by the belief that his capacity to produce this sort of fiction had finally played itself out.  Yielding to necessity, he retreated into a year-long period of silence, reflection, and renewal.  At the end of this period, he began the slow, painstaking process of redirecting his fiction into new vital areas.
Those "vital new areas" eventually took the form of Koko.  A long novel about Vietnam veterans, it's a different thing in many ways than Straub's previous novels had been.  It's got as many similarities as it does differences, though, and anyone who has read those foregoing works would be likely to recognize the same authorial voice at work.
The story opens in 1982, in Washington, at the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.  A former soldier, Michael Poole, is in town to meet a trio of members of his platoon.  As it turns out, they are not there merely for the dedication of the Wall; they have also been assembled because their lieutenant has become aware of serial killings that he suspects have been carried out by one of their fellow soldiers, Tim Underhill, who was last known to be living in Bangkok.  The lieutenant wants the four of them to go overseas, find Underhill, and do what they can to both stop him and get him the help he clearly needs.  They (mostly) do, they do, they don't, and they really don't; that's pretty much the story.  As is often the case with Straub, though, the story is only the top layer of the cake; there's plenty more going on in Koko, and almost all of it is more interesting than the story itself.
The four ostensible antagonists who form the quartet the novel opens with are as follows:
Michael Poole -- I guess you'd say he's the novel's main character.  He's a pediatrician whose own son died of cancer and whose marriage is falling apart in the wake of that death.  He's a level-headed, rational guy.
Harry Beevers -- The lieutenant of Poole's platoon, Harry is a lawyer whose own marriage ended not too long ago.  He also lost his job, and after stumbling across evidence of the Koko killings, he concocted a get-rich-quick scheme: assemble a squadron of former soldiers, go apprehend the killer, and then sell the movie rights to the story.  Harry comes off initially as being a bit of a prick, and reading the rest of the novel likely will not change your mind, unless it's toward seeing him as a complete prick.  If you chuckled at the name "Harry Beevers," know that you are quicker on the draw than I am; the porno potential of that name did not strike me until page 165.  And on the one hand, you have to wonder why Straub would go that route with this guy's name.  But that's the thing: Harry is a joke, through and through.
Conor Linklater -- A carpenter who is considerably less well-off financially than the other members of the quartet, Conor is conscientious and trustworthy.
Tina Pumo -- Ever heard that song "A Boy Named Sue"?  Well, here's a man (nick)named Tina.  Straub eventually explains that Anthony Pumo is his real name, and that the nickname "Tony" eventually gave way to the nickname "Tiny," which itself eventually gave way to the nickname "Tina," which more or less became his real name.  Now, what's up with all of that?  Beats me, although there is a running theme about gender fluidity in the novel, so maybe it's got to do with that.  Not so much as it regards Tina, though.  He's a successful New York City restaurateur who is in an off-again/on-again relationship with a rather exciting young Chinese woman, Maggie Lah.  Tina does have a very brief fling with a trans woman named Dracula, though, and doesn't seem super concerned about whether she might actually have been a he.  Tina is too wrapped up in his restaurant to go overseas with the other men, but that's okay; overseas will come to him, eventually.
All four of these guys are given a good bit of the narrative, although Harry probably gets less of it than the others.  There are times when you might find yourself wondering what bearing their individual stories have on anything.  Do we need to know all the details about Michael's collapsing marriage?  Do we need chapters in which his wife commiserates with Harry's ex-wife?  (I suspected those chapters were leading someplace; they weren't, and while I'm happy that they didn't lead where I expected them to go, I might have wanted them to lead someplace).  Do we need to go to work with Conor?  Do we need extended sections about Tina and Maggie's relationship, and either way, do we need to then go on a sidebar about Maggie's relationship with her godfather?
In all cases, probably not.  But I wouldn't have cut a bit of it out, even the Under Venus-esque bits with Michael and Harry's ex (or soon to be)-wives.  Indeed, a lot of that stuff is among my favorite material in the novel.  I'm especially happy to spend time with Maggie Lah, who in some respects is probably guilty of being both a manic pixie dream girl AND a magical-Asian stereotype.  I guess those things might upset some people, but they don't upset me; maybe that's a failing on my part, I don't know.  All I know is, I like Maggie Lah.
Beyond this, we have to run the risk of being spoilery.  We have to talk a bit about Koko himself, the titular antagonist.  His identity is only revealed after a double plot twist, and in case you're wondering, no; none of the people I've already mentioned (including Tim Underhill) is Koko.  Except in a way, some of them kind of are; not really, but in a kinda/sorta way, depending on how you define "Koko," then yeah, maybe.
Even trying to explain this is a bit exhausting, especially if your brain isn't working any better than mine is working today.  I'm honestly not sure I've got it in me to try.  I'm not a good enough writer to concisely explain what the deal is with this novel; it's not because it's an intricate and plot-twist-heavy narrative (although it is -- just not in the way you might expect from that turn of phrase), it's because Straub is deliberately obscure with many of the novel's details.
This is (from even a 1988 standpoint) nothing new in Straub's fiction; one can read pretty much all of his foregoing novels -- possibly even The Talisman -- and come away from the experience with questions like "alright, did __________ actually happen or not?" on one's tongue.  I suspect many readers blame their failure to be able to answer such questions on themselves, and many of those probably gave up on Straub at some point; not everyone is built to be able to recognize ambiguity for what it is, especially when they've come to a novel expecting merely to be told a story.
Much of the plot of Koko revolves around an incident that happened to the soldiers during the war.  They enter a small village on the suspicion that a Viet Cong sniper (who has been deviling them something fierce) they call Elvis is there.  They don't find him; they find a bunch of elderly villagers and some children the elders have hidden.  At some point, Lt. Beevers literally bashes a child's brains out against a tree, and another soldier -- quasi-accidentally (I think) -- incinerates a few others with a flamethrower.  Poole himself accidentally shoots a child after the soldiers began taking fire from the jungle.
The meat of the incident, however, involves Beevers going into a cave near the village in search of contraband.  He takes two grunts -- Spitalny and Dengler -- in with him, and they either do or don't kill thirty or so children from the village.  Nobody seems to be terribly certain; or if they are, Straub doesn't allow them to express it to us; or if he does, I missed it, but if I missed it then so did Bill Sheehan, and I don't think we did.  Instead, we get images of bats flying out of people's mouths, and phantom wasp-stings welling up on Spitalny's body (confusing since there were no wasps, or, apparently, any other kind of insect, in the cave), and the blood of the children vanishing into the walls of the cave, and a cache of VC weapons, possibly of Soviet origin.  Oh, and you don't get all of this at once; it's dribbled out over the course of some 550 pages, not always in a manner solidly indicating that it's pertinent to the cave and/or Ia Thuc village backstory.
It doesn't stop there, the purposeful obscurity.  Various characters -- Poole and Pumo certainly, and maybe Beevers as well, and probably Linklater -- see inexplicable things during the course of the novel.  Poole, for example, apparently sees an angel (who he thinks to be the idealized grown-up vision of his deceased son who never grew up) at one point; Pumo witnesses an impossibly large -- though not quite Kafkaesque -- roach.  And so forth.  In some cases (though in neither of the two I just mentioned), drink and/or drugs might be responsible; and in some cases, we are captive of the fabled Unreliable Narrator.
At one point toward the end, it even becomes possible that the entire novel is merely a fictional (or fictionalized) narrative written by one of the characters.  I don't think Straub actually intends for us to interpret things in that manner; but he opens the door to the possibility, and while I do not wish to step though it, it's possible others might.  If so, I can't deny that they have the ability.
Because my own feelings about the novel have not finished baking yet -- and probably would be able to do so without a deep reread, an intense bout of note-taking, and a multi-part exploration in blog-post format -- I am struggling to convey anything cogent about this novel.  That's appropriate.  I probably sound frustrated by it, and in a technical sense, I am; but I don't see it as a negative thing.  I loved this novel.  I'm not sure I think it's a great novel; I'm not sure I think it's a good novel.  I'm not SURE I don't think it's the best novel I've ever read.  I certainly wouldn't rank it that way, but, as is often the case when I read Straub's work, there's a nagging voice in the back front of my head saying that I haven't put in the appropriate amount of work to crack this particular egg.  Until such work IS put in, I'm forced to conclude that I think I think it's great, but kind of don't know.
One thing is certain: this just isn't at all like what Stephen King does.  I shouldn't have to say that.  It's an insult to Peter Straub to even intimate the comparison, and it sounds like an insult to King to say that the comparison is an insult to Straub.  I intend to insult neither author; it's not an apples-to-oranges comparison, it's an apples-to-peppers comparison.  Apples and oranges do go together, after all; I don't think apples and peppers do, at all.  King's primary focus is on story, with a strong secondary focus on character and a strong tertiary focus on prose style.
Straub's primary focus ... eh ... shit, man, am I even qualified to feint at defining this in Straub's case?  Maybe not; if you find me guilty of pretension here, I don't disagree with you.  But let's give it a shot.
Straub's primary focus is on psychology, tied to and expressed through literary structure.  His strong secondary focus is on character, though again as a function of psychology; and his tertiary focus in on prose style, which is sometimes -- though not always -- tied to structure.  The prose style and structure both feed on and motivate one another, and are often determined by character.  Story is not unimportant to Straub, but it might be said to be irrelevant.
Of the two approaches, I certainly prefer King's.  But I do have an English degree, and it speaks up inside my brain on occasion, and I'm forced to remember that I was at my most intelligent while I was seeking that degree.  And that side of my brain is often impressed by Straub; so let's not discount the notion that while I might prefer King's approach, there's a secret part of me that prefers Straub's.
Happily, there's no need to pick sides.  In the end, I prefer both approaches, which is to say that I prefer a world in which both are possible, and I prefer to be a reader for whom both are valid. 
Well, I'd intended for there to be more meat on the bones of this particular post, but it seems as if that's unlikely, so let's call it a game more or less right here, eh?
But before we part ways, have a gander at this three-paragraph cameo appearance by a certain novel we all know and love:
     In bed, Michael read a few pages of the Stephen King novel he had packed.  Conor Linklater complained and snuffled on the other side of the bed.  Nothing in the novel seemed more than slightly odder or more threatening than events in ordinary life.  Improbability and violence overflowed from ordinary life, and Stephen King seemed to know that.
     Before Michael could turn off his light, he was dripping with sweat, carrying his copy of The Dead Zone through an army base many times larger than Camp Crandall.  All around the camp, twenty or thirty kilometers beyond the barbed-wire perimeter, stood hills once thickly covered by trees, now so perfectly bombed and burned and defoliated that only charred sticks protruded upwards from powdery brown earth.  He walked past a row of empty tents and at last heard the silence of the camp -- he was alone.  The camp had been abandoned, and he had been left behind.  A flagless flagpole stood before the company headquarters.  He trudged past the deserted building into a stretch of empty land and smelled burning shit.  Then he knew that this was no dream, he really was in Vietnam -- the rest of his life was the dream.  Poole never smelled things in his dreams.  He didn't think he even dreamed in color most of the time.  Poole turned around and saw an old Vietnamese woman looking at him expressionlessly from beside an oil drum filled with burning kerosene-soaked excrement.  Dense black smoke boiled up from the drum and smudged the sky.  His despair was flat and uninspiring.
     Wait a second, he thought, if this is reality it's no later than 1969.  He opened The Dead Zone to the page of publishing information.  Deep in his chest, his heart deflated like a punctured balloon.  The copyright date was 1965.  He had never left Vietnam.  Everything since had been only a nineteen-year-old's wishful dream.
A few things about all of that:
  • I briefly considered adding a line of my own into the second paragraph wherein Poole hollers "You think that's real hot shit, don't you?!?" at the old woman.  But I couldn't bear to sully Peter Straub's text with inanity like that, so I've settled for merely telling you about having the thought.
  • I also considered trying to make a mock case for this passage indicating a connection to the Dark Tower books.  After all, how old is Poole in this dream?  HMM?!?  Nineteen, you say?  There's also a flagless flagpole (which is like Randall Flagg, a flagless Flagg), a sort of "waste lands" area, and what might theoretically be described as Poole going todash.  To be clear: no, I do not believe any of that.
  • Okay, so Koko takes place in a world -- our own world, one might posit -- where Stephen King exists.  Does that mean that Peter Straub exists in Koko?  If not, then this can't be literally our world, can it?  So that might mean that this is on Keystone Earth, in which case the whole thing really might be connected to the Dark Tower series!
Okay, enough of that silliness.  That's so silly I'm not even going to tag this post with a Dark Tower label.
Finally, let's have a look at an interview Straub did in 1985 with the Stephen King newsletter Castle Rock.  I was tempted to just put the whole thing here, but I think we'll just the highpoints instead.  Beginning with:
  • The interviewer -- probably ill-advisedly -- begins by asking Straub whether there is anything he's never been asked about The Talisman or about Stephen King that he wishes he had been asked.  Straub testily answers, "I cannot honestly say that I would like ever to be asked another single question about either The Talisman or Stephen King."  Damn, Peter; don't hold back! 
  • The interviewer -- who I suspect may have typed these up and sent them to Straub via mail -- goes on then to ask what kind of mail he has gotten about The Talisman.  "Nearly all of the mail I've gotten about The Talisman has been handwritten on lined paper," he answers, "and a lot more of it than usual has been ungrammatical and badly spelled."  He then says that he's received mail from two new types of correspondents: convicts and "serious autograph collectors," some of whom have sent form autograph requests with Straub's name filled in on a blank line!
  • Asked whether he found it difficult to begin a new book after finishing The Talisman, Straub admits to having been written out for a while.  "The collaboration was difficult and wearying for both of us," he says.  "The combination of the difficulty and my natural exhaustion led me to take about a year off, which I devoted to the pursuit of pleasure(s).  Whenever pleasure became even more exhausting than writing, I sat down and wrote something."
  • Asked what his favorite part of the book is, Straub answers thus: "I suppose my favorite part of the book occurs when the Talisman finally settled down into Jack Sawyer's hands.  Steve wrote this section, and I think it shows how much range, depth, audacity, and resonance his imagination has within its grasp."
  • The interviewer points out that there are Castle Rock-like newsletters devoted to other writers, such as Harlan Ellison, Robert Parker, and John McDonald, and asks if Straub would be comfortable with one about his work.  "Newsletters strike me as more an aspect of fandom than of anything else," Straub says to a newsletter's representative, "hence essentially irrelevant."
  • "What are you currently working on," asks the interviewer, "and what's next for publication?"  Straub answers that he is starting work on a novel called Koko, and that his next publication will be a novella called "Blue Rose," from Underwood-Miller (a small press).  I didn't know there was a limited edition of that novella (which was written before Koko and which I have not read), but there was, in 1985!  Straub also mentions that the novella will appear "in a book of novellas from Dutton/NAL about a year after Koko."  That would turn out to be the collection Houses Without Doors, which actually did not see publication until 1990.  Straub also mentions that "Blue Rose" would appear in a Dennis Etchison-edited anthology, which research informs me was 1987's Cutting Edge.
  • The interviewer ends with a two-part question, the first a jokey non-question about where Straub gets his ideas.  "I'll pass on the joke question about where my ideas come from," Straub says through what one imagines are gritted teeth.  The second part of the question is one about what questions Straub gets frequently and hates answering.  He says, "questions about word processors, since that seems to me to focus on the least interesting aspect of writing fiction."  Oh, hey, did I mention that the interviewer asked Straub earlier if he thought The Talisman could have been written without a word processor?  Yep, sure did.  Straub does on to say, "and I must confess that I have grown tired of being forced to talk about my friend Steve King on nearly every public occasion."  Hey, man, look ... to some extent, I feel your pain, 1985 Peter Straub.  But suck it the fuck up.  Work in a Kentucky Fried Chicken if you don't like it, see if you can handle getting asked the kind of questions THOSE folks get asked on a daily basis.  We've all got our crosses to bear, and guess what?  One of yours is getting asked about what it's like to use a word processor to work with Stephen fucking King, ya spoiled crybaby.
  • That issue of Castle Rock ran a photo of Straub and King sitting together at (you guessed it) a word processor.  I shall share it now with you:
image courtesy of Rich Krauss

I'll be back soon with a review of ... well, I don't know what, actually.  It's going to be something by Robert McCammon, that's for sure.  (And then after that, I'm going to be tackling Sleepwalkers, so THERE'S something to anticipate.)  Mystery Walk is next if I go chronologically from the last McCammon I tackled (They Thirst), but I kind of have a hankering to read something of his more recent than that.
We shall see!


  1. "Even trying to explain this is a bit exhausting"

    I laughed when I got to this part because damn, it was exhausting trying to figure it out! Not that you did a bad job. In fact, you did a very difficult job (breaking down ANY Straub novel) well.

    I'm intrigued by some of what you describe here but mainly it just seems like the kind of hornet's nest all my Straub reading experiences are. Like you say, part of me is impressed, and I tip my cap to him, but I think I'm done reading him, at least for awhile.

    It's funny, though, as the struggle to write about KOKO that you describe was exactly where I was at with FLOATING DRAGON. It's kind of tough to be cogent about Straub, isn't it? There's so much to say but to organize it is a task. (Again you did quite well with it, here, and with your review of FD, to boot.) Myself, I was unable to crack the code.

    I got exhausted reading this plot summary in its myriad directions, though. Koko sounds a little like The Dragon (and the Wendigo or whatever the hell it was from Ghost Story) - just a tad too cosmic to be as specific to the plot/ setting as he wants it to be. Of course: mileages vary, etc. But yeah for me I read about an antagonist like Koko (or the Dragon) and I have way too many questions I get irritated for even having to ask. Purposeful obscurity just grates on me these days. Unless I'm in a forgiving mood or biased to the artist in question. (Speaking honestly.)

    Anyway it's weird because despite all of that I still consider myself "loving" FLOATING DRAGON somewhat. I still think about a lot, but mainly trying to untie the needless knots created by the plot. This one sounds similar: intriguing set-up but then... I don't know, it just seems to become about waaaaaaaay too much. you've got to choose a lane, or at least a highway.

    Of course, I'm a Lynch fan so I don't know: like I say, perhaps it just comes down to the artist and how much leeway you give him/her.

    Man he sounds persnickety as hell in that interview from the Talisman era! For a guy who purportedly is all about psychology, he didn't seem to think that one through very well if his fuse is that short about such a predictable outcome.

    1. Right?!? And given the lack of back and forth, it reads to me very much like an interview where he answered all the questions by mail or whatever. In other words, he had time to formulate proper, considered answers. I don't want to be too hard on the guy, because I'm sure he'd had to deal with a lot of that sort of thing. Still, try cleaning Walmart restrooms for a while and see how THAT shit suits you, Pete. Pun intended.

      "Not that you did a bad job." -- Well, I'm glad to hear you say that, but ... I've got my doubts. I realized at some point that I wasn't getting the bat on the ball with this one, and decided to just try to make my befuddlement a part of the post. I'm not sure it worked, but it's honest if nothing else.

      "It's funny, though, as the struggle to write about KOKO that you describe was exactly where I was at with FLOATING DRAGON." -- Not that I'm trying to talk you into reading it, but I'd be really curious to see how you felt about "Koko," given that that was your response to "Floating Dragon." "Koko" is, if anything, more oblique; but it also earns its obliqueness a bit better, if that makes any sense. It seems baked into the book, whereas I think a case could made that it is not with "Floating Dragon."

      "Koko sounds a little like The Dragon (and the Wendigo or whatever the hell it was from Ghost Story) - just a tad too cosmic to be as specific to the plot/ setting as he wants it to be." -- It really does read that way in summary, doesn't it? But no, there's not really any supernatural elements at play here; it's just handled in much the same overblown manner. And while that's kind of frustrating, I also kind of think it works. It MIGHT even work really well.

      "Purposeful obscurity just grates on me these days. Unless I'm in a forgiving mood or biased to the artist in question." -- This makes 100% sense to me, and I think we're on the same page with that. I'm (apparently) a Straub fan; I think I might even be a big Straub fan. So I'm invested in the idea of liking/enjoying/appreciating what he does. Hand me the same book with the name "Florence St. John DeBeauregard" on the front cover, I'm probably going to quit reading at some point. But is that the fault of Florence St. John DeBeauregard, or is it my fault for not being a patient, open reader. Answer: I think it's both.

      "Anyway it's weird because despite all of that I still consider myself "loving" FLOATING DRAGON somewhat." -- I love that that is your reaction to that experience. I like to think I'd feel the same way if our positions were reversed. Even if it's a failure, boy is there a lot to dig into there.

      "Of course, I'm a Lynch fan so I don't know: like I say, perhaps it just comes down to the artist and how much leeway you give him/her." -- Oooooh, now there's an intriguing new angle for me to look at this from. Earlier in life, when I undertook my limited experiments with Lynch, I just threw up my hands and walked away. But I had not motivation to do otherwise.

      Hey, you know what? This is the single most successful gambit anyone has ever undertaken to get me interested in doing a David Lynch deep-dive! I'm going to make that happen one of these days.

    2. I wish I was writing some kind of LXG series so I could slip in cameos from people like Florence St. John DeBeauregard or Truce Greenscreen. No one would get it. But we would! (high five)

      David Lynch should totally adapt FLOATING DRAGON. That would get you going on your way quite nicely. (And probably solve - or exquisitely confuse - my issues with the novel.) I wish I could make that happen, actually. (The production, not your deep-dive - obviously, I'd love to talk some Lynch with you as a result of said deep-dive, but I just mean, I really want to see Lynch adapt FLOATING DRAGON, damn it.)

      I was at the library earlier and actually looked for KOKO but they didn't have it. They had a bunch of other Straub but none of his older stuff, just more recent. (A couple of Emma Straubs as well. While we're here!)

      Who would be good to adapt KOKO? Cronenberg?

    3. Speaking of hi-larious fake names, Straub tosses out a pretty great one in "Koko": Fenwick Throng.

      I was also amused by a section in which Conor Linklater is in Bangkok, hanging around a bunch of Thai-speaking locals. Straub represents their language (which Linklater does not speak) by phrases like "Crap crap crop crap kumquat crap crap." I laughed pretty good over that stuff.

      As for who might adeptly adapt "Koko" into a cinematic format, the only name I can come up with at the moment in Noah Hawley. He's the guy who ran the television versions of both "Fargo" and "Legion," and the latter is SUPER trippy and plays around with notions of what is and isn't real. I think he'd potentially be great for it.

      Cronenberg is a maybe. A few scenes actually reminded me of "The Dead Zone," specifically the scene in which Johnny and Bannerman go to the deputy's house and talk to his crazy mother.

    4. Everything I could have said has been more or less hashed out in this post.

      All there is to add is that I think there's a bit more of a thematic link between King and Straub, while at the same time, they go in different, yet related directions.

      I think Sheehan sums up what I'm talking about best. He refers to it as Straub's "recurring themes", yet I wonder if it isn't more a question of "shared themes" based on mutual influence.

      Sheehan's description could fit both Straub and King equally well: "a variety of directions, departing from-and occasionally returning to-the realm of the supernatural, crossing and combining genres to create an ambiguous, highly intelligent series of thrillers that function both as colorful, deeply involving narratives, and as intensely personal exploration of a number of recurring themes: the power of past events, the nature and effect of childhood traumas, the existence of the sacred, the primal power of empathy, and the interconnectedness of life and art, to name only a few(12)".

      I also don't think it's a stretch to say that maybe Straub inspired King for certain elements of the Tower novels such as the author insertion, and the blurring between what's real and what's not. Joe Hill could have taken this to its logical conclusion with his idea of Inscapes in "N0S402".

      As for "Koko", my reading of the summary in Sheehan's book made me think that it was a case of Straub being a bit too clever to succeed.

      At the same time, I applaud that he takes his work seriously, he just can't seem to trust his imagination not to repeat itself, or something like that.

      There is one kindle that Straub has released that is also worth a look. It's called "Sides" and is to date his only collection of non-fiction criticism.


    5. I've got that! I haven't read it yet, but I look forward to getting to it.

      "the power of past events, the nature and effect of childhood traumas, the existence of the sacred, the primal power of empathy, and the interconnectedness of life and art" -- Hmm...! A lot to consider there, but it passes the smell-test with me; topics for further consideration at a later date!

      I agree; it's no stretch at all to think that Straub might have inspired King, especially some of the more ... what's the word I'm looking for? ... some of the more non-traditional aspects of his books. I hadn't considered whether Hill might have been influenced by Straub, but that also seems at least like a possibility.

      "As for "Koko", my reading of the summary in Sheehan's book made me think that it was a case of Straub being a bit too clever to succeed." -- Hmm. MAYbe. It will vary from reader to reader, obviously. Sheehan is obviously highly invested in enjoying Straub's work, so his opinions are probably on the upper end of the scale. Mine might be a bit further down, but they're still well past wherever the demarcation line indicating the place where enjoyment begins. I just hope I enjoy his later works as well!

  2. I read "Koko" around the time it was first published, and I remember not liking it too much, then finally re-read it a couple months ago and loved it, though I had a total feeling of "WTF did I just read?".

    Straub seems to almost always confuse the hell out of me, but I really enjoy reading him. And I still don't understand what happened in that cave in Vietnam at all!

    I think you really need to read the story "Blue Rose" to understand Koko better. It's mostly the story of Harry Beevers' childhood, and it really gave me the creeps.

    Then there's "The Throat". This book seems to be a sequel to "Koko". It's a good bit longer than that book, but it wasn't as hard to understand for the most part, I think?

    You wrote above about Koko, "At one point toward the end, it even becomes possible that the entire novel is merely a fictional (or fictionalized) narrative written by one of the characters". On the first page of "The Throat", narrator Tim Underhill writes "...I came back to America and wound up writing a couple of books with a novelist named Peter Straub. These were called 'Koko' and 'Mystery'..."

    So I think maybe you guessed right? It's obvious that you really enjoyed "Koko" as much or more than I did, so you really should try to read the story "Blue Rose" and both novels "The Throat" and "Mystery". I've read "Mystery" probably 4 or 5 times over the years and never realized how it's part of a trilogy until this year. The links between these 3 books is very obvious even to me, though some details of these links are tricky as hell for me to understand.

    I know that Tim Underhill also appears in a number of Straub's later books, but I haven't read anything after "The Throat" yet.

    Great review BTW of what I now think is a great novel.

    Rich K.

    1. I knew some of this, but not all of it, and what I didn't know kind of fascinates me.

      I was aware that "Koko" was part of a trilogy called "the Blue Rose trilogy," but I was not aware that there was a novella titled "Blue Rose" until I began reading "Koko." (What a tortured sentence!) If I had known about it, I'd have likely tried to read that before tackling "Koko," but as is, I guess I'll just check it out when I read "Houses Without Doors." Which comes after "Mystery," I think.

      I had NO idea, however, that Straub fictionally credits Tim Underhill as a co-author on "Koko" and "Mystery." Fascinating!

      I'd say don't feel bad about not understanding what happens inside that cave. I don't think there is any way to understand it based on the information presented in the novel. If there is, it flew over my head; and while I wouldn't rule that out, I don't think it's the case.

      I can imagine that turning off a lot of readers, but I find that it's kind of haunting. Like, the unknowability of it lends it a sort of weight that it might not have if it was a more traditional narrative.

      Good stuff! Not for everyone, maybe; but great for people it's good for, if that makes any sense.

  3. I'm afraid I don't have it in me to go so deep into my commentary as the previous reviewers but 'Wow' will do me just fine. Love this book.

  4. I just read Koko for the second time, and had two thoughts. One, I think this is a novel about the nature of truth and narrative and the way that storytelling creates reality. I don’t think it is entirely successful in the attempt. Straub may have used too light a touch, or perhaps the meta-narrative just was not put together as carefully as it could have been. But I do think this was at least part of the point of the novel.

    By saying this, I do not mean to diminish the novel or its complexity nor be reductive about it, there is obvs. a lot going on in the book, some of which Ill mentiin here (if anyone gets that far lol!)

    But some of the most provocative and interesting parts of the book, I thought, were the places where “fiction” and fiction’s immersive worlds (Babar, Henry James, the fictional fiction of Underhill, the oral storytelling of the soldiers in combat) were interleaved with the “reality” of the meta-narrative (by which I mean the novel’s ostensible plotline about a killer and the quest to capture him.)

    Another thought, and this might be pretty out there, is about the constant thread of the novel The Ambassadors. I’m sure this is significant itself but I have an even more far out idea, which is that the reference leads us to the Hans Holbein painting of the same name.

    The Holbein painting is fascinating in itself, I recommend reading about it and looking at any repros you can find. But especially weird and relevant, i think, is the anamorphic skull in the painting. It cannot be seen unless you look at it from a certain phyical perspective in relation to the painting. It is a work with multiple layers of meaning and symbolism as I think Straub intended Koko to be. And like Holbein, I really think there might be something hidden in plain sight that the reader (and/or the characters themselves?) must have the proper perspective to become aware of.

    Again, I don’t think the novel was entirely successful, not because the writing wasn’t good, but because I think it had an ambitious agenda that its structure and layering sort of failed to live up to.

    I am no literary critic, those are just my amateur impressions. Enjoyed your and the commenters thoughts on this quite a lot, thank you!

    1. Thank YOU! I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

      "One, I think this is a novel about the nature of truth and narrative and the way that storytelling creates reality. I don’t think it is entirely successful in the attempt." -- I think you are probably correct in both of these sentiments. I don't blame Straub much (if at all) for the relative imperfection, though. It's a very ambitious idea, and almost seems to be an idea SO ambitious that it was doomed to be a partial failure no matter what. Its sheer ambition results in a great deal of fascinating material along the way, though; and I think that's a very honorable outcome.

      "if anyone gets that far lol!" -- I love receiving (and leaving!) lengthy comments. You've come to the right place. I only wish my memory were better, so I could respond a bit more in-depth. Sadly, once I've read a novel, my memory of it begins fading to an indistinct blur almost immediately. That's a big part of why I began blogging, so I can put some of my thoughts down and have them to refer to when I want them.

      "But some of the most provocative and interesting parts of the book, I thought, were the places where “fiction” and fiction’s immersive worlds (Babar, Henry James, the fictional fiction of Underhill, the oral storytelling of the soldiers in combat) were interleaved with the “reality” of the meta-narrative (by which I mean the novel’s ostensible plotline about a killer and the quest to capture him.)" -- I am haunted a bit by the idea that nobody -- possibly including Straub himself -- knows the "true" story of what happened in that cave. As I finished my reread, I was a little frustrated by this, but the more I think about it the stronger an idea it seems. After all, in one's own life one is constantly coming up against situations where one has no access to the "truth" of a situation; it's likely not going to be in a situation like this, where one either did or did not murder a bunch of children...but still.

      It's a compelling idea, and it's also a dangerous one, because it suggests the notion that the truth is malleable. I'm not sure I feel it is; but the perception of truth certainly is, and I believe we are living in an era where that idea is very important and very destructive. It's not difficult to describe Koko (should I type that as "Koko"?) as being someone who has decided to tell a lie and retell it so often that he believes it himself and then convinces others to do the same. And in that sense, can "Koko" ever be truly stopped? It's a question well worth asking.

    2. "Another thought, and this might be pretty out there, is about the constant thread of the novel The Ambassadors. I’m sure this is significant itself but I have an even more far out idea, which is that the reference leads us to the Hans Holbein painting of the same name." -- Oh, I don't think this is an out-there idea at all.

      "And like Holbein, I really think there might be something hidden in plain sight that the reader (and/or the characters themselves?) must have the proper perspective to become aware of." -- I have thoughts about this. First thought: AWESOME. Second thought: I think Straub is precisely the kind of author who would do a thing like that. King, not so much; he'd think it was too artsy-fartsy. Third thought: King would be kind of right about that, because one could simply drop a reference to the Holbein painting -- or an indirect allusion, in this case, I suppose -- and then call oneself brilliant. In other words, it could be misused and end up being an incredibly empty gesture.

      Fourth thought: this isn't that. "Koko" is a novel that clearly rewards deep analysis, and whether an allusion to the painting was intended or not, I think it's very possible that a sort of "animorphic" prose key could be in there somewhere.

      "I am no literary critic, those are just my amateur impressions." -- That's all this entire blog is, so you are among your own kind! And don't sell yourself short: you've put a lot of food for thought on the table here.

    3. Oh, and by the way, for the benefit of those reading along, here is a video showing the Holbein painting:

      And a Wikipedia page about it:

    4. And, for good measure, one for the Henry James novel: