From what I can gather via the (admittedly limited amount of) research I have done on the subject, Peter Straub tends to be a fairly divisive figure among Stephen King fans. And, for that matter, among horror fans in general.
The most common opinions seem to be as follow:
- Peter Straub is one of the best writers in the history of the genre, and maybe one of the best writers of his era regardless of genre classifications.
- Peter Straub is a good writer sometimes, and a not-so-good writer at other times.
- Peter Straub is one of the most overrated writers in the history of the genre, and maybe one of the most overrated writers of his era regardless of genre classifications.
I leave it to you to determine whether these are actually the consensus opinions on Straub's work, or whether I have feigned all of this as an icebreaker for the post. Might be it's both.
Regardless of what the truth of this particular situation might be, I think it is probably safe to say that anyone who actually does hold any of those three opinions will find plenty to reinforce their stance if they read Straub's sixth published novel, 1983's Floating Dragon.
|Look how scuffed up my hardback is...! Looks like the previous owner was using it as a seat-booster or something for the past three decades. Also, how lame is that cover art? Pretty bad, in my opinion.|
There is a great deal about Floating Dragon that is notable, and I can already feel an unfortunate truth brewing: this review will not do it justice. In saying that, I am admitting defeat up front, which is perhaps a less-than-admirable way to begin a post. But the fact is, Floating Dragon is approximately 30 lbs. of crazy stuffed into a 5 lb. sack. Unraveling it would take much more effort than I am prepared to give this week.
So, instead, allow me to simply try to make a case for why this novel, despite its shortcomings, is a hugely worthy piece of work.
We begin with a description of the setup:
In Hampstead, Connecticut, a brutal murder of a local housewife signals the beginning of a cycle of violence that seemingly occurs roughly once per generation. This coincides with an accident at a chemical research center (which has military ties) in a nearby town; this accident causes a cloud of an incredibly toxic substance to be released, and it ends up hanging in space over Hampstead like a raincloud hovering over Charlie Brown. It causes all sorts of effects, ranging from psychosis to hallucinations to melting skin, and so forth. In the midst of all this chaos, a bond forms between four people who all have telepathic ability of one sort or another (some to much lesser degree than others), and all of whom seem to come from families that have a history of being involved in these generational outbreaks of violence. As the novel progresses, they will attempt to bring an end to the force(s) that are powering the centuries-long bloodshed.
Let's bring the setup to an end there. And what I'll say about that is this: if the setup itself confuses you, or makes you think that the novel sounds like too many ideas for one book, then you are apt to have a rough time with Floating Dragon. The book runs about 550 pages, which is long enough to qualify as an epic, in my opinion. And even at epic length, the novel is -- in my opinion -- overstuffed, overly complicated, and occasionally prone to seeming directionless. It feels like a case of an author sitting down to write a horror novel, and deciding that there is nothing -- nothing WHAT SO EVER -- wrong with adopting a "kitchen sink" approach. Floating Dragon feels at times as if Straub maybe felt that he was going to die at some point in the next year or two, and figured he'd better get everything he'd ever had to say out in one go.
That's almost certainly an unfair assessment, and even if it is fair, it's uncharitable on the face of it. But let me be clear: I don't mean any of that as a negative, exactly. I think that when an approach of that nature is used to good effect -- I'd cite Stephen King's It (a novel which we will have occasion to mention again during the course of this review) as one such example -- it can be utterly devastating in its impact. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with swinging for the fences, although I'd say that with a caveat: that when doing so, it behooves one to know the limits of one's abilities.
So: did Peter Straub know his abilities when writing Floating Dragon? I'm not entirely convinced that he did. But I'd say that if he did not, Floating Dragon might well have represented a different sort of thing for him: an extended period spent inside the batters' cage, testing the range of those abilities.
[Sidebar: I loathe baseball. I don't begrudge anyone else their enjoyment of it, but I personally find it to be a tedious, aggravating sport that represents time squandered and never to return. However, the degree to which baseball metaphors and analogies are useful to a writer -- even a lowly amateur blogger like myself -- is rather amazing.]
Viewed that way -- as an extended bout of experimentation and self-development on Straub's part -- Floating Dragon perhaps begins to come into focus a bit more strongly.
Or maybe I've been bitten by the pretentiousness bug and all of that is just a crock of shit. I honestly don't know which is the case. Put a gun to my head and give me two seconds to make a choice, I'd choose the former; whisper "wrong answer" and pull the trigger, I would not spend the last few split-seconds of my life being surprised. That conflictedness may or may not work itself out during the course of this review, but the internal conflict feels germane in some way. Straub's novels -- the ones I've reviewed for this blog so far, at least -- all feel like challenges as much as anything else, and by that, I mean that Straub wrote them with the intent that they not be immediately digestable for his readers. Is this a valid insight on my part, or is it a scrabbling for purchase at the edge of a cliff? Hey, man, on this particular night, you are asking the wrong dude that question.
Ultimately, all I know for sure is this: I enjoyed reading Floating Dragon, and if I was not feeling the press of time these days (and with it a need/desire to make a little more tangible progress toward some of my personal reading/blogging goals), I would have been perfectly happy to turn right back to the beginning and read the novel through a second time. I have a feeling that doing so would have some major rewards, not entirely dissimilar to the sort of rewards one reaps from watching a Stanley Kubrick movie twice in a row. I say that having never watched a Kubrick movie two consecutive times, but I feel certain that if could somehow strike any given Kubrick film from my memory only to rediscover it again, it would be to the benefit of my understanding to give it a double-feature treatment. Those movies are designed to be difficult to penetrate. They practically demand multiple viewings, and multiple viewings will certainly reward you.
Much of Floating Dragon seems to be working in the same way, and if that's the case, then it seems highly likely that spending a bit of time and effort on the novel would increase both one's enjoyment and understanding of the book.
So let's be clear: I'm saying that for my own personal tastes, Floating Dragon is a compelling enough book that I could envision reading it two times in a row. There are not a huge number of books I would say that about. Is it overstuffed? Absolutely. There are enough stories here to have adequately filled out three novels. Is it overly complicated? You bet. Adding the chemical cloud on top of the generational cycle of evil -- all without ever fully explaining whether the two things are linked or not! -- is a bit like having a bacon sandwich which has "bread" composed of two pieces of steak. Is it occasionally directionless?
I'm less sure about that. It feels as if that's the case; but perhaps what seems like ambling at times is in fact something more purposeful. A reread would clarify that, no doubt.
Whatever its flaws, the novel certainly has any number of virtues, and chief among them is a collection of genuinely superb horror-setpiece scenes. Is the novel "occasionally directionless" (he said, quoting himself)? Yeah, maybe. But when that directionlessness results in some of the scenes it results in here, it begins to feel eminently acceptable. Among the stronger such scenes: one in which a man has a terrifying encounter inside a men's room, and another in which a "leaker" (don't ask) decides to go on a sort of sex tour in the big city. The results are not felicitous. There are also not merely one, but several, scenes involving spiders that gave me the willies. Not a fan of spiders at all, me, and when they are put to some of the uses to which they are put here, I . . . I just . . . well, I go a bit wordless, don't I?
What else to say?
Plenty. But my self-imposed deadline on this post is running out rapidly, so we're going to cut things short. (See? Told you I wouldn't be doing this one justice.) However, there are a number of individual points I still want to make. Know what's good for individual-point-makin'? Bulletpoints.
- I mentioned earlier that I'd be returning to the topic of Stephen King's It. Well, that time has come. Floating Dragon shares a number of surface similarities with It, including the idea of a violent supernatural evil that lies dormant for a period of roughly one generation, only to then return and terrorize a specific New England town. In this particular iteration, the evil also seems to be able to take on more or less any form it damn well desires. A band of people who are held together by the love the male members share for the lone female member becomes an important element of the story, as well. Both authors also spoke publicly about their respective novels representing the last they had to say on the subject of a particular type of horror. In case you were wondering, Straub's novel preceded King's by some three years. This is not a suggestion that King was in any way ripping off Floating Dragon; the similarities are there, but they are too generalized for any claims -- even hypothetical ones -- of plagiarism to hold even the slightest bit of weight. This is especially true given the friendship between the two authors. But is it plausible that King might have been influenced by the novel? Affirmative. If so, that's just another reason to dig Floating Dragon, as far as I'm concerned.
- Straub's next novel was The Talisman, his first collaboration with King. It might theoretically be a coincidence, but on page 30 of Floating Dragon, there is a reference to a lawyer named "Phil Sawyer." Which, as you might recall, is the name of Jack Sawyer's father. There's also a reference to Kirby McCauley, whose name might be familiar to King fans specifically and to fans of late-'70s/early-'80s literary horror in general.
- I've mentioned little about the novel's style and structure. The story is told from a very complex point of view, one which I'm almost reluctant to give away; it almost seems like a spoiler, believe it or not. If there is one element of the novel that seems likely to give readers fits, it's this one. Not too terribly far into the book -- 43 pages, in my edition -- it is revealed that the story is being narrated by one of the characters who will gradually emerge as one of the members of the group of four central protagonists. I could -- and should (and would, if I weren't in such a damn hurry) -- write an entire post simply about this technique, about what it means for the novel and for the characters, about the manner in which Straub makes the revelation, and about the implications it has on our/my notion of what a novel is. If you are one of those readers who metaphorically shit a brick of confused anger when Stephen King pulled the tricks he pulled with POV in Christine, then I say with no hesitation that Floating Dragon is not a novel for you. If you were okay with that development -- and certainly if you actively enjoyed it, as I did -- then you might find some things to be very intrigued by in Floating Dragon. One way or the other, you will have an opinion.
- You know that thing Stephen King does sometimes, where he'll reveal a character's fate by making a sort of omniscient-narrator proclamation? ("They never saw him alive again," or something of that nature.) It's a divisive technique of King's, and while a lot of people dislike it somewhat intensely, I myself tend to be a fan of it; it feels to me that King rarely, if ever, uses it haphazardly, and that he typically gains a very specific impact from it. Well, Straub uses it once or twice here, including at least one time when it ends up being a sort of false alarm. He does it quite well, and on page 61 comes perhaps the single most devastating use of it that I have ever encountered. One of the main characters, Richard Allbee, is a married man whose wife is pregnant with their first child. They do not know the sex of the baby, but have taken to jokingly calling the child "Lump" as a sort of pre-nickname. In the chapter following the one in which Graham reveals himself to be the novel's narrator, the POV has returned to a sort of third-person omniscient (which we, by this point, know to actually be Graham feigning both omniscience and detachment). As Richard and his wife go on a trip with Ronnie, their real-estate agent, in an attempt to find a home in Hampstead, one section of the chapter ends with the trio walking past Graham on the street. It goes like this: "The car turned up Beach Trail. Ronnie knew, but did not tell the Allbees, the reason why all the shades were drawn in the Hughardt home. Charlie Antolini, still too happy to go to work, waved from his porch swing. They went past an impoverished-looking party in black tennis shoes, Yankee cap, and baggy black sweatshirt. The old party was pushing himself home on the last leg of the daily constitutional, and his own last legs. They never noticed him, but being inquisitive, he noticed them." And then, set aside as its own paragraph: "I saw your mother, Lump. You would have been beautiful." The more I think about the novel's POV, the more compelling it seems, and this particular moment would have been impossible under any other circumstances; for that along, it was worth doing, as far as I'm concerned.
- One of the novel's subthemes involves precognition, which at least two characters possess in abundant quantities. Straub does an excellent job conveying an idea of how weird and alien it might be to be able to see the future. I will not attempt to summarize what he does with the idea here, but will simply note that if you decide to read it at some point, keep that thought in mind, and pay attention to that subtheme. It might also be worth your while to consider how at least one character's story serves almost as an inverse of Carrie.
- You might well not pay enough attention to my blog to have noticed this, but, then again, maybe you have . . . didja ever notice that usually, when I'm reviewing a book or story by King, I like to title the post by using a quote from the text? For example, my recent post about Mr. Mercedes was titled "When You Heard Hoofbeats, You Didn't Think Zebras." That isn't just some weird flowery-sounding bit of nonsense I cooked up; nosir, it's one of my favorites lines from the novel. When selecting those titles, I tend to just sort of go with my gut, but I've found that more often than not, the quote I select ends up having some greater significance to how I have ended up viewing the book/story. This is a part of the blogging process that I've particularly enjoyed. Anyways, I tend to only title posts that way when I'm reviewing King works. Works by other authors have, so far, not gotten the same treatment; this is my way of trying to sort of keep the non-King posts distinct from the King posts in some way. If I had selected a quote from Floating Dragon to title this post with, it would unquestionably have been this: "Making the Most of the Opportunity to Be Cryptic."
- On page 173, the word "disturbia" is used. I have no earthly idea where the word came from, but if nothing else, we know now for a fact that it was not coined by the 2007 Shia LaBoeuf movie. Peter Straub beat that movie to it by some 24 years.
- I made note of a bit on page 509 where Straub's prose includes a moment that any potential audiobook reading would be utterly incapable of replicating. One character has been communicating telepathically with another, and the second character is feared to be dead; where the first has been hearing him in her mind, there is a simple, cold absence that, she is afraid, equals "dead." Their communication has been depicted in prose by Straub by italicized words inside parentheses, and we learn this particular character is still alive by means of Straub inserting this into the narrative: "(. . . . .)," followed by the other telepath saying something about him still being alive. Now, in an audiobook, you could simply have her say what she says; the parenthetical ellipsis is, technically, not needed. However, its appearance on the page creates a very specific effect, and has a very specific impact, and it is one that an audiobook is -- literally -- incapable of reproducing. I always enjoy pointing out the ways in which reading and listening are simply NOT the same thing. (Speaking of audio, Floating Dragon was done as an abridged book-on-tape, read by Fritz Weaver. I wouldn't mind getting my hands on one of those.)
There is so, so much more to be said, but that's going to have to do it.
Except for this: the novel is/was dedicated to Straub's daughter, the excellently-named Emma Sydney Valli Straub. You might or might not know this, but young Emma Straub grew up and has since become an author in her own right. I've got all three of her books, and have been meaning to write something about her on this blog for some time. I never could quite find a way of working her into the conversation in a graceful manner, but seeing that Floating Dragon was dedicated to her was all the impetus I needed.
So, here goes:
This short-story collection was Straub's (Emma Straub's, that is; we now shift to "Straub" meaning Emma) first book. I had never heard of Emma Straub until seeig some sort of thing online about her and Joe Hill swapping Tweets; I said to myself, "Jeez, Peter Straub's kid is a writer, too?!?" And then decided to check out her first book.
And absolutely loved it. Straub is very much a non-genre writer; her books have even less to do with what her father does than Owen King's books have to do with his father does, which is to say not much at all. Her work is somewhat similar to Owen King's though: witty, sharp, observation-driven stories that you can almost imagine being filmed by Wes Anderson or somebody of his ilk. (Which is a very reductionist way of summing up the works of both Straub and King, but as a sort of shorthand to get across something that is otherwise difficult for me to get across, I think it gets the job done.) It might be worth my time to mention that in some ways, Emma Straub is doing what Peter Straub was doing in his first two novels (Marriages and Under Venus), but is doing it much more successfully.
Straub's work is also deeply sweet. This is not to say that nothing dark or bleak ever happens in her work (it does); but in reading her prose, you feel simply that it is being written by the nicest person you have never met. Even when she has unkind things to say about her characters, she says it in a kind way.
I enjoyed every single on of the stories in this book. I bought it more or less as a lark, and if I had not enjoyed it, I would probably have written off Emma Straub as being somebody I need not follow any farther.
Instead, I bought her first novel the day it hit the shelves:
This is a very good book, but I'd be a liar if I didn't admit to being slightly disappointed by it, at least in relation to Other People We Married. The story here is about a Midwestern girl who decides to -- during the grand days of Old Hollywood (the '30s and '40s) -- hop a bus to Hollywood and take her chances at becoming a star. What follows is a 50-year odyssey of ups, downs, highs, lows, and everything in between. (Laura Lamont is a fictional character, but she seems to have been partially inspired by Jennifer Jones.)
I very much enjoyed the novel, but I found it be a bit episodic, and my criticism would be that it felt a bit like a novel written by a short-story writer. It felt less like a cohesive novel than a collection of scenes. Admittedly, the scenes were mostly very good, and anyways, the cumulative effect is a strong one: you are, in essence, living this woman's life right along with her. If some sections of it seem to go by too fast, well, what life is that not true of?
Evidently, Bill Clinton was recently spotted buying a copy of the novel. THAT must be a pretty cool moment for a young author, huh?
Straub's third novel, The Vacationers, came out just a few weeks ago, and recently cracked the New York Times top twenty in both hardback and combined (print and e-book) charts. That, too, must be pretty cool for a young author.
I found The Vacationers to be a very strong novel. It's about a family who takes a vacation to Mallorca. That's all. Just that. By "family," I mean father, mother, grown son, recent-high-school-graduate daughter, grown son's older girlfriend, mother's gay best friend, and mother's gay best friend's husband.
Thing is, everyone on this particular vacation -- if you'll pardon a horrid pun -- had some baggage to bring along on the trip, and the ways in which said baggage impacts both them and everyone around them makes for fun and compelling reading. It's a simple idea, and it works because Straub loves all of her characters and clearly enjoys writing them. Some of them first appeared during several of the stories in Other People We Married (including the title story, which is about mother Franny and her friend Charles). You'd never know if from reading The Vacationers, however; it functions on its own without a hitch.
I enjoyed every page of this novel, but as it progressed, I began to worry about Straub's ability to stick the landing. I've got a thing about endings; a weak ending -- or, God forbid, a bad one -- will sour me on a novel quicker than anything. And given how un-plot-driven The Vacationers is (to some extent, at least; that's a somewhat faulty assessment), I was a bit worried that the whole thing might sort of just peter out rather than actually end.
I need not have worried. The ending is perfect. And in this novel, Straub has reconciled her roots as a short-story writer with her approach to novels; while this, too, is a collection of scenes as much as a novel proper, it has an overarching set of concerns that cause it to function extremely well as a single, cohesive piece. It's a really strong piece of work that points the way toward what seems to be a very bright future for Emma Straub.
One last thing before we call this post quits:
We began this post with Peter Straub, and I suppose we ought to finish it that way, too.
In addition to Floating Dragon, 1983 also saw the release of Leeson Park and Belsize Square: Poems 1970-1975, which is, as you probably figured out for yourself, a book of poems.
If you recall earlier, I indicated that Floating Dragon is the sort of novel one has to work at a bit. Well, poetry is like that, too. I took several poetry classes in college, both of the reading-poetry variety and the writing-poetry variety. Yes, that's right; I used to write poetry on a semi-regular basis. Boy oh boy, did I suck at it. The best poem I ever wrote was a blank piece of paper with the words "Unpoemed Title, by Bryant Burnette" at the top. I'm still kind of proud of that, actually, although my professor did not seem terribly amused by it.
In terms of reading poetry, well, I wasn't terribly great at that, either. Reading poetry is a skill, not entirely unlike weight-lifting; the more you do it, the better you get at it. Until you pull a muscle or something, I guess. You know what I mean, though; it's a talent, of sorts, and one that one must continually keep up. If you stop lifting weights, you lose the abilities you have gained, and the same goes for reading poetry. Or, at least, that is my experience of it.
I say that in order to make a point: I have not read poetry -- apart from the occasional Stephen King poem -- in nearly fifteen years. I'm badly out of shape in that regard, so when I say that I did not really get a whole heck of a lot out of Leeson Park and Belsize Square, I say it admitting fully that the fault is quite possibly/probably mine. I read through each poem once, and did not take any particular time to examine what I was reading. Which is fine if you are reading Beach Boys lyrics, I guess; but probably less fine if you are reading professionally-published poetry.
It's probably worth a look if you happen to be both a Peter Straub fan and a poetry fan. Odds are good that it's better than I'm giving it credit for here; after all, my poetry muscles are atrophied to the point of near non-existence.
And with that note of frank self-criticism, we bring this post to its conclusion. I'm not entirely sure what's next on the agenda for the blog. The next in my series of reviews of King short stories, maybe? A review of Golden Years? It might well end up being a review of the second-season premiere of Under the Dome, which will air on June 30.
Whatever it ends up being, talk to you then!