I’ve read reviews of Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter that claim the novel is a meditation on the nature of evil. I don’t see it that way, though the nature of evil is certainly discussed during the novel’s climax. Instead, I see A Dark Matter as being about something else one of the characters mentions: humanity’s insatiable and unique need for story, for narrative.
Like a number of Straub’s novels, what we’re reading in A Dark Matter is actually the novel written by one of its characters, Lee Harwell. Lee has been haunted all his life by something that happened back in 1966 to his friends and girlfriend (now wife). It seems one of those wandering 1960s spiritual gurus came to their university town to broaden minds and sleep with students, this one a charmer by the name of Spencer Mallon. Lee’s girlfriend and two of his friends get caught in Mallon’s web, and one night they take part in a ritual in a meadow near campus. A ritual that changes everything in their lives, leaves one kid dead, another missing, a third teetering toward insanity, a fourth slowly going blind, and a secret shared between only those who were there. Lee himself wasn’t there. As he writes, “I had missed the boat, definitively, and so had been spared the mysterious experience that came to define their lives. There was a magic circle and I stood beyond its periphery.” Of course, something else stood quite literally beyond that magic circle’s periphery too. Something from the hidden world. A demon, perhaps, or more than one. Now, many years later, Lee wants to know the truth of what happened that night. He tracks down the remaining participants in an attempt to put it all together, once and for all, and find out if Mallon’s line of bullshit might have been real after all.
This being a Peter Straub novel, the answer is far more complicated than yes or no. And at the novel’s heart is this question: How do you craft a coherent narrative out of something that by its very nature is too based in the realm of sensation, too unknowable, to ever be forced into such a structure? How do you make sense of something that cannot make sense? What happened in that meadow, the different yet interlocking experiences each of the participants endured, the trip beyond the veil that Lee’s girlfriend takes instead of Mallon, none of it is meant to be molded into a story, but Lee tries to because he must. He tries to not just because crafting narrative is his job as a writer, but because if he doesn’t he will never truly understand the wife he so loves. There will always be a gulf between them he can never cross. By giving the novel a final scene that is not a sting in the tail, that is not a climactic battle between the forces of good and evil, but is rather a scene of domestic bliss between the two of them, Straub seems to say it doesn’t matter what happened in 1966. What matters is now. What matters is the ever-growing, ever-evolving narrative between people.
Dense, non-linear, and at times written in a stream of consciousness, A Dark Matter isn’t Straub’s easiest novel, but it’s indubitably rewarding. (And, in this reader’s opinion, underrated and maybe even misunderstood.) Like the best Straub novels, it’s richly layered and open to endless interpretation. Why, for example, is Lee’s girlfriend/wife also named Lee, and nicknamed Eel? Why do he and she look so remarkably alike that he is nicknamed Twin? Why is the image of a glass of water on a table in the sunlight so important to not just our narrator Lee but, in a completely different context, his wife Lee? Why does hapless Spencer Mallon’s last name hint at malevolence? Why the recurring image of a severed hand? You won’t get all the answers in A Dark Matter, but that’s kind of the point. There’s a bigger world out there than we can see, the novel says. It was the 1960s, and the answers were blowing in the wind.
(On a personal note, it’s hard to believe how far I’ve come with the Straubathon. A Dark Matter was published in 2010. I’m almost up to date!)