Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Peter Straub - If You Could See Me Now

After a prologue in which our child protagonist skinny dips in a quarry with his cousin love, and in which the two vow to meet again come twenty years to the day, If You Could See Me Now opens with its first person narrator, a now-aged Miles Teagarden, returning to the rural town of his youth. For him, the past is not done with. No, to him the past is something that inescapable and desirable, something that could, would, should be repeated indefinitely, that it was the breathing life in the heart of the present (p. 49). As the novel progresses, and as the date of Miles' promised meeting with Allison, his love, nears, he finds himself drawing deeper into a past more complex, horrible, and inviting than he could have imagined, a past that still colors the fabric of Arden and the surrounding farmland and decides the way that every man, woman, and child of the area views his return.

And oh, oh how I wish I could end this review's opening there, keep it as a discussion of intrigue and inevitability that carries the implicit promise of brilliant fulfillment. I was really looking forward to this book after all the things I'd heard of Straub, and the opening pages did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm. Alas, what followed did a more than ample job of that. This is a novel devoid of emotional impact due to a series of bizarre developments and stylistic choices, and it's also a novel that seems determined to, by the time the last page's turned, have undermined and shattered every one of its thematic conceits. A warning before we begin: there will be SPOILERS.

The center of our tale and its problems is, of course, Miles Teagarden. Miles is a narrator as detached as they come. Near the beginning, he mentions that he has "olfactory hallucinations" (p. 20). He smells things that are not there, a visceral reaction with no rational reason. Swap emotions for smells, and that's not a bad description of the reading of this novel, except that, where Miles says his hallucinations (which never play a major role in the plot) are "disquieting and unsettling," (p. 20) their effect on the reader is more one of disassociation. It's not that Miles never explains his actions, and it's not that he never shows emotion. No, he does quite a bit of both of those. It's just that there's a profound disconnect between the two. The decisions that Miles mentally agonizes about seem to have almost no resemblance to what he does, and his reactions to events seem to vary between disproportionately extreme and utterly muted.

We never come to have the slightest understanding of Miles as a person. He comes from a big name university back east, but we receive no glimpse of it. He is writing on D.H. Lawrence, but thinks about Lawrence maybe one or two times in the entire novel. Before long, he's abandoned that project, and instead spends his days writing… something, it's never really revealed what, but he certainly goes and does whatever it is a lot. Besides that, he hangs out with various people and does various bewildering things like pretending to shop lift and, for reasons undecipherable, ripping up paperback books in a bar. Okay. By their very nature, the actions here are building to nothing, and Miles is such a distant character, and one so devoid of sympathetic traits, that there's little reason to care about his odds if they were.

A large part of this is that we're not clued in to major swathes of the motivations that Miles does have. Some measure of the town's hate can be explained by Miles' outsider status in a time fresh after a murder, but the personal animosity and hatred he receives – the pastor delivers an entire sermon against him personally – beggars belief. Indeed, hints soon start to accumulate about Miles' past, references to dark deeds and the terrible outcome of his cousinly swim out at the quarry that we glimpsed the beginning of. Then there are the statements that are littered through the narrative, first person accounts given by the townspeople to the police of Miles' actions, and the way that each of these differs so strongly from the way that Miles himself depicts those events. The final revealer comes not long after, when Miles takes the letters he's been mysterious letters he's been receiving, tied to dear Allison, to his old buddy (or so he thinks) the Police Chief, and the Chief says that the addresses are done in his handwriting.

Alright then, right there, case closed. Fellow readers of horror, say it with me, as we've seen it so many times: Miles is insane. Clearly, we've trespassed into the territory of unreliable narrators, here, and our protagonist is either lying or utterly clueless about what's going on. From there, it's not a far leap to get to the source of all the townspeople's hatred, of Miles' longing, of the disparate clues littered about the narrative. Allison is dead, likely ever since that night at the quarry, and it seems our boy Miles had something to do with it. All this is put on the table a short while later, a reveal just before the second part begins, albeit a reveal explicitly stated on the back cover, because evidently nothing entices people to read a novel quite like giving them the twist.

So, our supernatural cards on the table, things turn into a waiting game as the 21st approaches. Straub's primary method of building otherworldly tension relies on dreams and the like, which might be fine, except that the sense of evil never leaves them, never crosses over the clearly marked line and into the main text. Yes, there're moments of terror, even one or two when Miles' eyes aren't shut, but they're all kept well away from the main scenes, and there're warning signs a plenty as they approach. Much like how the monster isn't scary if it agrees to go away at a particular time, these scenes do little to contribute to an overall feeling of dread.

The whole thing is built up as love, love gone sick and perverted and twisted, a real life reenacting of the tragedy of Duane's "dream house," ineptly built to fit his love and left empty and broken forever. But for all this to work, the reader would have to care for Allison, would have to feel the strength of the narrator's bond with her as well as it's darkness, and, like how there's little reason to feel such fear, there's no reason at all for the reader to love Allison. She's never glimpsed again outside of the prologue, and the characters of the novel ,save the narrator seem to have almost totally forgotten her. She wasn't some avatar of kindness, and, though we're told she was a spirit of freedom, our only evidence of that is that she had sex with a variety of men that included her teacher. And here we are, two decades later, and the narrator's never been able to truly love anyone else.

Anyway, on the mundane level of the town of Arden, tensions continue to grow. Miles manages to discover the events of that night at the quarry, and who Allison's real killers and rapists were, namely Duane and the Police Chief. He responds to this revelation with sulking, they with limp anger. Meanwhile, as a third girl of Allison's rough age has gone missing, the town is in an uproar. Though there's the matter of his absolution for Allison's death, and a red herring or two, the reader's prime suspect is (or, at least, mine was) Miles. After all, his actions are still bizarre, and surely some kind of madness must lie behind his coming to meet a dead girl, his bizarre actions throughout the novel, and the detached and irrational way in which he speaks and acts.

But… no. Actually, the returning dead girl is – brace yourself – evil! And Miles realizes this with rather little fanfare, just mute acceptance. After wondering whether to just wander away for a bit, Miles decides to go to the quarry on the night of her return, though there's no better reason given than that it would be "where it would end." (p. 302) He sits through the night, and it looks for a second like he really might be mad, like he might be "stranded alone in only the human world," (p. 308) and faced with the knowledge that he did kill those kids. But wait! Nevermind, there's our climax, just running a bit behind schedule, and, after the ghost kills those who killed her twenty years ago, he gets to blow her up with some gasoline and run out of a burning house. Day saved.

If You Could See Me Now seems to be setting itself up as a story of tortured love, about how we can never escape our pasts. That's a story that, here, is crippled by the fact that we're never given a reason to care about that past. Even the concept falls down and collapses when Miles does glibly overcome his past and burns his old love to hell in a nice action movie finish, before driving off into the sunset, his every action having apparently been normal, his questions answered, and his revenge gotten without him having to dirty his hands. I know this is a damn well regarded novel, but I can't for the life of me see why, and I can't think of a single aspect that hasn't been done better elsewhere.


  1. I think you had more patience for this one that I did. That was a very balanced review! You'd wish there was more here, wouldn't you?

  2. To give the background to the read, I got If You Could See Me Now and eleven other Straub paperbacks from someone for ten bucks. So not only did I want to like it because it was a classic, and not only because the premise really did seem like it could lead to something good, but I'll admit I was also sort of hoping to justify adding a dozen books, many of them quite fat, to my overflowing shelves. And... nope, didn't work. Ah well, I will, seeing as I've all the books right here, give Straub one more try at some point. Perhaps Ghost Story or Floating Dragon, as I've heard a lot about those.

  3. I liked Ghost Story a lot (I've read it a couple of times), and I remember liking Floating Dragon, though I remember very little of the story now. Everything else I've read by Straub has left me wanting---and a couple, I couldn't even finish, like his newest one.


  4. Interesting. Seems I may've overestimated If You Could See Me Now's classic status.

  5. GHOST STORY and FLOATING DRAGON are pretty great; JULIA was barely adequate. I think he got better as the years went on.