The Smooth Level, and Beyond
Thoughts on The Throat, by Peter Straub
Author’s note: I wrote this a long time ago. I will always regret not having read the trilogy in order the first time through. I have subsequently read Koko and Mystery in order, and then The Throat again, and it only strengthened the sensation that these are books running parallel paths on different levels. A casual reader will get a great adventure from the trilogy. A careful reader will get so much more. It works equally either way it’s approached.
Something that has itched at the back of my thoughts for a long time is the concept of different levels. You find these levels in everything you do, and writing is no exception. I studied the cello when I was younger, play the guitar now, and the levels are never more evident than when viewed through artistic accomplishment.
This in mind, I always believed that the level to shoot for in writing was what I called the smooth level. This is the level where you have developed a smooth, professional writing voice, the point where the words flow easily, where the technical becomes automatic. At this point, I once believed, only the plots separated different authors. If you subscribe to the theory that writers are only conduits of creativity, reaching the smooth level is like fine-tuning a receiver. Once you have a clear signal, you can switch channels, but the signal is the same.
Now I see that what I saw as an end in itself is, in fact, only another beginning. The smooth level is as far as many successful writers will ever get. Commercially speaking, it is not necessary to go beyond this level. Artistically speaking, if you want to be a great writer, you have to expand. Creativity is never stagnant. Complacency is the great killer of brilliance.
Recently I read The Throat, by Peter Straub. As I read, I began to realize that when you write like Peter Straub, the plot is secondary. I don’t mean that his plot was bad, quite the opposite. I thought the story had ended in KOKO, and at that point had not even read Mystery (the second book in the trilogy). I mean that the quality of the writing, the insights he offers into himself and his characters, are enough to carry it, plot be damned.
When I finished the book I had that familiar sensation of wishing there was more to read, and satisfaction that the story had resolved itself well. Not only did it end as I expected it to, but it managed to do so and still surprise me several times in the process. This brings me back to the subject of new levels.
The protagonist of this novel, Tim Underhill, is a novelist. He writes him self into his characters, in this case that of a molested child. Of course, in his own real world, Underhill is facing that same character in a sort of parallel time-flux relationship that causes him to question his own sanity and that of al most everyone around him. All of Underhill‘s novels have been about aspects of his childhood, taken on tangents or magnified, but built solidly on the minds, words, and deeds of characters that might have been himself.
This is the significant point, I believe. You can read this novel on the surface level, enjoying the hunt for an elusive Green Beret gone serial killer and be thoroughly entertained. On a completely different level, the story is not about serial killers at all. It is about Underhill himself, his search for meaning in life through his characters, his development of those characters through personal insight and the unlocking of sealed images from his past. It is about relationships between people and places, and the subtle differences between their reactions to shared events. There are stories within stories here. It reminded me of a picture I saw once in a tattoo parlor. In the foreground was a large, detailed hand, wielding the same tattoo gun, only smaller, and inking the same design onto a smaller back, on and on ad infinitum. On different levels, the details of The Throat strike different chords.
The true beauty of this book, from a writer’s point of view, is that it is the miracle novel. It doesn’t so much cross the genres as it spans them. It is satisfying on each level, more so as you delve deeper, and it will stick with you.
How much of all this comes from Straub’s own past is questionable, as such things always are. No one will ever know, probably. Someday I may be lucky enough to be able to ask. If the answer is not much, then I’ll have to believe that the brilliance of his character Underhill is only another step upon which he could launch his skills to an even higher level.
There are other points to be made, of course. While all this talk of art and levels is a nice diversion, a look at how the consciousness of an author can be raised over a period of time and a body of work, it is still questionable if it matters. While writers might make these leaps from level to level, it is likely that the readers will make no such jump. Fortunately, just as there are writers at every level, there are readers to be satisfied on each as well. The Throat reaches out and grips you by its name sake—and this is what writing is all about.