Peter Straub,
(Dutton, 1988)

Koko is a brilliant novel by a brilliant author, a masterwork of horror, a terrific ghost story in which all the best ghosts are still alive.

Peter Straub fooled a lot of people with this novel, most if not all of whom (myself included) were expecting a novel of the supernatural a la Ghost Story or Floating Dragon -- not, certainly, a long mystery about Vietnam Vets whose resolution is ambiguous at best. However, although there is little of the supernatural in Koko, there is a lot of haunting going on here, which is just as it should be, considering the subject matter.

One of the big themes in Straub's work, from Julia on down, is that of the revenant, the ghost of the past that haunts the present. Those revenants can be paraphysical beings, such as Julia and Maxim's departed daughter in that novel, Anna/Alma/Eva/etc. in Ghost Story, the Collector in Shadowland and the Dragon in Floating Dragon -- or, as in the case of more recent novels like Koko, Mystery and The Throat, the revenants can be actual, living people. Of course the revenants are also metaphors for guilt in nearly every case, and never has that concept been as crisply delineated (or arrived at in as serpentine a manner) as it is in Koko. The Me Lai-type massacre that is one of the novel's central events is where most (if not all) of the characters' guilt springs from, and the past as well as the present Koko murders accounts for the rest of it.

The four Vietnam vets, Michael Poole in particular, understand that all of them together created Koko, that they are responsible for his existence, and it is the guilt they feel (apart from Beans Beevers, who wouldn't know from guilt even if he had a Jewish mother) that is their primary motive for tracking him down and stopping him.

Koko is also a novel about memory's persistence, about how it colors our perceptions whether we want it to or not. Straub's use of the elephant as a metaphor for this -- both as a physical presence and on the backs of the regimental playng cards or "death cards" Koko uses to mark his kills -- is a sure sign of what he's doing. After all, what animal is more associated with persistence of memory than the elephant? The fact that an elephant leads Poole to Tim Underhill is hardly surprising -- it is where the past (memory) and the present (perception) meet, and the moment vibrates with a curious otherworldly feel that even Straub has rarely achieved, and which is one of my favorite moments in the novel.

As regards the mystery of who Koko really is -- well, I have to concede that yes, it is fairly easy to figure out Koko's identity, especially once Underhill is revealed as the red herring you figure him for all along. I don't really think Straub was out to create all that much mystery about Koko; having read the novel a number of times now, I've come to the conclusion that this really was not the point. The point was instead to illustrate the twin theses above: how guilt and the persistence of memory can color, and most times ruin, one's life. This, Straub seems to be arguing, is what ghosts do, whether one is talking about the pale specters of the dead or the pale specters of one's memories. They haunt us, not because they hate us, but because we so often hate ourselves for the things we have done. And Koko is a novel full of ghosts, both living and otherwise -- Poole's dead child is parallelled by the dying little girl he visits at the hospital; Conor Linklater loses a job to a man who strongly resembles Victor Spitalny; Tim Underhill haunts the first half of the narrative very strongly and is himself haunted by the ghosts of his own past; Beevers, though he would never admit it to himself, is haunted by the ghosts of his own inadequacies as the lieutenant of their Vietnam combat unit; Agent Orange haunts all of them, for it may well be responsible for so much of the evil which has befallen them (cancers, madness and death). Then there is Koko -- the ghost of the killers all of them, even the best of them, once were, the ghost none of them can ever escape -- and which some of them don't even want to escape. That the novel ends so ambiguously should hardly be a surprise -- most of us never escape the ghosts of our pasts, and one gets the feeling that the survivors of this story will be haunted by Koko for a long time to come.

Koko is a rich novel, as full of symbolism and literary allusions as most of Straub's work. It is also a long novel, which does tend to wander from time to time. However, if you are patient and willing to follow Straub on this long journey into the heart of darkness, the rewards will be ample indeed. Just don't expect The Collector to come popping out of the mirrors -- because the best ghosts in this ghost story live in the heart and mind, not in the mirror.

book review by
Jay Whelan

7 August 2010

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