“If you’re going to write a book about Lily Kalendar,” a character tells Timothy Underhill in Peter Straub’s 2004 bravura novel In the Night Room, “you’d better make it the book of your life.”
How can one review this novel without unearthing all the hidden gems better left for the reader to discover? I suppose I can start by saying In the Night Room may be the most creative sequel I’ve read. A direct sequel to lost boy lost girl, we meet up with writer Timothy Underhill again about a year later, and discover that the novel lost boy lost girl is actually his own, written to help him get over the disappearance and likely murder of his nephew Mark. The ending he supplied in that novel is only half-true. Mark’s body was never found, but Lily Kalendar never came to spirit the boy away to somewhere safe. (Of course, many of the events of In the Night Room are likely fabrications along these lines, too. I suspect we will never know the reality of Timothy Underhill’s life.)
You could write a graduate school thesis on the use of stand-ins in this novel. Willy Patrick, the woman whose life intersects with Underhill’s in astonishing ways through the course of the narrative, is a stand-in for Mark (she shares his face), but also for Lucy Cleveland, who is herself a stand-in for Lily Kalendar. Willy’s friend Tom is very much a stand-in for Tim himself, much like that other Tom, Tom Pasmore, was in some ways a stand-in for Tim in Straub’s novel Mystery (or Mysteries, as Tim calls it in his world). Willy’s dastardly fiancee, Mitchell Faber, is a stand-in for Jasper Kohle, the crazed fan who’s stalking Tim, and who is himself a stand-in for Joseph Kalendar, the dead serial killer whose memory haunts both lost boy lost girl and In the Night Room. And, of course, Timothy Underhill himself is kind of an emotional and psychological stand-in, if you will, for Peter Straub, whom Tim calls his “collaborator.” This use of stand-ins won’t make sense to those who haven’t read the novel yet, but I don’t want to dig into it too deeply here for fear of accidentally and prematurely unearthing the gems I mentioned. I will say that there’s a reason Willy wears Mark’s face, and why Tim, a middle-aged gay man, falls immediately in love with her. We all love our heroes, after all; writers even more so.
If this sounds complicated, I haven’t even mentioned the emails Tim is receiving from dead people, nor the angry angel following him around, nor the concept of the “perfect book.” This last one is an idea that resonated enormously with me, as I’m sure it does with any writer who reads In the Night Room. Basically, the idea is that through a sort of cosmic slip-up, every time a book is published, a few copies of the perfect version of that book slip into the print run; the perfect, unsullied version that was in the writer’s mind when he or she first came up with it, before his or her own limited vocabulary, second thoughts, hurried writing sessions, and moments of narrative laziness corrupted it. The concept of this cosmically perfect book is so beautiful I had to close the novel a moment for fear of weeping at the thought.
It took me a week to gather my thoughts after reading In the Night Room, and I still feel like I haven’t done it proper justice. But there’s no way to capture this novel in a snapshot. If lost boy lost girl was about death, then In the Night Room is about creation. It starts off negating the events of lost boy lost girl, then circles around the reaffirm them. Life, death, creation, destruction–it all exists in the borderland between reality and fiction, just as the truth does. Throughout Straub’s greatest novels–Ghost Story, Koko, The Throat–we saw only glimpses of the author in his characters. In the Night Room, perhaps even more so than lost boy lost girl, doesn’t just open the author’s ideas to us, it opens his soul to us. In writing a book about Lily Kalender, Peter Straub has made it the book of his life.