Unique punctuation style pegs author

The Daily Pennsylvanian
February 26, 2004

Author Peter Straub advises English graduate student Veronica Schanoes on novel writing at his book reading at the Kelly Writers House on Tuesday.

Author Peter Straub advises English graduate student Veronica Schanoes on novel writing at his book reading at the Kelly Writers House on Tuesday.

Photo by Lars Niki/The Daily Pennsylvanian

It was the perfect setting for a story: the gray sky turning black in the gathering darkness outside the glass doors of the Kelly Writers House, the white of falling snow visible in the light cast by a single lantern hanging from the porch roof.

With this backdrop, renowned author Peter Straub read from his work Tuesday evening before an audience of about 25.

Straub read his most recently finished short story, Lapland, or Film Noir, a crime story with a unique structure. Some sentences were punctuated by a series of dots, leaving only the most sensational information intact.

"They're real ellipses ... because that's the boring part," Straub said.

As he read the story -- which is slated to be published in the spring issue of the literary journal Conjunctions -- Straub traced the long lines of dots in the air each time he reached one of these ellipses. Looking up just before coming to the next word, he would pause momentarily as if about to share some secret with the audience.

The disjointed phrases told a story on their own: "Persuaded him to embezzle," Straub said, before pulling another ellipsis out of the air.

"Sprinkled gasoline over the corpse," he continued, eventually reaching the end, his eyes darting across the audience before revealing the last twist, "off the cliff."

His phrases were punctuated by chuckles from the audience, as the ellipses themselves set off the words -- the crowd hung on these pauses, waiting to hear the punch line, or punch words, as it were.

"It was fantastic to hear him ... just letting names [and phrases] tell a whole story," Cabrini College sophomore Matt Serfass said. He added, "I always enjoy Straub's writing just for the little excerpts."

The fragmented phrases used in the story reflected Straub's own take on the plots in film noir -- a genre of American film that includes many detective movies from the '40s and '50s.

"I wanted to suggest a kind of playfulness in all the murders and the trials," he said, explaining the ellipses.

Wharton junior Alexis Nguyen, who works in the Writers House, felt Straub's gestures during the reading were just as engaging as the odd structure of the piece.

"The way he spoke and used his hands to articulate the ellipses ... really added to the presentation of his work," she said.

Straub also read the last chapter of his 1988 book Koko -- it was the first time he had read that segment before an audience.

"It's fun and pleasing to lead people into the experience you have prepared for them," Straub said, commenting on the opportunity to read from his own work.

"The writer shows off," he added, "and hopefully the audience enjoys the performance."

The reading gave Straub a chance to revisit a book he wrote more than 15 years ago.

"I noticed some things I hadn't quite remembered," he said.