THE ROMANTIC FABULIST PREDICTS A DREAMY APOCALYPSE
WHY STEVE ERICKSON MAY NEVER GET TO THE TOP OF THE POSTMODERN HEAP—AND WHY HE DESERVES HIS OWN HEAP
When Steve Erickson’s first novel, Days Between Stations, was published in 1985, it arrived armed with something that would make any innovative first-time novelist’s mouth water: a blurb from the elusive and mysterious writer Thomas Pynchon—a mark of distinction that Don DeLillo had to wait ten books to receive. Erickson’s second book, Rubicon Beach (1986), was a New York Times notable book; his third, Tours of the Black Clock (1989), was listed by The Village Voice as one of the top ten books of the year. A few years and many positive reviews later, U.S. News and World Report (not the most elite literary magazine, but that’s exactly the point—if he was on their radar he should have been on everyone else’s as well) dubbed Erickson “The American writer to watch in the 1990s.” It seemed Erickson had arrived, and if his publisher’s blurbs were to be believed, he was destined to have the same kind of major career as so-called “postmodern writers” such as Pynchon and DeLillo.
But somehow, though Erickson continued to receive glowing, even rapturous reviews, he was never spoken of with the same reverence as those other Big Boys of Postmodernism. Indeed, for the last ten years, Erickson has remained the postmodern author who’s always about to gain prominence but who never quite does—always the postmodern bridesmaid, never the postmodern bride. Avon, the publisher of his most recent novel, The Sea Came in at Midnight (1999), in an attempt to bring him up to the top of the heap at last, calls Erickson “a visionary novelist whose time has come” and “the secret heir to Pynchon and DeLillo.” Four years after The Sea Came in at Midnight was first published, Erickson remains a little-known writer whose fans rabidly push him onto readers who have never heard of him.
Why hasn’t his time come? His encouraging critical reception certainly fails to explain it. Are DeLillo and Pynchon hogging all the space at the top of the postmodern heap reserved for white males? Maybe, though both DeLillo and Pynchon are fairly long in the tooth by now, and surely they’re willing to provide room for someone described as their “secret heir.” Perhaps the problem is that Erickson simply doesn’t mesh with what readers have been taught to expect from their white male postmodernists.
What do readers expect? It may be that having a Pynchon blurb on your first book is as much a curse as it is a blessing. For Erickson, the result was certainly mixed; it categorized him as “postmodern” and ensured that wherever he was mentioned, Pynchon’s name wouldn’t be far behind. Furthermore, there’s the fuzziness of the category itself; the problem with the term “postmodern” is that people don’t really agree about what it means anymore (if they ever did). It gets tossed around to describe writers as varied as chaotic Kathy Acker and sober Don DeLillo, as cyberpunk William Gibson and Oprah-supported Toni Morrison. In reviewer-ese, the term is shorthand for any kind of writing that is innovative, whether the nature of that innovation is stylistic or cultural (or even derivative). And, since the term is general enough, it allows for Erickson to be seen as the successor to DeLillo and Pynchon, two writers as different from one another as each is from Erickson.
To call Erickson postmodern and lump him with DeLillo and Pynchon puts him at several disadvantages. Literary culture likes its artists, particularly the artists that it elevates to the status of cultural icons, to be particular sorts of creatures. Erickson is a few years too young to fall into the DeLillo/Pynchon generation—he’s the secret heir, after all, and the heir only gets the inheritance once the monarchs have been deposed. At the same time, Erickson, fifty-three, is too old to be part of the generation that includes Rick Moody and David Foster Wallace, writers equally likely to be seen as the heirs of DeLillo and Pynchon. Erickson may well have had the bad luck of being born too close on the heels of his predecessors, so as to seem an upstart younger cousin rather than a groomed successor.
A second strike against Erickson is his lyrical style. Erickson’s prose has a dreaminess and an occasionally florid quality that doesn’t seem macho in the way that DeLillo’s terse and careful sentences do. A staccato sequence in DeLillo’s Underworld can read like something out of a hardboiled detective novel: “She made that noise again. A long wet whinnying letter k. And I found the more she talked, the more she owed me. But I didn’t say a word.” Erickson’s very rhythm, on the other hand, is anti-macho, and even a moment of violence from The Sea Came in at Midnight becomes hypnotically poetic: “Only when, at the back of the migration, a few women of less resolute faith finally understood what was taking place and tried to bolt, did there emerge from the white robes into the hands of the priests the long curved knives, swaying as methodically and casually as if they were cutting the tall grass.”
A third strike is the length of Erickson’s narratives. There’s a fallacious notion among critics that really serious male writers in America write doorstopper tomes (preferably in excess of 500 pages) and that a fledgling reputation can only be cemented via the sprawling, complicated epic. DeLillo has Underworld, Pynchon has Gravity’s Rainbow, Gass has The Tunnel, Coover has The Public Burning, Foster Wallace has Infinite Jest, Vollmann has The Royal Family (among other things).
Erickson, on the other hand, has a hard time cresting 300 pages (only one of his books does). Instead, he creates elaborate interconnections from book to book. A scene in Arc d’X (1993) for instance, will echo a scene from Days Between Stations, introducing the same character into a new context. An island bar in The Sea Came in at Midnight is the same bar found in Tours of the Black Clock. An imagined movie in Days Between Stations becomes the source of great anxiety for the narrator of the pseudoautobiographical Amnesiascope (1996). A hallucinated Sally Hemings in his 1988 election memoir, Leap Year, becomes a major (and somewhat transformed) character in Arc d’X, and so on. Probably the biggest favor a publisher could do for Erickson would be to bind his first four interconnected books into one volume, and declare it a big, sprawling novel.
Erickson seems as baffled by his own almost-success as anyone. In Amnesiascope, a narrator who resembles Erickson in all literary particulars but who lives in a devastated, possibly futuristic version of Los Angeles, suggests that “because that small breakthrough had been so elusive, such a monstrous mountain to scale, I had this idea that once having scaled it, everything else about the Dream would finally lie at my fingertips. Having caught the tip of the Dream, I assumed the rest of it was simply to be taken. I don’t know why, five novels later, it didn’t happen. Any conjecture would only sound graceless, bitter, and self-justifying.… Looking back, I’m not sure I ever believed the Dream was possible.”
The narrator of Amnesiascope raises the most alarming possibility: “I’ve seriously considered the most obvious answer, that I was never as good as I hoped or wanted to believe. That the Dream was fantastic relative to what my talent really was.”
There are, true enough, moments of intense lyricism that can lead to stylistic lapses, to sentimental moments, or to moments of indulgence. A balcony sex scene in Days Between Stations culminates with the line, “She would reach back and hold him, pull him to her, and feel the gust from Brittany across her face as he exploded in her middle,” which suggests that orgasm is a little too much like a hand grenade. A line from The Sea Came in at Midnight suggests, “If he had understood her, he would have known she was a dream-virgin…” Or take this one from Arc d’X which might be straight out of Khalil Gibran: “After this episode he never again left empty any human heart that gaped like an open wound.”
Yet Erickson is something that Pynchon and DeLillo are not—a true romantic. He is committed to understanding human emotions, and sometimes goes over the top because he’s willing to take risks that other literary writers aren’t. If he slips on occasion, it’s because he’s one of the few American writers willing to leave himself open to the truly visionary. Indeed, if we take seriously David Foster Wallace’s notion that writing must move into a post-ironic phase, Erickson’s work would well serve as a precursor, as the basis for how works of art might at once partake of postmodern self-consciousness while shucking the protections (and satisfactions) of irony.
It’s not that Erickson isn’t good enough—he’s able to match the best of the young and old postmodernists to either side of him. Instead, it’s that his mode isn’t acceptable: what he does with pop culture and literary genres, what he does with the arrangement of his narratives, what he does with feeling, what he does with the notion of apocalypse, all cut against the current. If Erickson hasn’t had the success he deserves, it is precisely because his voice is decidedly original enough to be out of step.
Part of this “out-of-stepness” has to do with Erickson’s fixation on multiple—and competing, and contradicting—realities. DeLillo works in a fictional world that seems based on our own, if perhaps slightly revved-up. Very little in his work is beyond the realm of possibility. The same is true for younger writers like Moody and Wallace. Wallace, despite his willingness to manipulate details, seems interested in creating a weirdly mimetic depiction of our world. If we go to a Keith Jarrett concert in a Wallace story, we stay in the sort of world in which Keith Jarrett concerts occur. DeLillo may cut back and forth between different narrative lines in Underworld but they all exist in the same America.
Not so with Erickson. Embedded in his novel’s world is an alternative world, the two knocking awkwardly and evocatively against each other. Even if a book starts out fairly realistically, events quickly begin to snap it into a twilight zone. In Rubicon Beach, there’s no such thing as plain America; there’s America One and America Two. In Amnesiascope, Los Angeles is an alternate Los Angeles, a city ringed with fire that exists in a parallel universe. This gesture culminates in Arc d’X, which offers an alternate history of the eighteenth century, focusing on what might have happened if Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slave lover Sally Hemings had turned out differently. But this already-alternate reality has passages connecting it to still another reality, one in which a huge, black volcano dominates and a priestly hierarchy controls everything. And that reality in turn is subtly connected to one in which Steve Erickson not only appears as a character (in a Nineties Berlin where sects try to rebuild portions of the Wall) but is also murdered. His killer leaves Berlin to travel across America, where he finds, behind a door, at the moment of apocalypse, an aged and befuddled Thomas Jefferson.
Literary precursors for this kind of alterna-historic-futuristic weaving include John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, both of which cut back and forth between time with one reality impinging increasingly on the other. There is also Peter Ackroyd who, in Hawksmoor, suggests a kind of permeability of past and present, with two narratives running in parallel times subtly interfering with one another. Borges, too, in “The Garden of Forking Paths,” offers the notion of time splitting and arcing, though he is more interested in describing and explaining this notion than in letting it play out in dramatic detail. Italo Calvino, in If on a winter’s night a traveler…, offers a series of narratives that don’t quite cohere, but the effect is ultimately metafictional in thrust—these are narratives about what it means to write narratives.
The notion of alternate-but-connected worlds is hinted at in Robert Coover’s John’s Wife, in which a Midwestern town seems to have a doorway that opens to Paris—but, despite these examples, such playfulness is hardly the norm in literary fiction. Multiple realities are the kind of warps discussed in high school physics classes, the “wormholes” of science fiction novels, the alternative history of Germany given in an episode of Star Trek. They’re also the reason that kids read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and Harry Potter: this notion that there’s a more alluring, more magical, and more menacing world beyond our own. One of the great pleasures of reading Erickson is his ability to capture the dreamy danger and vividness of Narnia while still offering the complexities of grown-up reading.
This, finally, is both Erickson’s strength and his downfall: he’s interested in the way popular genres can be appropriated for literary use. The appropriation of popular genres is something that’s as old as literary history, but it’s most often done in a way that removes the generic elements. Alain Robbe-Grillet steals the detective novel to write The Erasers, but in doing so he transforms the detective novel into an epistemological treatise and, in some senses, destroys it. Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy injects the detective novel with the absurd. These writers take a genre, ironize it, use it, and make it literary, stripping away most of what made the genre appealing to its original readers. Erickson, though, has a respect for popular genres that other postmodern writers (with the possible exception of Jonathan Lethem) don’t. He wants to recapture the wonder of reading as a child, wants to preserve what makes a genre great. He’s not as interested in appropriation as he is in seeing how literature itself can be at once literary and have the blood of genre coursing through its veins.
Multiple narrative threads do not make Erickson unique in terms of narrative style, but his challenging use of these threads also sets him apart from DeLillo. Even when DeLillo moves back and forth between narrative lines, he is clear and straightforward. You quickly know where you are, and throughout each novel a certain rhythm of sectional movement is established. Erickson will stay in a narrative line for sixty or seventy pages, building up intensity and suspense nicely, and switch without warning to another narrative. Suddenly we’re in another world, or we’ve moved from third person to first, or we’re following a different character around, waiting for the connections to come clear. As a result, Erickson defies reader expectation more thoroughly than DeLillo ever does. If he’s the secret heir of DeLillo, he’s also the not-so-secret heir of Doctor Who, Jean-Luc Godard, and David Lynch.
DeLillo’s notions of apocalypse and cultural collapse are less celebratory than they are highly paranoid. Society is always in danger of collapse; the terrorists are always at the door. With Erickson, the apocalypse is always already well underway. It is a condition of existence. His worlds, full of strange night bridges, memory hotels, rings of fire, and unexpected weather shifts, are caught in the throes of collapse. As a result, the question his works raise is less a somewhat shrill “What’s going to happen?” than “Where do we go from here?”
“Where do we go from here?” is the question Erickson asks from book to book, though the question he asks first is, “Where exactly is here?” In Days Between Stations, the “here” is Kansas, though it quickly becomes a Kansas unlike any other, one in which a young girl named Lauren finds herself able to call up hundreds upon hundreds of cats. Later, having moved to California, she lives on a street “that wasn’t on Lauren’s map, nor in the local directory she bought the first day there, nor in an atlas in the library.” Erickson is expert at creating places where familiarity is slowly gnawed away. Lauren, trapped in a marriage with a philandering bicyclist, begins an on-and-off relationship with Michel, the stuttering grandson of Adolphe Sarre, a filmmaker whose only major project, a history of the death of Marat, has never been publicly shown. Europe grows colder, Los Angeles fills with sand, and people build moonbridges, while Lauren tries to sort out her relationships with Michel and with her husband and Michel tries to sort through his past.
If you were to peel away the odd surroundings, what remains is a story of love, family, and belonging. Erickson’s brilliance is his ability to create a fantastic world that influences and becomes integral to human relationships. At once a romantic and a futurist, Erickson seamlessly manages to fuse real emotional concerns with an odd landscape. The result is haunting, unironic and authentically human.
Rubicon Beach is a tripartite novel set partly in a futuristic Los Angeles. In the first section, a man named Cale is released from jail after being imprisoned for sedition, paroled to work in a library, and monitored by a black policeman (who reappears in the very different universe of Arc d’X). Cale’s mental deterioration is marked by visions of a woman killing a man. In the second section, a woman named Catherine (who might be the woman Cale sees in his visions) traces her life from a childhood in South America to Los Angeles. The final section of the book concerns a mathematician who discovers the existence of an undocumented number (it is the existence of this number that leads to the world’s collapse in the last section of Arc d’X). At this point in his career, Erickson is careful to keep his worlds relatively distinct. The relationship between America, America One, and America Two, though complex, can still be followed. Despite points of overlap, however, the experience is more like reading three linked novellas than reading a novel.
Tours of the Black Clock is the best and most sustained of Erickson’s early books. It concerns Banning Jainlight, a huge, brutal man who writes pornographic stories that are translated into German for Adolph Hitler. In Jainlight’s version of the twentieth century, history has forked and the Germans have won the war. For Jainlight, “neither the rule of evil or its collapse could be anything but an aberration in such a century, because this is a century in which another German man, small with wild white hair, has written away with his new wild poetry every Absolute; in which the black clock of the century is stripped of hands and numbers.” In the light of relativity, our own version of the twentieth century is as absurd as Jainlight’s.
Tours of the Black Clock is a meditation on the ability of art to change the course of history. Jainlight’s violence is lyrical and beautifully rendered. The novel is also a meditation on the nature of history, and its occasional violence is part-and-parcel of the subterranean violence out of which all official history arises. Erickson offers an alternate history and at the same time suggests, in a manner worthy of a chaos theorist, that the slightest event—a girl glimpsed through a window—can redirect both history’s and the individual’s course.
In his fourth novel, Arc d’X (1993), as I’ve already suggested, Erickson tries to gather many of the threads and strings of his three earlier novels, adding into the mix certain elements of Leap Year, his 1988 election year memoir, . Leap Year, along with another memoir, American Nomad (which covers the 1996 presidential campaign), show Erickson to be an able, funny and extremely liberal political commentator. In Leap Year, Erickson searches through the detritus of several quite depressing election campaigns, convinced he’s being stalked by Al Gore, looking for a sense of what America has been, what it’s threatening to become. In American Nomad, he suggests of the 1996 election that “the nation was so utterly disengaged from its own politics that in the course of this campaign America had become a secret unto itself… All of America had gone underground living out a subterranean psychic life of which the country’s politics knew nothing.” The line between reality and sub-reality blurs, with Erickson suggesting that “Quite unsettling is the possibility that history might have taken a turn ever more fantastic: we might, for instance, have elected Ronald Reagan in 1980.” What follows are several pages of substitute history indistinguishable from Erickson’s fiction, the point being that the truth of American politics is much more absurd than any alternative.
Arc d’X slides from a fictional history of Thomas Jefferson to a surreal world controlled by a religious sect in which objects endowed with personality or memory are banished, to a twentieth-century America ticking down the hours to its own destruction. Complexly structured, often confusing, the novel is consistently impressive in its ability to intertwine competing realities without reducing any one to dream or hallucination. The space of the novel is heterotopic, with multiple places overlaying one another. It incorporates elements of all Erickson’s books to create a strange melding of his concerns, suggesting that Arc d’X is an alternate history of actual books which have themselves been alternate histories. These first four novels—Days Between Stations, Rubicon Beach, Tours of the Black Clock, and Arc d’X—should be read together, as they gain a great deal from their echoes and resonances.
Arc d’X’s impulse to sum up Erickson’s previous books indicates a shift. Though dubbed a novel, his next book, Amnesiascope reads more like a memoir, having as much in common with Leap Year and American Nomad as it does with his fiction. Indeed, the main character seems to have the same job as Erickson. He seems compelled as well to describe events that are versions of ones experienced by the real-life Erickson. Living people, such as Erickson’s friend Ventura, appear as fictional characters. Mixed in with the factual material are non-factual and questionable events, the whole melange served up in a fire-ridden, futuristic, apocalyptic Los Angeles. It’s like watching a theater play against the wrong backdrop—Macbeth with a painting of a Victorian mansion behind it or Angels in America performed in front of a tarp picturing a mastodon. It’s still the same play, but the context makes something else begin to happen.
At the end of Amnesiascope, the writer/narrator suggests, his frustration with his reception clearly paralleling Erickson’s, “Listen. I’m going to try one more time. I don’t promise anything will come of it, or that I won’t try to put it off for as long as possible.… And then when I’m finished perhaps I’ll be finished for good.” The “perhaps” is important, of course, providing Erickson’s narrator a way out, a way to continue on if need be, as the narrator himself admits in the final lines of the story: “And then, having tried one last time, perhaps I will try once more.” It may be that Erickson’s most recent book, The Sea Came in at Midnight, can be read as his trying one more time, though it feels less like a conclusion and more like a new beginning. Remarkably lyrical and controlled, this is Erickson at his best. Though there are references to some of Erickson’s previous books, these are generally subtle and non-intrusive; The Sea Came in at Midnight stands up on its own. The novel’s crowd of characters include Kristin the memory geisha, someone who paints satellite dishes black, a woman who survives a snuff film, and a man obsessed with apocalypse who is convinced that the millenium ended in May of 1968. These characters dart and weave around each other but in the end cohere into an impressive and large whole.
The Sea Came in at Midnight shows Erickson to be writing at the very top of his game. Will he get up to the top of the heap with it? Several years have passed since the book’s publication, so my guess is no. But this strikes me as more due to the culture’s inability to see what Erickson’s really doing than as a function of the book’s lack of importance. It’s about time that we—and Erickson’s publisher—stopped trying to force him to claw his way up Pynchon and DeLillo’s rather austere heap. If anything, Erickson deserves a heap all his own. And if the narrator of Amnesiascope’s threat to write only one more book applies to Erickson as well, then the secret history of American literature will be quite a bit weaker because of it.
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