MARCH 5, 2012
AFTER EIGHT NOVELS, TWO NONFICTION BOOKS and a vast body of journalism, Steve Erickson ought to be more celebrated than he is: his books are applauded by everyone from Don DeLillo to Thomas Pynchon, and those who read him know how thrilling his work can be, yet he remains, to some extent, under recognized. That he happens to be one of our most important writers only makes this sorry state of affairs all the more painful.
There are several reasons for Erickson’s relative lack of mainstream recognition. His fiction is difficult to define: it has been called by turns — or sometimes all at once — science fiction, slipstream, fabulism, surrealism, magic realism, and postmodernism. Each of these might describe some aspect of his writing at the expense of the whole. The last descriptor in particular, coupled with a glowing blurb from Thomas Pynchon on his 1985 debut Days Between Stations, has been a mixed blessing, placing the writer in a camp associated with formal experimentation, ideological indifference, and intellectual detachment. Erickson’s fiction may in fact be inventive, but it’s never detached, and it is relentlessly beautiful; it comes charged with a great deal of lyricism, a subtle and sure-footed grace. I can think of few authors that inject otherwise very intellectual writing with such high doses of emotion, a mixture which, I suspect, baffles some readers and confounds others who like their cerebration dry.
Erickson does impose certain demands on his readers, although his narrative complexity and cultural references tend to ebb upon casual perusal. His novels have a natural, deceptively accessible flow, even as the narrative threads tend to spiral in multiple directions, crossing and re-crossing one another. Veiled autobiographic allusions, more than actual references, abound: a character named Steve Erickson from Arc d’X is an anomaly in this respect. And while his books are never serial in a real sense (with the exception of Our Ecstatic Days, a direct sequel to The Sea Came In At Midnight), subsequent novels at times recycle characters, places, or situations from previous ones — though often treating these familiar elements only in passing, slightly altered, or viewed from a different perspective.
Erickson’s themes also tend to recur and entwine in various permutations. Sight, visions, photographs, and cinema figure centrally in all his books. Maps often chart shifting geographies, real and imaginary. And Los Angeles occupies a very special place in Erickson’s topography. There are in his books pockets of space that exist outside time, and pockets of time that exist outside space. Apocalyptic moments, more unveiling than annihilating, flash by or persist. And if Thomas Pynchon and E. L. Doctorow are perhaps the only other contemporary writers who have so purposefully interrogated America’s history and present, Erickson has equipped his questioning with a singular tenderness, frequently distressed and aching. All these markers and then some are present in These Dreams of You, one of Erickson’s best books.
The plot of These Dreams of You is relatively easy to follow. Alexander “Zan” Nordhoc is an author of four novels, but his last appeared fourteen years ago, and his career as a college instructor has come to an abrupt halt after he’s stopped attending department meetings devoted to meaningless bureaucratic particulars. His family has adopted an Ethiopian girl named Sheba, whose complicated lineage forces Zan’s wife, Viv, to take several trips to Africa. (Zan and Viv also have a 12-year-old son named Parker.) Zan’s unemployment, combined with Viv’s declining commissions for photography and the spiraling expenses connected with their daughter, have pushed the Nordhocs into the red. As the novel opens, their house is expected to go into foreclosure. An invitation for Zan to give a lecture in London becomes an opportunity for Viv to return to Ethiopia in an attempt to find Sheba’s biological parents. Soon after Zan and the kids arrive in London, however, Viv drops out of contact. Zan is forced to hire a nanny as he attempts to fulfill his lecturing obligations. Molly (the nanny) and Sheba soon disappear, and the rest of the family’s money evaporates as Zan decides to travel to Berlin, following an oblique photo on Facebook that suggests Viv may not be in Ethiopia after all.
This seemingly straightforward narrative hides complexities that will be instantly recognizable to any Erickson aficionado. While direct autobiographical transcription should not be expected (not after the slippery “Steve Erickson” construction in Arc d’X), one cannot help noticing parallels between Alexander Nordhoc’s life and the writer’s own. Erickson’s family has recently adopted a girl who is reportedly as precocious as Sheba. Like Viv in the novel, Lori Precious, Erickson’s artist wife, has been ripped off by British artist Damien Hirst; in both instances, arrangements of butterfly wings, suggestive of stained-glass windows are involved. In scenes that bridge autobiography with echoes of Erickson’s earlier works, the story of an American middle-aged writer who escapes to Berlin and is subsequently killed by Nazi-skins appears as the plot of Zan’s perpetually unfinished novel. In Arc d’X this character’s name was “Steve Erickson”; here he remains unnamed. Viv’s name brings to mind the female character, also an artist, from Amnesiascope, arguably Erickson’s most autobiographical novel, which, in turn, seems to be shackled to Days Between Stations by the mention of Lauren, its protagonist, once loved by Amnesiacope’s protagonist.
Other still more elliptical connections to the author’s corpus abound. Like Tours of the Black Clock and Zeroville, These Dreams of You is divided into distinctively short, sharp chapters. The comparison of children to “the moat that surrounds the city, the canals that run throughout” echoes against the bicycle races along dried-up Venice canals in Days Between Stations, while Parker’s expectation of a tsunami coming up the canyon from the sea seems to invoke the title of The Sea Came in at Midnight. Such connections go on and on.
Most of Erickson’s novels have been informed by film, and in These Dreams of You traces of this cinematic obsession persist in references to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, disappearing Polaroid photos, and ghostly photographs taken by small Molly in Berlin. But, by and large, the novel exchanges that preoccupation for another: namely pop music, which enmeshes with the story as intimately as film did in Days Between Stations or Zeroville. From the book’s title (a song by Van Morrison allegedly inspired by a dream about an assassination attempt on Ray Charles), through constant references to other artists and compositions, to Zan’s moonlighting at a pirate radio station, to the fact that Molly and Sheba are both living radios, constantly exuding almost inaudible sonics, music is written all over These Dreams of You. Its import is probably best encapsulated in the following passage:
Yet Zan learned long ago from his teacher at the university who once was Trotsky’s bodyguard and Billie Holiday’s lover that music which isn’t at least politically aware has nothing to say about anything, and that political people who are unmoved by music — whether it be rock and roll or Broadway tunes — aren’t to be trusted.
This passage, which is just one among many such, connects music to what may be the novel’s most important preoccupation: politics. Although Erickson’s two non-fiction works, Leap Year and American Nomad, chronicle time spent following presidential campaign trails of 1988 and 1996, the writer has never been so open about American politics in his fiction as he is in These Dreams of You. Bracketing the storyline and looming over the narrative are two figures: Robert F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. The former’s commitment to racial emancipation and his assassination are entwined with Zan’s life story, and chime with the novel’s focus on America’s multi-ethnicity as embodied in Sheba, a girl from Ethiopia.
First and foremost, however, These Dreams of You may well be the first true Obama novel. While the President appears in the book only on television, the mentions and references to him are legion. From the opening scene, in which Zan feels the November election night to be the moment when his country “questioned all its possibilities,” to Zan’s sense that in his lifetime “never has a president been heard so differently by so many,” to his harrowing premonition that Obama, too, may be assassinated and “the silencing of the song [could] come to pass,” These Dreams of You attempts to portray, and perhaps tentatively resolve, the hope and disappointment connected with the current presidency. Braiding this with — what else? — musical metaphors, Erickson seems to reject the assessment that Obama has failed as a person or an official. Instead, he allows Zan to ruminate upon questions of America as a dream, a project, an idea, one in which all citizens participate. Perhaps it is not the President that has failed Americans, but Americans who have somehow failed themselves. Extending its twining of music and politics, the novel suggests that just as the euphoric hysteria at Kennedy’s rallies resembled the ecstasy of open-stadium concerts and marked the alliance of the civil rights movement and rock music of the 1960s, the pulsating African music exuded by Sheba, a girl from the dark heart of Africa adopted by a white middle-class Californian family, embodies the new spirit of the country.
Erickson’s genius resides in the facility with which he combines these political and historical concerns (which are largely inseparable) with a complex narrative that never jettisons its capacity to move readers. Erickson is a writer of mind and heart, someone who can talk to us about important things in ways that are never cold and always balanced. These Dreams of You channels its emotionality primarily through Zan, whose frantic attempts to establish some solid ground for his life are truly harrowing to read. One might argue that at times Erickson almost makes Zan a comic figure and almost invokes the sentimental sympathy for the Nordhocs, but their quiet, increasingly eroded realization of the Obama presidency’s importance and their economic plight are too representative. It’s simply impossible to interpret Zan’s doomed struggles as mere emotional manipulation.
There is, in These Dreams of You, a species of idealism about America. This idealism seems increasingly rare, so rare that it threatens to make those invested in it seem naive. Those who invoke it seem largely to tread a thin line between melodramatic pathos and cynical manipulation — but not Erickson. Acutely aware of the mazes of historical injustice, the lunacy of internecine political squabble, and the jadedness of public debates — “the country of the banged gavel, the salem stench, the hate that hates in God’s name” — Erickson can still write about America (and I do mean “America,” as opposed to the United States) in terms that are lyrical, delicate, and guardedly hopeful: “the other country of the eternal pursuit, memory’s mystic chord, our nature’s better angels, and the promise that no God can help loving even when we break it.” These Dreams of You culls together the Nordhocs’ story with music, race, and that utopian faith without which “the country — this country in particular — is nothing.” In that, the novel is notably less pessimistic than Rubicon Beach’s painful admission that “every man who is born in America” hates “that irrevocable failure that his heart won’t forget,” or Amnesiascope’s suggestion that “L.A. is all that’s left of America the Delirious … the America that was originally made for those who believed in nothing else, not because they believed there was nothing else but because for them, without America, nothing else was worth believing.”
For all its close and intimate focus, These Dreams of You may well be today’s Great American Novel. Not just for its portraiture of universal American dreams and anxieties; not for its social scope; nor for its historical and political topicality, in which it deals in spades, but rather because of its painful sincerity, its humble recognition of human failings, and its continued hope that it is not too late. In a final, choking passage that belongs in the same league as the conclusions of The Great Gatsby, On the Road, and Vineland, Erickson writes:
Though to the outer waking world Sheba’s dream is only a few seconds, in her sleep she understands it’s a long voyage. Poised at the ship’s bow, transmitting a distant song, she sails in search of the word that will name her, a word for those who’ve never belonged anywhere and who make their own belonging in the same way that people used to name themselves after where they belonged, the same word as that for the grief that goes on grieving for what’s not remembered but can’t be forgotten. As the girl and her brother and mother and father step from the boat onto shore, the word isn’t paradise or heaven or utopia or promisedland but rather a name as damaged as it is spellbinding to everyone who’s heard since the first time anyone spoke it, then tarnished it, then hijacked it, then exploited it, then betrayed and debased and then emptied it, loving the sound of it while despising everything it means that can’t be denied anyway because it’s imprinted on the modern gene which is to say that even as the girl pursues it, it’s already found her, passed on by her adopted father in whose ear it was whispered one afternoon when, from a crowd desperate to hear the secret of it, he was pulled by a young woman of the Old World and the beginning of time, and now it binds daughter and father though neither knows it, she carries it in her fierce core, armed to defend it with that blade of a finger she draws across her throat, and the word is america.
The lecture that Zan delivers in London is on the novel as an obsolescent form. A book like These Dreams of You demonstrates that such obsolescence has never been further away.