FEBRUARY 20, 2017
THE TENSION in Steve Erickson’s staggering new novel Shadowbahn is between endless possibilities and crushing dread. This is a book in which the vastness of American ambition and dreaming can take your breath away and then, only a few lines later, make you tremble with the sense that we are always living a hair’s breadth away from catastrophe. Shadowbahn filled me with exultation and terror. At one point, Erickson refers to the president as “she.” When I read the novel for the first time, last fall, that one word, in the context of the book’s portrait of a nation in shards, felt as if the author was both giving cause for hope and saying that even in the midst of hope there still exists the potential that the United States could destroy itself. Reading Shadowbahn again now, that pronoun already the mark of a vanished past that might as well be ages ago rather than just three months past, the book seems to be describing a cataclysm already taking place.
The impetus for Shadowbahn, which opens in 2021, is the reappearance of the Twin Towers in the Badlands of South Dakota. They look as they did before destruction, but are empty, as if all those people weren’t murdered but instead just walked away. What follows springs from Erickson’s realization that everything in American life is doubled or shadowed or forever in peril of being swamped by its opposite — including democracy itself. Democracy can never be resolved, being simultaneously a celebration of the collective strength found in equality as well as a rationale for those who, unable to be satisfied with merely being equal, set out to propel themselves far beyond any notion of community, except for those their imaginations call into being. Just how impossible it can be to separate the impulse toward community from the impulse to individuality may be summed up by the words of a young Memphis truck driver named Elvis Presley who, when asked by the Sun Studios receptionist Marion Keisker who he sang like, replied: “I don’t sound like nobody.” What did he mean? Was that a working-class boy’s expression of humility, or a version of what John Lennon would say 16 years later: “I came out of the fuckin’ sticks to take over the world.”
The reappearance of the Towers gives Erickson the chance to ring variations on the freely parroted bromide that followed 9/11: Nothing will ever be the same — a line much of the United States immediately set about proving false. Those locked into the shibboleths of the right and the left acted as if they knew exactly what they were dealing with (evil Muslims for the former, the perfidy of American foreign policy for the latter) and adopted the attitude that least challenged their beliefs.
Erickson takes the empty words at face value, giving us a world in which 9/11 has reordered not just what came after, but also what came before. On the 93rd floor of one of the towers, a man awakens to find himself just beginning his life as an adult. The man is Jesse Garon Presley, Elvis’s stillborn twin. In this scenario, Elvis is the one who died, but Jesse, wandering the empty offices of the abandoned Tower, hears his dead brother’s voice in his head. He knows he can’t hope to match that voice, and he knows his very existence has prevented that voice from coming into being. The sound follows him everywhere through the deserted rooms, even hovers on the edges of his sleep. And sleep holds worse torment: nightmares of his mother, her thighs bearing the blood of childbirth, saying to him: “Only he could sing like that […] and you ain’t nothing but the shadowborn that did precede him.” This is the horrible comedy of American life, the longing for success and the constant reminder of being second-rate.
The novel keeps giving us these destabilizing instances where everything we know from the last 60 years of American history has been supplanted by the mediocre. Like Jesse, the people caught in this new history are aware of the mediocrity they represent; they know they are markers for the transformations that never came. Instead of Elvis, an artist who, like the music he came to epitomize, opened people to previously unimaginable possibilities, we are given Jesse, a kind of wised-up Joe Buck figure, a male model stud, as frivolous an addition to American life as his brother was essential. In the book’s scheme, JFK is not the beloved president who, for all his Cold War posturing, made a generation feel they had a stake in their own government, but a prematurely gray-haired man, confined to a wheelchair, and out of politics ever since losing the 1960 presidential nomination. Like Jesse, he’s one of the hangers-on at Warhol’s Factory, returning night after night as voyeur to the escapades in which he can no longer indulge. In this history, John Lennon never left the sticks, the Beatles never breaking into the American market. New York City is not his sanctuary, but the place he exists as a street person, his rants and wisecracks the only outlets for his wit, ambition, and bitterness.
Over the nine novels and two volumes of campaign reportage (the best work anyone has done in that genre since Mailer) that preceded Shadowbahn, Erickson’s great mission as a novelist has been to demonstrate that our national myths and dreams, the most exquisite and the most shameful, are our history. These are books in which history is capable of bending back on itself, changing time, geography, identity in the same way that nature has the power to change the course of rivers or alter landscapes. There is, in Erickson’s work, something akin to the Old Testament sense of being witness to visions in which wonder is indistinguishable from fear. Probably, for most Americans, the last time we experienced that collectively was watching in disbelief and terror as the Towers fell. Over the course of Erickson’s novels, cities have been swamped by flood waters and desert sands, Sally Hemings has fallen asleep in Monticello only to awaken by the side of a dead man in a contemporary noir, characters have turned corners to find themselves in different cities or different centuries, the same secret frame is discovered in the prints of movies made continents and decades apart from each other. You read feeling both giddy and fearful, as if being present at a moment that will either reveal who we are as a people or give rise to the demons we believe we have eluded. Possibly both.
The astonishment of Shadowbahn goes beyond even the astonishments of the novels that preceded this one. Beginning with the reappearance of the Towers, the alternate currents of history that course through the book feel both audacious and logical, as if these glitches and revisions of what we know would be obvious to anyone who took the time to look.
If this all sounds too fantastical, too theoretical to be a satisfying read, let me say that I’m a reader who has never stopped craving the construction and logic of plot. While I have often wondered at the specifics of a Steve Erickson novel, I have never wondered why I am reading what I am reading. Not just because the books are always emotionally coherent even when the narrative can seem oblique but because the mysteries he gives us carry their own kind of compulsion, a need to pursue them, to delve into their meanings. And in those transfigurations is something that might be described as a kind of stately glee, an amazement at the way history and even the facts of the physical world can put on the kind of mind-bending show they do here.
Early on in Shadowbahn, people flock to the Badlands to see the Towers, in awe but also keeping their distance as if in fear of provoking an angry god. And everyone who does, hears music — hears the towers singing to them — and everyone hears a different and unfamiliar song. A man dying of cancer hears Brian Eno’s “Burning Airlines Give You So Much More.” A family of Egyptian Sunnis hears Hank Williams singing “Lost Highway,” and, in a neat touch, a family from Tennessee hears the great Egyptian singer Oum Khaltoum singing “Al-Atlal.” It’s an American Stonehenge and an American Tower of Babel, but one with a mystifying coherence. It’s as if the reappearance of the Towers does the opposite of what their destruction did: it opens people to voices that they have never heard.
Wandering through Shadowbahn — and not for the first time in an Erickson novel — is a character based on Erickson himself, self-deprecatingly referred to as a world-famous novelist, though his purpose seems more to be a kind of literary DJ. The novelist slaves over playlists he has obsessively assembled, revised, and annotated, looking to sequence the songs to reveal the kind of stories the musicians have never been able to realize. “The problem with musicians,” the novelist complains, “is they’re not novelists; they have no sense of narrative.” The text is punctuated with commentaries on the songs that comprise those lists which, true to the form of the novel, are usually given us two at a time. These are like parentheses opened in the body of the novel detailing pairings that are logical and elusive, often describing the songs less as if they were the product of craft and individual genius than of shamanism — vehicles for prophecy and dread. Ray Charles’s version of “That Lucky Old Sun” is paired with the Beach Boys’s “The Warmth of the Sun,” the latter being written on the day JFK was assassinated and the former becoming a hit in the aftermath of that murder. “Who’s to say what epiphany explodes in the course of that bullet’s trajectory?” Erickson writes about the Beach Boys song. “Can the warmth of the sun, it won’t ever die only have been written before the gunshot, or only after? Is the song transformed […] simply by the moment with which it coincides?” And what does it mean for Ray Charles to record a 1949 standard as his version of a slave narrative only to have it become, in the aftermath of the assassination, a bottomless expression of mourning?
The heart of Shadowbahn are the chapters with two young people (themselves based on Erickson’s children), 23-year-old Parker and Zema, his 15-year-old sister, adopted from Ethiopia. (Parker and Zema figured prominently, as children, in Erickson’s previous novel, These Dreams of You, a portrait of the hope and heartbreak of Obama’s America as good as we are likely to get.) The two are driving from Los Angeles to Lake Michigan via Route 66 to see their mother. When Zema hears about the Towers’ reappearance, this, she decrees, is their new destination. The new journey takes them perilously close to the seceded territories of the United States that have declared themselves Disunion, territories where outsiders are not welcome.
Their companion on the drive is their father’s playlist, the final refinement of the project he has labored on. And, as they drive, listening or ignoring or sleeping through their father’s story, all across the United States, music begins disappearing, wiping itself off of CDs and MP3s and cassettes, existing nowhere but in this car as the two of them drive.
There is hardly anything so familiar and yet so ripe for poetry as two people listening to music on an American road trip. Avoiding the clumsiness that might have resulted, writing with a father’s love and a novelist’s grace, Erickson conveys the beauty of two people, squabbling yet bound to each other, embodying the divisions that rend the United States — black/white, female/male, immigrant/native — held in thrall to the music playing in the car, hearing the story their father is trying to tell them but determined to live their own.
For me, that is as good a story as the United States is capable of telling about itself right now.
It’s impossible to read Shadowbahn and shut out the context against which it arrives. It’s impossible not to feel, in your marrow, that its most fantastical moments presage some perilous as-yet-unrevealed destiny we are driving toward. Who’s to say that what Erickson invents is any more fantastical than our present? What seems more unthinkable — the fantasy of the Twin Towers reappearing out of thin air, or the reality of ’30s fascism taking hold of the United States via a populist political movement? The states and swaths of land within states that, in Shadowbahn, have seceded from the union, or the current electoral map?
For all that Americans love to proclaim the need for unity and healing, we have long settled for exacerbating the tensions that have come to define us — black/white, rural/urban, rich/poor, conservative/liberal. And now all these tensions have gathered into something bigger, the overwhelming division that currently bestrides our national life. The awfulness of our present predicament is that the divide we face — acquiescence to fascism versus loyalty to the Constitution — is so dire that taking it seriously means refusing the very idea of common ground. What possible common ground can there be with people who regard the spirit and laws of our founding documents as a danger? We are now at the point where all Lady Gaga had to do to make a subversive statement during her Super Bowl performance was to recite the lines from the Pledge of Allegiance about liberty and justice for all. The beauty and terror of Steve Erickson’s novel is rooted in this moment but not chained to it, no more than Lincoln’s second inaugural has stayed limited to the Civil War. Shadowbahn is the novel of our current Civil War.