I have to admit up front that I’m an Erickson neophyte. I love delving into the hard-to-find back catalogs of cult authors who’ve gone more mainstream over the years, but in Erickson’s case I’ve only read Zeroville and These Dreams of You, his two newest and, I’ve been told, most accessible and perhaps therefore least representative novels. It’s true that neither was as surreally overwhelming as I’d expected, but there’s something else to recommend them, a kind of aching vitality, that more than makes up for their surface normalcy and lack of special effects.
I discovered Erickson a few months ago when I came across an article that Brian Evenson wrote for The Believer in 2003. In a fairly complete study of Erickson’s early works, Evenson claims that the apparently longstanding expectation that Erickson would one day claim the throne held by Pynchon and DeLillo – he got a Pynchon blurb on his very first novel! – has not come to fruition.
Although touted as a “secret heir,” Evenson thinks he’s actually more of a “true romantic” than his forebears ever were. He may never get the mass recognition that was promised him, but, from a reader’s perspective, his contribution has been a far less redundant one: he’s carved out territory that he doesn’t have to share.
Had I not found this article, I don’t know how soon Pynchon would have come to mind while reading These Dreams of You (maybe Erickson’s early works more readily beg the comparison). But, the case being what it was, I went in wondering what a true romantic who’d renounced his postmodern birthright might look like.
Like Pynchon (the overlap with DeLillo is there too, but mainly as a kinship with plenty of authors who have idiosyncratic takes on modern geopolitics), Erickson is after a secret illumination buried in the dark center of the imagination. Both he and Pynchon use obscure continent-hopping quests to probe the psychic state of the world at a moment or hand-selected set of moments in history, and both pry into the hypothetical inner lives of iconic historical figures, gutting the external pop landscape and then rebuilding it inside their novels.
This is where they diverge.
The pleasure of Erickson over Pynchon is how warm and man-to-man his writing remains even at its most dissociative. He leaves the edges of his narrative web dangling so you can hook them up to your own heartstrings. The attendant frustration – the thing that Pynchon does that’s inimitable – is that Erickson’s web, although swarming with notions of time travel and mistaken identity, reincarnation and coincidence, never pops with the exhilarating tautness of a totalizing cosmic vision. The web of Pynchon’s vision is vaster but, because he exerts such meticulous, almost mathematical pressure on it, it’s less universal and thus more distinctive. The “Pynchonian” is more recognizable than the “Ericksonian” not only because Pynchon is more famous.
Instead of rarifying a cosmic vision of his own, Erickson takes on the exoteric mysteries of self, home, and family. Even a character as endearingly strange as Zeroville’s “cineautistic” Vikar Jerome, wandering his pilgrim’s paths through Hollywood, is a plausibly real person, thinking and acting in ways that link him into larger chains of thought and action.
Both Zeroville and These Dreams of You open doorways into worlds that exist before and beyond them – they offer themselves as one way into places that have other ways in. Less a magician than a psychic confidante, Erickson holds your attention not by promising a trip to somewhere you’ve never been, but by enlightening and enlivening the places you can’t escape.
Leading up to this collapse, Zan, a has-been LA novelist and current late nite radio host, sits down with his newly adopted Ethiopian daughter, Sheba, to watch Obama win the presidency. He gets to thinking that at last the evaporated dream of the 60s – and the guiding dream of his life – has been fulfilled.
Later in the novel but more than forty years earlier in the nation’s history, Bobby Kennedy claims, either despairingly or prophetically, that “the promise of this country can’t be kept until white begs forgiveness of black… [and] who knows how such a thing can happen, the request for forgiveness and the granting of it? What historic moment can represent that?” To Zan in 2008, it looks like the moment has come. He believes he’s finally witnessed “the existence of the politically miraculous.”
The rest of the novel follows the myriad ways in which this turns out not to be the case.
In so doing, it becomes a novel about a midlife crisis that’s also an End Times crisis. A nation’s tenuously unified mood buckles under its own weight, and the mystery of who Zan and his family really are mirrors the mystery of what America, “a country that always has belonged to the rest of the world’s imagination more than it belongs to its own,” really is.
No sooner have Zan and his wife Viv brought their daughter to live in the “end of time” that is LA, away from her orphanage in Ethiopia, “the land where God placed Adam and Eve,” than they lose their house and become orphans themselves, scattering across the Old World in search of a way to regain the citizenship of their nation, or of the world, or, failing this too, of the universe at least.
In full drift now, Zan gives a lecture in London on the future of the novel in which he fixates on the series of revisions that the Life of Christ underwent as each apostle took his turn telling it. He explains how the power of the Gospels comes not from safeguarding any original version but from plunging headlong into the magic of fiction.
Taking his own plunge, he finds himself writing a new novel about discovering a copy of Ulysses in Berlin in 1919, three years before its publication, and indulging in the anxiety-fraught fantasy of plotting his own “authorship of the Twentieth Century” by copying out the text and beating Joyce to the punch. Riding this train of thought, he begins to wonder, “If I produce the novel first, who’s to say I’m not the author?”
The way in which writing and rewriting (and hence living and reliving) converge functions in These Dreams of You on the level of the laws of physics. Events occur unexpectedly with incomprehensible results and then they occur again. Seen from another angle, they begin to take on meaning even if the nature of this meaning remains veiled.
Zan can’t keep his past from being rewritten, but he can participate in the process, slowly gathering the strength to shape it for the better. Sheba’s birth grandmother wakes in the middle of the night and “already feels her womb invaded by the future,” while Viv goes to Ethiopia where she hears “a rhythm and blues from the future that’s spiraled round the sphere of time to come back up through its birth canal.” These are the moments where the old reappears as the new and wide narrative loops swing shut, sending out ripples in all directions.
Identity – Zan says this about Jesus, thinks it about himself, and sees it in his family and in the wavering figure of the new president – is subject to these same physics of revision. Forces that want to shape the self to their own obscure ends are locked in conflict with other forces that will never recognize these shapes.
Watching in horror as legions of Americans question the validity of Obama’s birth certificate, Zan can’t “remember a president’s very identity being such a point of political contention.” He wants desperately to hold onto his personal and political messiah, but a TV image of Obama’s face horribly distorted with the word ANTICHRIST printed beneath won’t leave his thoughts.
Fearing the total collapse of the presidency, Zan wonders, “Isn’t a politician who cares about who he really is doomed?” Fearing imminent personal collapse in equal measure, he wonders, “How did the determination to uncover and understand the bonds of this family lead to such a smashing of it?”
As a novel that obsessively returns to the theme of abandonment, populated by characters who serially abandon one another, one question resounds in its interior: what’s the difference between a person leaving and a person staying but turning out not to be the person you thought they were and need them to be?
More than a novel about bodies and thoughts drifting across a visual map, it’s a novel about resonances, about the acoustic connections of voices and music.
Music, for These Dreams of You, is nothing less than the carrier of myth and the portal to the eternal world within the temporal, just as film was in Zeroville. It’s not just that the prose is suffused with descriptions of music, nor just that the title comes from a Van Morrison song, nor even that David Bowie plays a major role: the very structure of the book manifests the verse-chorus-verse structure of rock and blues, or the ways in which jazz moves among interpreters, its spirit intact through constant flux.
Music bridges the pitfalls in time and space that open up whenever the past rewrites itself, and whenever identity shifts. It’s the only way to get back to the beginning from the end because it’s the one thing that’s been there all along, even as it’s never stopped changing. It’s change made danceable.
At the heart of the music stands the 4-year-old adopted girl, herself a radio transmitter. Nicknamed “Radio Ethiopia,” her voice resounds “like a boombox in a confessional” as her body calls out for her lost birth mother. She is living proof that songs are the sound of the universe manifested through human bodies (and not only human voices, as Sheba’s radio hum is all-pervasive and fully involuntary), connecting them across infinities of dead airspace.
Snaking their circular paths through time, songs are indifferent to their authors, “as if any music belongs to anyone.” John’s “experimental” Gospel prefigures this in its determination “to banish from history those who are deaf to its music and to declare all other sins trivial compared to the sin of deafness.”
In this way, music becomes a vessel for reality as dynamic as religion.
The meltdown of the American political scene is finally most comprehensible to Zan as a crisis of disharmony, of people refusing to agree on what song to sing.
If Zan has learned anything by the end of his wanderings, it’s that the present is no easier to remain in than the past is to remember. A snatch of tune drifts in through an open window and he finds himself “whiplashed to some other place in time except it’s another present rather than the past… swept up and deposited in a warp of voices.” All that has been abandoned and replaced with longing reemerges among these voices, and suddenly the very idea of abandonment shines with an alien hue.
Underneath his loose web of coincidences and recurrences, what Erickson really ends up writing about is a return to faith. It’s not the rigid zealotry of Zan’s 60s Leninist compatriots, nor that of the American fundamentalists who want to demonize Obama, but the faith of a man who knows that, even though his story is almost over and everything about it is subject to change, without faith it would have ended long ago.
This story trails off into the ghostly on all sides, but Erickson keeps his vanishing points in the foreground and doesn’t let us peer beyond. He’s writing about lives lived in the midst of ghosts and nightmares, not about ghosts and nightmares themselves. The kind of faith that Zan reaches allows him to continue walking down the haunted hallways of such a life, recognizing the end up ahead as another version of the beginning far behind, and trying, as much as is possible, to hold onto his family as the ghosts swarm in.
To keep walking requires more than faith in music. It requires faith as music.
Bonus Link: Staff Pick: Steve Erickson’s Zeroville
Steve Erickson’s Zeroville is a work of surpassing strangeness and beauty. In 1969, a little less than a week before the Manson Family massacre, an excommunicated ex-theology student arrives in Los Angeles after a six-day journey by bus from Pennsylvania. Vikar is possesed by movies, and he’s come to the promised land. He has a tattoo of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift on his shaved head, a red tear drop inked below an eye.
Books, movies, television, newspapers, and radio were forbidden by his unhinged Calvinist father. At 20, Vikar summons the courage to defy his father and see his first movie, and with this he finds a new religion. Movies make sense to him in a way that nothing else ever has. On the day he’s kicked out of divinity school, he shaves his head. The tattoos come later, en route to Hollywood.
Something is off about him, but it’s hard to say what. He’s on the autistic spectrum, or profoundly damaged by his upbringing, or both. He doesn’t understand comedies, and gets kicked out of horror movies for laughing. He is somewhat affectless, except when he’s violent. On his first day in Los Angeles, a hippie compliments his tattoo:
…[A] hippie nods at Vikar’s head and says, “Dig it, man. My favorite movie.”
Vikar nods. “I believe it’s a very good movie.”
“Love that scene at the end, man. There at the Planetarium.”
Vikar stands and in one motion brings the food tray flying up, roast beef and au jus spraying the restaurant–
–and brings the tray crashing down on the blasphemer across the table from him. He manages to catch the napkin floating down like a parachute, in time to wipe his mouth.
Oh, mother, he thinks. “A Place in the Sun, George Stevens,” he says to the fallen man, pointing at his own head. “NOT Rebel Without a Cause,” and strides out.
He lives for movies. He cares for little else, until he finds punk music and later books, and then he cares about those things too.
Zeroville chronicles Vikar’s rise from handyman in the Roosevelt Hotel to set builder on the Paramount lot to visionary film editor. The story has a David Lynchian quality about it, a slow unraveling, a gradual shift from something close to realism, to improbable meetings and coincidences and patterns and signs, to a kind of dream-logic flickering surrealism. The book’s very structure — 300 chapters ranging in length from one word to several pages — lends the book the stutter-stop fragmentation of a film reel or a dream.