These Dreams Of You, by
By Nathan Huffstutter
March 05, 2012
For the sake of context, please allow me to introduce a few of the particularly hush-hush intrigues surrounding Steve Erickson’s back catalogue:
—Originating from the point where the printed text begins to shape tunnels and T’s and question marks, torn out pages of Our Ecstatic Days (2005) can be arrayed in a Spira Mirabilis that produces an image of the Tiananmen Square protestor…
—Editions of Tours Of The Black Clock (1989) printed after Y2K retain the characters and locales of the original, but subplots and chronologies have been so materially altered that readers from different millennia have, in fact, waded through entirely different texts…
—The long-lost silent film Le Passion de Jeanne d’Arc was actually found mislabeled in a French Motion Picture Archive – the story of Dreyer’s masterpiece being discovered in an Oslo insane asylum was seeded onto the Internet in coincidence with Erickson’s last novel, the cinephilic mind-bender Zeroville (2007)…
In the decades since his apocalyptic debut, Days Between Stations (1985), Erickson has steadily shaped new mythologies from the black holes of history. Speculation, rumor, dreams, fantasies, the future, no dark matter is off limits as the L.A. author/ film critic appropriates iconic personalities and reanimates iconic lusts, creating an alternate universe where “Tank Man” Wang Weilin and “Viking Man” John Milius evolve into grounded characters, a universe where time itself bends beneath both The Fuhrer’s lust for his fifteen-year-old niece and our third president’s possession of his fourteen-year-old slave. Though still entangled in legacies and appropriation, with his eleventh book, These Dreams Of You, Erickson promises to step out of his elastic headspace and reckon with a pair of more frangible domains: the collective conscience of the nation and the state of the modern bi-racial family.
Jumping off with the exhilaration of Obama’s election, the country of Dreams is America as we know it (to whatever extent we do), while the family in question may or may not resemble Erickson’s own. Meet Alexander “Zan” Nordhoc, a sixty-ish author and occasional teacher (his last, not-terribly successful novel having been published fourteen years previously); Zan’s wife, Viv, a sprightly, impulsive artist revived from Amnesiascope (1996); the Caucasian couple’s biological son Parker, biologically on every precipice of teendom; and adopted daughter Zema, or “Sheba,” a turbulent, hyper-verbal four-year-old brought from Ethiopia to L.A. at the age of two.
Post-inauguration, the hangover hits and shit goes bad, fast. The Nordhocs’ multifarious revenue streams dry up, leaving Zan with only his unpaid gig at a no-frequency, pirate-radio station; the adjustable-rate on their home loan balloons, tripling their monthly mortgage while the value of the residence nosedives; some douchebag plagiarist has gone and made a killing off the exact concept of one of Viv’s dearest projects; kids ain’t ever easy. With the family pushed to its limits, a not-entirely benevolent deux-ex-machina offers a lifeline: a well-compensated opportunity for Zan to lecture at a London University. Zan accepts, with Parker and Sheba joining him in the UK while Viv uses the trans-continental flight as the first leg of a trip to Ethiopia, where she hopes to gather information and head off Sheba’s inevitable questions about her African birth mother.
Up to this point, aside from staring down the misjudgements and double-takes that face white parents raising a black child, Zan and Erickson mostly circle the Big “R.” In the parlance of Our Ecstatic Days, Zan is a serial “point-misser,” but Erickson most definitely is not; throughout the course of his novels, the seasoned-journo has consistently plied one of the tricks of that trade, anticipating criticisms and beating pundits to the punch. In motherhood-obsessed Our Ecstatic Days, Kristen says of dubious pulp writer Banning Jainlight: “I think the big problem is he hasn’t the slightest idea how to write women characters”; when a ballerina from Tours Of The Black Clock pursues chaotic moves that leave her poised on the brink of falling flat, an understanding choreographer “detested the way they (her detractors) supposed that structures they didn’t recognize weren’t structures at all”; and, in Dreams, Zan concedes it would be folly to pen a novel about a family similar to his own:
“There are things about race that no white person can understand. Because no white author has the moral authority, not to mention the insight or wisdom, to write such a book.”
Equal parts wishy and washy, Zan spots minefields of “racial cliché,” points out his own “squishy white liberal” fallbacks, and asks “isn’t any white person who writes about race asking for trouble?” Erickson dares the reader to conflate he and Zan, though, bear in mind, this is the same author whose Arc D’X (1993) narrated the blood-splattering, virginal rape of Sally Hemings from a close third person, voicing the perspectives of both T. Jefferson and the teenage slave.As Dreams progresses, when one of the primary subplots climaxes with the narrative’s lone fully-developed black woman submitting to an uncharacteristic, drunken four-way with David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Brian Eno, readers may look back on Zan’s dithering with some degree of suspicion.
Rock and roll – amid all their dancing around race, Zan and Erickson both find their most confident footing when the guitars lock in and the kick drum hits. In one of the novel’s few fabulist strokes, Sheba literally “broadcasts” music from within her little body, and Zan bonds with his child both through the medium of radio and their shared allegiance to The Thin White Duke. Meanwhile, not only does These Dreams Of You crib its title from a Van Morrison song (a blue-eyed soul shuffle during which the Irishman envisions the assassination of Ray Charles), Zan declares Ray’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music “the most subversive record ever made,” lauding the album as a Trojan Horse that smuggled black vocals into the nation’s most conservative white households. A very Martin moment, and though dualities dominate Erickson’s fictive histories, here the author willfully ignores the very Malcolm flip-side, the no bullshit reality that in the history of subversive recordings, given mere seconds to work with, one of Ray’s own backup singers blows pretty much everyone out of the pool: Merry Clayton, stepping into the studio with the world’s biggest band and stealing back everything ever co-opted by Keith, Mick, and the lads, an entire century of the blues, her massive gospel voice bleeding and breaking all over the fucking place as she gets it forever on the historical record: RAPE! MURDER! It’s just a shot away, it’s just a SHOUT away! RAPE! MURDER! Jesus, Merry Clayton (and while we’re on about Twentieth Century mythologies, Google “Merry Clayton” and “Gimme Shelter.” Yeah – Jesus).
The music, the politics, Zan draws a direct line between the populism of Obama’s campaign and the youthful surge of the sixties. But anyone who’s stuck around from the get-go knows Erickson doesn’t compose in straight lines: along with separated twins, abandoned children, and memory loss, Erickson’s dynamic systems consistently include characters at a Crossroads (Our Ecstatic Days goes so far as to force that juncture on the reader, reaching a split where one line of text follows an unbroken horizontal track across the remaining pages, compelling readers to pursue that line or to read vertically and, page after page, account for the discontinuity).
Zan’s personal crisis: Sheba has vanished, lost in London with some sub-Saharan Poppins, an emergency nanny who’d materialized at a moment of need. Simultaneously, Viv’s search for Sheba’s mother may have run aground in Berlin. The choice: his (adopted) daughter or his wife? Did I mention that recurring theme of abandoned children? Short on cash, credit, and common sense, Griswaldian point-misser Zan packs up Parker and heads for Germany. And, at this filial abandonment, Erickson does the same, dropping the Nordhocs.
A good time to move on to a more well-heeled family – Zan never had the stones or the gravitas to reckon with the conscience of the country, so the middle third of the novel appropriates an icon who does. RFK. A London pub, lonely hours, the senator is introduced as he strikes up a late-night conversation with a young black woman, Jasmine, who’s making the scene with her pub-rocking companion “Reg” (Reginald Presley, lead singer of The Troggs). Later, after Jasmine follows Bobby’s career and finally takes a position with his campaign, the candidate shares with her his Catholic assessment:
“If it’s true that the promise of this country can’t be kept until white begs the forgiveness of black, it’s as true that the promise can’t be kept until the black man decides whether to extend that forgiveness – and slavery’s child is under no obligation to do that.”
No alternative history in Dreams: we know the beats of this number, I shouted out ‘who killed the Kennedys?’…When after all, it was you and me…!
In the aftermath, the seventies, Jasmine shepherds a coke-addled David Bowie from L.A. to Berlin (Crossroads of the World), where he’s joined in studio by The Professor (Eno) and Jim (aka James Osterberg Jr., aka Iggy, famous appropriator of the Bo Diddley beat – Erickson’s always kept on a strictly first or nickname basis with history, from John & Abigail (Adams) of Arc D’X to Zeroville’s “hermaphrodite cowboy” (Michael Cimino)).
Rumor has it a fair amount of fucking around took place in the seventies, and Bowie (via Erickson) views the history of rock & roll as a century of “black and white fucking”; in Berlin, he, Jim, and The Professor set out to steal the bastard offspring and obliterate the Old with a robot R&B for the New World. As the musicians record, “songs that start out belonging to one man end another’s,” and it’s entirely possible I already let slip how Jasmine fits into this mix. Oh, and by the way, while we’re on about purposeful slips and the ethics of appropriation, it also bears noting that back in Amnesiascope, Viv was shown working on a concept with butterfly wings as stained-glass, a project modeled on a series by Erickson’s for-real real wife, L.A. artist Lori Precious. Then, sometime after the turn of the century, England’s wealthiest living artist and renowned appropriator Damien Hirst for-real real sold his “own” series of butterfly wings as stained-glass, earning himself a rather sizable amount of doe-rae-me.
Let me please introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste…
Sly devil. For the better part of his career, Erickson has written one step ahead of the word, like the art instructor pressed into duty teaching Calculus, staying (at best) one lesson ahead of the class – by the time any of the students grasp the big picture, everyone’s already moved on to a different time and space. Careening at the speed of imagination, risking bad ideas alongside good, Erickson has announced meaning in randomness and allowed chaos to define itself as everything that runs counter to God’s plan. His previous novel, Zeroville, marked a decisive turning point, where the author simplified his style to an almost shot-by-shot narration, mirroring the uncorrupted P.O.V of its Gump-walk through Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Though dispensing with Zeroville’s numbered frames, Dreams continues in the same stripped-down mode, leaving plenty of white space on each page and doling out sequences in digestible, 3-4 paragraph bites. And, all of a sudden, Erickson has begun writing from behind the word: in Dreams, he manipulates transparent foreshadowing devices, maintains a singular style through each of the sub-threads and stories within stories, withholds timely information, and strings the reader through an overarching plot with so few moving parts that the rods click into place in pretty much the only way they can.
The fuck is this guy up to?
Clues, offhand remarks, comprising mere seconds in the grand scheme of politics and race and rock & roll, amid all that tumult Erickson drops the notion that “there’s another sort of murder…a violence that shatters the spirit…the premise that this is a country where it’s acceptable to succeed by destroying people’s dreams and breaking their hearts.” The Thin White Duke announces that a song can hold secrets from the singer, and while Zan struggles to make headway on a new book in which neither he nor Erickson seem terribly interested, it’s suggested that a novel can also hold secrets from its author. More foreshadowing? Plausible deniability? In the novel within the novel, Zan reprises Arc D’X’s skinhead assault scene, positioning a young black woman as the lone witness,and intimating that “It may be hard for Zan’s reader to imagine something worse than murder, but Zan believes there’s such a thing, and the girl believes it too.”
Been around for a long, long year…stole many a man’s soul and faith…
Damien Fucking Hirst.
Jesus, what’s a man to do? Is there any way to restore a shattered dream? How does a grieving husband go about mending his wife’s broken heart?
“When we’re this confused about women,” says the narrator/authorial alter-ego of Amnesiascope, “we turn to the only option left to us: we write. We write as though we understand everything and it’s up to us to sort out the world.”
A potent streak of sincerity runs through Erickson’s work, sentimental as brandied regret. And in a chivalrous act for the ages, with Dreams Erickson structures his novel as a delivery system. Using all his well-learned politesse, forgoing the Comic-Con erotica of his dystopian works, gambling on the salability of racial politics, daring – no, practically begging – readers to conflate author and protagonist, his authorial voice bleeding and breaking up all over the place, offering his own image as a sort of sacrifice, prostrating his/Zan’s/both of their greatest vulnerabilities, the mortifications of aging, the angst of a novelist whose At-Swim alter-egos have always taken a dim view of their own talents, the apologies of a creator who’s abandoned loved ones for art, the lost faith, the frailty, the forgetfulness, his family coming apart at the seams, facing homelessness, destitution, obscurity, Damien Fucking Hirst, the sonofabitch who stole his wife’s “singular and beautiful vision,” stole “not only her past but her future,” forget RFK, forget all that Catholic mumbo-jumbo, forget waiting for forgiveness, forget getting their own fucking February, the Trojan Horse, there’s never just one song, never Martin without Malcolm, the creator of new mythologies steps to the mic and takes back what was stolen, forcing all crossroads back to a not entirely-benevolent deux-ex-machina, mere seconds in the grand scheme where he consoles Viv: “you should feel vindicated…It’s accepted by virtually everyone the bastard ripped you off.”
Bingo. Forever on the historical record. Rape… Murder…its just a shot away…it’s just a shout away…
Great review, now I need to go pick it up. Been a long time fan of Erickson, and was lucky enough to meet him at AWP Chicago, and he also wrote the intro to an anthology I’m in, WARMED AND BOUND. Great guy, I often go back to DAYS BETWEEN STATIONS as a reference point for things.
And keep up the great work over at Emprise Review, too.