Steve Erickson should have been hailed as one of America's most important novelists in 1993. That was the year he published arc d'X, a novel about Thomas Jefferson and his slave lover, Sally Hemings; it was threaded through with a meditation on the mythical essence of retelling American history, as well as an examination of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall as it related to the forthcoming millennial Armageddon. The novel was so intellectually rich yet thoroughly American that many critics and readers believed Erickson would win the National Book Award or a Pulitzer; some even thought that filmmaker Ridley Scott might be capable of turning the book into a movie that would end up as the spiritual sequel to Blade Runner.
It didn't happen. Instead, in the New York Times Book Review, famously sour Brit Anthony Burgess panned Erickson as an incomprehensible upstart; few other critics rose to defend the novel. The general response seemed to be, What does the Berlin Wall have to do with Jefferson? Erickson didn't throw in the towel, however. He wrote two postapocalyptic novels, Amnesiascope (1996) and The Sea Came In at Midnight (1999), both of which worked the same Los Angeles/Paris terrain as his first two novels, Days Between Stations (1985) and Rubicon Beach (1986). It seemed as if he were dead set on becoming one of those writers, like Herman Melville or Philip K. Dick, who is "rediscovered" decades after his death.
Erickson's latest tale of final days and violent strife, Our Ecstatic Days, might not change this prospect. His most stubbornly difficult novel to date, it arrives five years after the millennium, and four years after the mass murder that occurred in New York City instead of Los Angeles. In his choice of themes and subject matter, Erickson refuses to admit the twentieth century is over. On the other hand, that's not necessarily a bad tack to takeˇAleksander Solzhenitsyn was important in the twentieth century chiefly because Russians refused to believe the nineteenth century had ended.
Erickson has always been a fan of Faulkner's skillfully haphazard narratives, and this time out he continues his practice of "California-izing" the Mississippi writer's methods of multiple narrators and overlapping chronologies. The genesis of Our Ecstatic Days is quite possibly the chapter in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying that reads, in its entirety, "My mother is a fish." The first narrator in Erickson's new book is the mother of twins who dives like a fish to the bottom of "Lake Zed," a body of water that mysteriously submerged most of Los Angeles, either before or the same day that a formerly obscure terrorist took down the World Trade Center towers. While she dives, the piscine mother leaves her three-year-old son, Kirk (named after S°ren Kierkegaard), alone in a small bobbing boat. When she resurfaces, her son has vanished, surely snatched (or so she believes) by an owl. She responds to this calamity by changing her name from Kristin to Lulu and becomes a dominatrix of local renown who beats her wealthy clients on the upper floors of the partially swamped Hollywood paradise for rock 'n' rollers, the Chateau Marmont (Chateau X in the text).
Lulu's daughter, Bront', the unborn "twin" of the missing son (don't ask; indeed, as evident from this summary, many leaps of narrative faith are required while reading this novel), appears at the Chateau one day, looking to become an s/m apprentice. Several of Erickson's obsessions, familiar from previous novels, are on display here: a submerged Los Angeles was also seen in Rubicon Beach; boaters figure in The Sea Came In at Midnight; characters that tend to live in hotels are in most of his novelsˇand they pop in and out of the story like the Snopes. The most prominent male character, Wang, is a general in some unspecified second American civil war. Formerly a street fighter in Tiananmen Square, Wang is now a customer of Lulu's; he is also involved in the transportation of secret messages through the postal serviceˇa reference, no doubt, to Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49. The plot is so densely layered with allusion and self-reference that the divide between the responses of those readers who know the author's work and those who don't is likely to be wide; perhaps so wide as to constitute a completely different, although still enjoyable, book for both.
Typically, Erickson avoids specific predictions, so his fictions have only dated as much America's obsession with apocalypse has, which is to say, not at all. (Of course, there are the many recent Californian doomsday cults, but there was also William Miller, the preacher who convinced thousands of Golden Staters to sell their homes and possessions so as to be ready for Jesus's return on October 22, 1844ˇhenceforth the year was known as "the Great Disappointment.") In Our Ecstatic Days, the social erosion of America after Lake Zed has covered Los Angeles is similarly referred to as either Tribulation II or Tribulation III. Wang, for one, can't really remember which is right. During an interrogation, he asks a prisoner, "Haven't you been keeping track? Haven't you been able to tell when one [Tribulation] ends and one begins, and then when the next ends and the one after that begins?" We are told that these Tribulations (there appears to have been four) are just "seed[s] in the uterus of history to be washed away in the blow of the womb's ejection." Erickson so readily dispenses artfully built apocalypses that it's hard to tell whether he actually believes in their eventuality or is merely fond of them as elegant tropes.
If Erickson's plots are postmodern baroque, his prose is more sedentary. His strength as a writer has always been his production of solidly compelling, if somewhat utilitarian, paragraphs, rather than the knock-your-socks-off sentences by the likes of Robert Stone or James Salter. Still, every ten pages or so, Erickson throws together a wallop of words:
She lived with [a man whose name she never knew] when she first came to L.A. as a teenager nine years before, a kind of sexual serf servicing him when, after being abandoned by his pregnant Asian-American wife, he wasn't crashing around in a secret room at the bottom of his house where he worked day and drunken night on a huge blue calendar that completely reordered history according to the chronology and logic of apocalypse.
Beginning about a third of the way through the book, Erickson launches a nearly three-thousand-word run-on sentence that bisects the rest of the book, slicing like a jet trail across the text at the bottom of each and every page (many of those pages are also fancifully formattedˇnot right and left justified, but in columns, or centered so that their margins are ragged). It doesn't appear that this mammoth sentence adds any meaning, by way of, say, juxtaposition to the paragraphs it cuts through. At least initially, it's merely annoying, like a weather bulletin scrolling across the bottom of a TV screen. But when it joins the book's last paragraphs, it reaffirms a plea made by Kristin at the beginning of the book, and finally some sense of thematic completion registers: When you strip away all the mythic, apocalyptic, sadomasochistic, and self-referential artifice, there remains a simple message: "Lord, protect my child," as Bob Dylan once sang.
At the end of this labyrinthine saga, a child thought lost, a child whose mother named him after Kierkegaard, is saved. It is not Kierkegaard's God of Existentialism who saves the child, however, but a more cheerful, Wizard of Oz˝style deityˇthe narrative legerdemain at the book's conclusion parallels the end of that MGM movie. As for the significance of Erickson's naming the imperiled child of his very tall tale Kierkegaard, we might turn to John Updike's literary assessment of the Danish philosopher: His "method, dictated by his volatile and provocative tempera- ment, resembles that of a fiction writer: he engages in multiple impersonations, assuming various poses and voices with an impartial vivacity." This may sound like a description of Faulkner. Probably Erickson would agree.
Another comparison to a writer, this one from foreign quarters, helps illuminate what Erickson's up to. Both Kafka and Erickson are energetic fabulists, but their techniques differ. Kafka's great tales employ only first- or third-person narrators, and their surreal developments, however bizarre, still progress in chronological order. But what if The Trial, for example, had portions of the story narrated by Joseph K. himself, and maybe a few third-person episodes involving some nameless lawyers? Imagine Metamorphosis narrated by each member of Gregor Samsa's family, perhaps beginning with his horrid transformation and working backward? Certainly Kafka would then be more difficult to read. The additional narrative layers wouldn't clarify the plots, but they might make the stories more alluringly ambiguous, and they might, upon rereading, afford even more intricate pleasures. That's the case with Ericksonˇhe's a writer who requires we read attentively, mindfully. But he always repays the effort with minor-key wonders and idiosyncratic delights. Our Ecstatic Days isn't an easy book, but it may be a great one. Then again, no one said the apocalypse was going to be a day at the beachˇCalifornian or otherwise.
David Bowman's forthcoming books are American Failure: A Melancholy History and the novel Women on the Moon.
OUR ECSTATIC DAYS BY STEVE ERICKSON. NEW YORK: SIMON & SCHUSTER. 336 PAGES. $24. BUY NOW