‘Later’ became the archetypal opening for a J.G. Ballard story. It told us we were in the territory of aftermath.
Steve Erickson writes stories of aftermath also. But it is not an immediate aftermath, he deals in the long view. His novels invariably range across years, usually decades, sometimes centuries. However, it is not the ‘years later’ that makes the opening words of These Dreams of You so typical of Erickson’s work; it is the very first word: ‘But’. ‘But’ negates the later, doubts the aftermath, makes us question and hesitate. Erickson’s stories take us into an aftermath of guilt and uncertainty, a morally certain situation that is open to moral doubt.
Throughout this new novel, characters repeatedly tell us that a white man cannot speak for the black experience; and yet this novel is a white man speaking for the black experience. Erickson’s moral world appears confident, but we are obliged as readers never to accept the morality with any confidence of our own.
These Dreams of You is a story that emerges from the Obama victory. It opens with novelist turned radio DJ Alexander ‘Zan’ Nordhoc, his wife, Viv, 12-year-old son, Parker, and four-year-old adopted daughter, Sheba, watching the Obama victory rally on TV from their home in Los Angeles. What follows, follows, in a sense, because of that victory; because a black man has secured the White House, and with it gave hope to liberal dreams that had been soured by the previous administration. In that sense it is a novel that could only have been written at this time.
Yet it is a novel that echoes, returns to, and amplifies issues and concerns that have flowed through everything Erickson has written since his first novel, Days Between Stations nearly 30 years ago. In that sense it is a book that could have been written at just about any time since 1985.
That hesitation between the quotidian and the eternal, between the journalistic and the philosophical, is, to my mind, what is distinctive and important in Erickson’s work. His theme, proclaimed long and loud in just about everything he has written, is the soul of America. But his subject is the inevitable failure of daily experience, of fallible humanity, to match what the idealised state supposedly represents. Those characters in his novels (and in his non-fiction, which is itself novelistic in intent and structure) who most closely aspire to achieve the moral goal of America are generally the most flawed (one thinks of Thomas Jefferson in Leap Year and Arc d’X). Those who strive to live up to the moral demand that is America are invariably going to be knocked back, if not actually destroyed, by the contradictions.
The story, at least as we might try to summarise it, seems rather straightforward.
Zan is a one-time novelist who hasn’t written fiction since a lightly-disguised character in one of his books lost his job as a result of it. Zan has now lost his own job as a lecturer at a small college and as a result the family finances are in freefall just as the financial crisis starts to bite, and it looks increasingly likely that they will lose their home. Lack of money is a thread that runs right through the novel, but it is only one of several losses that make up the story. In this novel, at least, America is an idea that takes more than it gives.
Sheba was adopted from an Ethiopian orphanage when she was two years old. She is brash, precocious, demanding, and the scenes of family life in this novel are among the funniest that Erickson has written; she is also the catalyst for the novel. She is not actually an orphan, but her mother has disappeared and her grandmother cannot cope, which is how she has ended up in the orphanage. But Viv has got a journalist in Addis Ababa to research the mother, and meanwhile has been sending what little bits of money they could spare to the grandmother. Now, it seems, there is some mystery about the mother, and the financial support for the grandmother has roused some unwelcome official interest.
When Zan is invited to make an all-expenses-paid trip to London to deliver a lecture, Viv decides she’ll fly on to Addis Ababa to try and sort things out. Zan, alone in London with two unruly children, has difficulty coping until Molly shows up. She first appears as an unknown black woman who stares at the family in the street, but the next day she turns up at their hotel to take on the role of nanny. There is a mystery about Molly right from the start: Zan thinks his university contact found her, the contact thinks Zan hired her, she eventually claims Viv hired her. But she has a strange affinity with Sheba. Ever since the blue glowing eyes in Days Between Stations, Erickson has had a habit of characterising people by odd, often supernatural aspects. In this instance, Sheba gives off music, and so does Molly.
Then, Viv disappears in Ethiopia. At almost the same moment, Molly and Sheba disappear. Zan and Parker are frantic, until a photograph on the internet seems to suggest that Viv might be in Berlin. Unthinkingly, they race off there, where Parker runs away and Zan is beaten up. For a moment, before the unwound thread of story begins to be drawn in again, Zan has lost everything. It is the moral cost, we are led to understand, of being a white liberal in contemporary America.
But if that is the story of the novel, it is not the whole story. In among many other things, it is the story of Jasmine, a black woman in London in the mid-60s who meets Robert Kennedy two years before he decides to run for president. She works on his campaign, at one riotous rally in California she rescues a teenaged Zan from the unruly mob. After Kennedy is assassinated, she goes back to working in the music industry, becoming in time an assistant to David Bowie and ‘Jim’ (Iggy Pop) during their stay in Berlin. Here she gives birth to a daughter, Molly, who may be the child of Bowie or Jim or ‘The Professor’ (Brian Eno?).
Later (oh such a slippery Ericksonian word), the teenage Molly returns to Berlin, where she helps a middle-aged man beaten up in the street, in the process dropping an edition of Joyce’s Ulysses in which Bowie had sketched a portrait of her mother on the flyleaf. This incident we already recognise, because it is the starting point for the new novel that Zan is trying to write. In Zan’s novel, which we visit fleetingly throughout this book, the victim of the attack, known only as ‘X’, is then transported back in time with the lost edition of Ulysses to Berlin in 1919, where he proceeds to publish his own revised version of the novel two years before Joyce actually produced the original.
Oh and there’s more than this. There’s a rather delicious little cameo by Reg Presley of the Troggs, for instance. But to try to note briefly all the different strands of story that occur throughout this novel would be to make it sound far more chaotic than it actually is.
And to those of you who know Steve Erickson’s work (and if you don’t, why not?), does all of this sound familiar? Because all the way through the novel you keep coming up against things that resonate with earlier works.
Viv, for instance, is already known to us from Amnesiascope.
The beating up in Berlin that is a recurring motif in this novel, happening to Zan near the end of the story, witnessed by Molly, and triggering the story of X, surely recalls Arc d’X, in which a character called ‘Steve Erickson’ is killed in Berlin. (One is tempted to wonder if our author has bad personal memories of that city.)
Above all, there is the fascination with Robert Kennedy, which first became explicit in Rubicon Beach but which seems to act as an underlying moral touchstone for Erickson. It is even more central to this novel, the first one in which Kennedy himself has appeared as a significant actor. More than John F. Kennedy (the rather grudging asides about him by Bob in this novel are, I think, the first mentions of him in any of Erickson’s books), more than Martin Luther King (who does get mentioned elsewhere), Robert Kennedy seems to represent the hope for the American soul, and its ultimate fall. (As an aside, which I might return to in a later post, I note that the assassination of Robert Kennedy also plays a major part in William Kennedy’s Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, is Bobby now being recognised as a cardinal point on America’s moral compass?)
And it is, of course, the American soul that Erickson keeps writing about. In Tours of the Black Clock, which is, I think, the work that holds the key to everything he has produced since, the soul is lost on a mist-shrouded river island and also to be found in a secret room to be revealed by the blueprint of the century. In the strange calendar at the centre of The Sea Came in at Midnight, a novel that seems consciously designed as an echo and re-evaluation of Tours of the Black Clock, we see the soul again hidden, but now as a point in time rather than in space. In These Dreams of You the soul becomes both more nebulous and more definite, it occupies a point in time (the assassination of Robert Kennedy) but is also timeless, it occupies a point in space (California) but is more evanescent than that, and it truly belongs in a person, Robert Kennedy perhaps, Barack Obama possibly, Sheba the Ethiopian almost certainly. But what the soul mostly is, is a liberal dream. And it is the liberals who have betrayed that dream. In Leap Year and again in Arc d’X we are told that it was slave-holding Thomas Jefferson who killed the American soul, but it is not so simple as that. But blackness, the long legacy of slavery, the relations between the races are where the American soul is to be found and what has tainted that soul. Which is why the election of a black president has both brought hope and new damage; which is what this wonderful book is all about.