Steve Erickson's decidedly unfashionable oeuvre -- passionate stories of conscience unbound by time -- has won him critical acclaim and comparisons to Pynchon and Nabakov.
By Alan Rifkin (as it appeared in Buzz Magazine)
There's a scene in Steve Erickson's new book you can just see him writing, with a candle burning on his desktop and a jug rolling around below, Thomas Jefferson's ghost swimming in his eyes. He's been building toward this scene for years and years, or working back to it, tracing his country's self-betrayal to the source. He may overwrite it now that he's in range; he may box Jefferson around the ears and shove him in his carriage and deliver the great man's confession himself. It's not clear at all who's channeling whom this night, and it may stop mattering; Erickson could even pass for Jefferson, this night -- colonial hair golden in the display-terminal light, face chastened by the errand he's on, a face ready to bear any rejection open-eyed.
Hitting his stride now. Pulled by cheering mobs from a carriage in revolutionary France, Jefferson offers his flawed soul to History: he's only a "poor champion," he warns his admirers, the slave of a great idea -- an admission you seem to have heard before and will hear forever, broken by adoring protests, concession-speech protests. The aural wash of RFK's last earthly address.
And that reference could figure here, too. For you halfway expect in this scene, as in many of Erickson's fantastical scenes, to hear one man's last words spill from the lips of another. You half expect Jefferson to look up from Erickson's chair, ask Kennedy if he's finally written the scene right. This could be 1789 or 1968 or 1993. It's the endless night of the conscience, that confessional instant outside time -- another night's work in Steve Erickson's sleek but ascetic one-room apartment, which slightly resembles a piano bar.
Techno-monstrous black desk, neat shelved rows of his earlier novels. A stack of Playboy magazines that manages to look informational. Ancient moon through a window rising above the Sunset Strip, and time isn't of the essence: in Erickson's universe, all the heart's memories circle back.
Steve Erickson is America's poor slave of big writing, our soul survivor. If Jefferson were around, he'd look no more anachronistic. Or we'd make him a rock star, sixties vintage. Faulkner resembled a yellowing photo even when alive; Erickson shares this curse -- the outburst of honor in a roomful of moral sketchiness, the dead-eyed offer of a Tylenol, the dread of moral fuck-up, coupled with the knowledge of a losing cause.
His face is unlined at 43 but beginning to fill out, a little bit leonine. His features are arranged in an expression of witness -- saw too much, now risks being bumped by mafiosi. "I've always been overserious," Erickson says. This quality enables him on occasion to be hilarious. In his just-published Arc d'X, a high priest in an unnamed theocracy loses a key; a clerk named Etcher unlocks a door and steals the Unexpurgated Volumes of Unconscious History -- a fair-sized bargaining chip, he's soon to realize. The priests never dreamed this: that someone would just carry away history under his arm, tearing out pages and wildly rewriting them. Foreheads are definitely perspiring now. "What they now wouldn't have given to have put on an extra padlock," Erickson reports.
Transcendent humor. In more than one of Erickson's books, hard-boiled detectives trudge Eternity in a maze, their brows all a crime-novel knot. "I think the books are funny," Erickson says.
But through four novels and a political memoir it's been Erickson's fidelity, his headful of conscience, that most accounts for his eerie soulfulness -- and his narrative convolutions. Time's walls keep caving to the waters of memory. In Days Between Stations (1985), we walk through drained canals in Venice, hearing not even the missing currents but the whirring spokes of a lost platoon of bicycle racers. In Rubicon Beach (1986), the entire American era courses just beyond the grasp of a mathematician who awakes from a dream. ("There was a number for everything once; there was a number for justice.") That this kind of romantic madness is Erickson's routine, his tried and true, paints concerned friends into absurd rhetorical corners: author Mikal Gilmore, for instance, says he'd like to see Erickson "risk his hand" at linearity.
"I really don't go out of my way to make these books arcane," Erickson says. "I really try to make them as accessible as they can be, given what they are."
And the stories do move, maybe more so for being stripped of time's pretense. "One of the best compliments I ever got was a woman telling me she was driving along one day and flashed upon this dream she'd had, and after a minute or two she realized it wasn't a dream, it was my book."
Still, that word inaccessible haunts talk of each coming attraction -- readers wondering if his Breakthrough Novel is upon us, with rumors insisting that it is. Particularly now, when some inner clock suggests it's make-or-break time for Erickson commercially. After years of sluggish promotion (albeit with jacket blurbs from Pynchon and year-end recommendations in The New York Times), Poseidon Press publisher Ann Patty is declaring Arc d'X "the most original, daring, visionary novel I have read in years." National advertising and a ten-city publicity tour have been booked. Add to PR's power of suggestion the pendulum of culture, sweeping toward passion after a decade's polite fictions, reconsidering the outsider's truth. The age might be coming of Erickson, if he wants it.
On a late afternoon in December, Erickson stands playing his phone messages. There's a call from columnist Michael Ventura, growling something about a draw from a tarot deck. There's a call from the L.A. Weekly, which wants to abbreviate the phrase "great man of history" in Erickson's film column after the second usage. The author consents: GMOH it is.
An inspiration to do our interview in Granada Hills, where Erickson grew up, has been scotched, but it's just as well. There's no childhood there to see. The tract neighborhood of Erickson's youth went from blueprint to lawns and pools back to dirt and dust in the wake of the Simi Valley Freeway, all in a period of ten years. The family pulled up roots and resettled about three blocks away. The old swimming pool remains, having missed the freeway and been reallocated to the home next door. This geographical treachery is regularly credited with having affected Erickson's sense of space -- the sort of dislocation the late critic Bob LaBrasca referred to when, reading Rubicon Beach, he phoned a friend to say, "I'm on page forty-seven and I can't find my own bathroom."
The floors move too beneath Erickson's feelings toward Los Angeles: ever since the Sylmar quake in 1971 (his neighborhood was prepped for evacuation, then spared), he's known what's coming and greets it daily. He isn't leaving town, but he's resigned himself to the stain of foolish error. "It's not that we're all going to collapse in rubble, it's that we're all going to collapse in this huge collective burst of self-loathing, just like people in Pompeii at the base of Vesuvius, watching smoke rise year after year. They knew it was going to blow" -- he bares his teeth -- "and they didn't leave."
Erickson's mother runs a little theater in the Valley. She phones in stunned reactions to his books. "After Tours of the Black Clock -- here's a strange thing to have your mother say to you -- she said, 'You know, you're really quite mad.' Just like that. She wasn't joking; she was very calm, unhysterical."
Father, who died almost three years ago, didn't click with his son's first four books but tried. A portrait-turned-technical photographer, he gave Erickson his inconvenient susceptibility, his way of looking at life on paper and seeing the literal truth: that the proposition might never fly. "He was just like me, and I worried that he had not been happy enough of his life."
Erickson the child stuttered so badly people thought he couldn't read. Indignation mounted behind the blockage. He was a severe little guy, an only child, but he could read just fine. His first alternate reality "may have been" a 1909 edition of Ozma of Oz.
The first story came at age seven ("Teachers assumed I'd plagiarized it"). By 15, he was sending off stories for publication, no takers. At 17, he wrote his first novel, writing five more before the first that sold, when he was 35 and had already internalized the futility. "I don't know why I kept at it. It felt more like an assertion of identity than an act of will. At some point in those twenty years, the whole activity in the eyes of people I knew, and maybe even my own, began to seem a little insane."
At UCLA, he strove to loosen up: walked barefoot to classes, listened to rock 'n' roll -- the familiar sound of bulldozers right behind. The master's program in journalism was leveled just after it issued his degree. Erickson's own future seemed ambiguous, professors sending him off with caveats about the necessity of honest legwork. "The implication was that I was somehow always pulling a fast one, with all that 'good writing.'"
With the sincerest intentions he took a staff-writer job with the Automobile Club of Southern California -- a position he lost a few years later, after a clash with a newly hired editor. He's amazed anyone wonders why he was there. "I needed a job!"
For income, Erickson doubled down on free-lance reviews for the alternative weeklies, which saw him as a curiously sincere, punctual genius, traveling periodically to Europe and brooding about the Auto Club. ("Probably too bright a talent for the pages of the L.A. Weekly," then-music editor Gilmore says, "but I was happy to exploit him anyway.") In an effort to keep him from the Weekly, the L.A. Reader gave him a column, and he turned out a series of political-cultural wild rides, risking his hand at linearity with soaring riffs. He found "nuclear imagination" (the ability to confront the abyss and be liberated by it) in both Reagan and Billie Holiday; hypocrisy in both Bob Guccione ("You have to allow," Erickson wrote, "that pornography can corrupt people if you also argue that a great book can ennoble them") and Gloria Allred ("Rapes the first amendment and calls it freedom"). It was a voice with certainty and paradox behind it, arguing like a gambler on behalf of the self-evident.
You'd have even called him arrogant if he appeared for a minute to have exercised any choice about it, beyond casting his faith in what he knew. "I think there are areas in our life where we're rooted," Gilmore says. "Steve's a fellow who likes a fair amount of consistency and likes his foot to fall on firm ground every day in certain ways. He's a very disciplined writer, has a disciplined schedule, and I think all of that bolsters his confidence, but I think more than anything he decided this was an area of his life where he was going to trust himself."
He liked to argue. He liked to show up at Reader city editor Randy Signor's house for the Friday-night game of Risk (a contest of world dominance he won regularly, says Signor) brandishing a jug of wine -- red, never white -- ready with the writer's terse pronouncement. (His case against white wine, Gilmore says, was that "it wasn't wine.")
All this time, he kept trying to peddle the first five novels -- writings Erickson calls "more personal, yet less narrative" than his published books. In this respect, they may have sounded more like the Erickson his Reader audience knew. We can't know for certain, because the manuscripts don't exist. He destroyed them. "After I sold Days Between Stations, I saw that I was either going to pull the old stuff out and try to rework it and get it published, or I was going to go on and write books that I assumed were going to be better books. And without being melodramatic about it, it seemed creatively imperative that I go forward. And that I burn the bridges behind me."
Days sold poorly -- Days Between Sales, Signor nicknamed it -- as did Rubicon Beach. The friendly head-shaking began then. He was chasing away a large audience, his colleagues complained; he was deliberately "antislick." And those titles. Says Signor: "You'll never mistake an Erickson title for Elmore Leonard."
In a biographical statement he wrote for his publisher recently, Erickson says that the job of the novelist is to "fail again and again. It's his job to fail by narrower and narrower margins, investing everything in his failures, until there's nothing left to fail with." Nothingness: the novelist's clean exit.
There's an alternate ending, though, one he described in a 1985 L.A. Weekly essay about writing, in which all the small cowardices of the generation's writers add up and up until the day we "meet that promise we once made to ourselves, and the promise reaches out and passes its hand right through us."
All of Erickson's books rejoin this theme, which is why, when Erickson worries that "inspiration is finite," you get his drift. "I guess tonally and emotionally and thematically I have in the back of my mind to pick up where I last left off."
It's a big dream to keep having. He never makes notes, never outlines ("I'd lose the combustion of it"), just walks the vision around in his head, going about life, trying to look human.
The payoff is a nice blur in his prose between logic and mood, emotions coming true in words and weather, like poems you whisper in your sleep. "The blue hall that divides his cell from mine is now the dark deep blue of night; when we reach its mouth there's a sudden pandemonium of wings." "The moon was in the cabin; she inhaled the languid smoke." For all this sensual intoxication, however, there's little conscious joy. In the new book, especially, readers may feel abandoned by the reassurances of nature. "I guess I feel that the dark things have beauty and the beautiful things have darkness. Physical and emotional context I think become interchangeable in my books."
He's sitting in the Ivy restaurant; Billie Holiday's on the sound system. "Late Billie Holiday," Erickson specifies, listening close. ("Nobody wants you/when you're old and gray. . . ") Does age make for nuclear imagination? "In this song it does," Erickson says.
In a minute, he's talking about whether fiction is doomed, or whether it can be made brave by reports of its death. "I think a lot of writers treat it as an obsolete form, and they might believe it is one, as I sometimes do, but if you write as though it is, then that's just the kind of self-betrayal we've been talking about."
The question, Erickson says, is how many times you can stray from an ideal "and still have some capacity to agonize." There's a character in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors who murders and God lets him. No limits, no silent alarms; it's all human territory as far as the man can see. "That's the film I think of immediately," Erickson says. "Even though I think it was finally a dishonest film -- I think Woody Allen recoiled from the nihilism of his own movie -- I give him credit for raising the question."
In Arc d'X, Erickson hasn't recoiled. The great man who wrote of equality rapes his slave. The slave, Sally Hemings, forfeits freedom for love. "The issue," Erickson says keenly, "is to what extent Jefferson's darkness made his light possible. I worked from the premise that for somebody in trouble, the pendulum had to swing. Otherwise, he was simply a hypocrite. I assume he was a man of genuine contradictions."
Actually, another Erickson obsession enters into this premise: the supernaturalism of love. In Tours, love ripped the twentieth century in two, one part conscience and the other denial. In Arc d'X, Erickson's still fussing with the mechanics, smudging up the chalkboard. ("The collision of sex with freedom equals love," he writes at one point.) Asked if he's finally got the formula where he wants it, he winces -- he has taken the question to be about his own life, and not his book. "No. Because I'm not sure right now about my capacity for falling in love." (He was married two years, then fell hard for another woman, whom he is no longer with.) "One of the reasons I'd gotten married was that I'd decided I probably was not going to fall in love again the way I had. And then I did. Obviously that went into the novel."
He may refer here to a character named Erickson, whose heart, on page 245 of Arc d'X, "has broken to the crumbling of history." But this occurs two years in the future, with both the collapse of a love affair and, the book tells us, "the final failure of his career as a novelist."
"The heart of Steve's talent," Gilmore says, "is to convey and be faithful to a dark kind of soulfulness he may not really understand and that he's probably deeply afraid of in his own life. But probably he takes bigger risks every day than he imagines. He's a deep-loving person, and I think every risk in that area has cost him quite a bit, every risk of love and caring.
"Also, the women he writes are a sort of idealized projection of self -- the strong, accomplished, mystically aware and endowed self that Steve really reveres and yet feels is at odds with someone a little more capricious and lustful and reality-bound, like his protagonists."
In Arc d'X, at least, one such lover seems to beat the game. He jumps from an invisible toehold in a cliff behind a stairwell to some rocks below at uncertain depth (a few feet, it turns out), against which crash the waves he's been hearing in blackness all his life.
There's a scene in Steve Erickson's life you can just see in a book of his. It happens in the wake of the divorce. He watches his car emerge from a car wash in Hollywood. Someone unfamiliar climbs in, as if to clean the dashboard. Erickson hesitates. The stranger searches the floor mat, finds the key -- and drives off. Erickson runs behind, screaming, slapping at the windows, but the thief gets a break in the traffic and is gone. Although the car is recovered within a week, something about the episode shakes Erickson more deeply than a theft; the question is why.
It was one of those events, Gilmore surmises, "that can sometimes just seem so symbolic of your world." Also there was this matter of hesitation. "It didn't feel right to him, and he should have walked over there ten seconds sooner."
This makes some sense.
It's Erickson's great fear distilled -- self-betrayal, truth's moment
pulling away from him. It's the train in Days Between Stations
that never stops, the assassin in Tours of the Black Clock
who's lost his nerve, the poet in Rubicon Beach who loses
his muse in the face of his housemaid. Or, on the other hand, it's just
a car -- and you get the feeling the pain will pass; it only looks
like a scene from the heart's memory. In his apartment, behind his desk,
with the world's secret history in his head and literary destiny at his
door, the author may even reassure himself that this is only Erickson's
life, not his dream.