Although several of Steve Erickson’s books have been lauded on best-of-year lists, somehow his isn’t yet a household name, like Thomas Pynchon or the late David Foster Wallace, who have been both counted among his fans. “These Dreams of You,’’ his ninth novel and a truly electrifying read, ought to change that. The book begins as Zan and Viv Nordhoc and their children, Parker and Sheba, sit in their Los Angeles house, which soon will face foreclosure, watching election night coverage of Barack Obama’s victory.
A middle-aged white man, Zan holds his four-year-old daughter, adopted from Ethiopia, on his lap and stifles a sob. In its rebuke of America’s ugliest past, Obama’s election is “the sort of history that puts novelists out of business.’’ As Erickson shuffles his characters through past and present - and from Los Angeles to London to Berlin to Addis Ababa - this line and others pop up as recurring motifs, along with repeated images: pages torn from books, cameras that take ghost pictures, balloons let go to drift until they disappear.
Erickson’s forays into surrealism (including young Sheba’s disconcerting ability to emit, or transmit, music as if from some visceral radio) make perfect sense in a book that both explores big themes - race, family, politics, art - and interrogates the very nature of storytelling. Zan, an underground DJ, erstwhile novelist, and failed literature professor, is invited to London to deliver a series of lectures on the topic “Novel as a Literary Form Facing Obsolescence in the Twenty-First Century’’; his subsequent Kafka-esque unraveling is interwoven with scenes from his past and Sheba’s. Zan has long “made an aesthetic out of coincidence,’’ and so too do Erickson’s interlocking tales pivot on happy (and unhappy) accidents. In its gorgeous, vivid prose and its acutely sensitive soul, “These Dreams of You’’ shows us just what a novel can still do in our own crazy times.