You don’t need to read a word of Steve Erickson’s new novel to figure out that it’s broken. A quick flip through its pages reveals it to be fractured into hundreds of pieces, many no longer than a paragraph or two, each island of text banked by white space and heralded by a bold capital letter, like so much typographical bling. This visual oddity is just one of many ways the novel willfully resists being read as a conventional narrative. It alerts us to Erickson’s more idiosyncratic designs and serves as an advisory for readers: not for the faint of heart.
Not that Erickson has ever written for the faint of heart. Extolled by Pynchon, likened to Nabokov, DeLillo and Ballard, he has been deemed a surrealist, a visionary, a genius. His fictions play out among the shifting landscapes of sci-fi, fantasy, postmodernism and avant-pop. Occasionally, “These Dreams of You” reads less like a book than a prose contraption engineered to pry us loose from our bearings.
It opens, however, with something like narrative realism. I say “something like” because the first three words, “But years later,” hint that time will not be conforming to linear models. Still, we begin grounded in time and place: the night of Nov. 4, 2008, and the living room of a house on the edge of Los Angeles, where the Nordhoc family is watching the presidential election results on television. The four Nordhocs, who provide the messy, vibrant heart of the novel, make up a representative tableau for the new millennium: the American family as mash-up.
The father, Zan, a novelist who hasn’t published in 14 years, has lost his job teaching at a local college and now D.J.’s four times a week at a pirate radio station with “about a megawatt to its name.” The mother, Viv, a turquoise-haired, out-of-work photographer, once gained acclaim by sculpturing stained-glass butterfly wings, only to find herself “at the center of one of the art world’s most notorious scandales” when her innovation was stolen by “the world’s most successful artist,” whose reputation and pocketbook now profit while the Nordhocs fall deeper into debt. Parker, the 12-year-old son, has “gone gangsta lately,” favors the prefix “über” and wears around his neck a music player “barely bigger than a stick of gum.” These three members of the family are white.
Then there’s the 4-year-old daughter, Sheba, adopted from an Ethiopian orphanage 19 months earlier. Given to Owen Meany-ish all-caps outbursts, dragging a finger across her throat to convey dissatisfaction and saying things like, “What up, sweet cheeks?” and “Chillax,” she is both the most magnetic and the most maddeningly drawn character. Erickson admirably refrains from rendering her as cute; she’s as tough, as complicated, as any of the adults. Nor does he sentimentalize or simplify the underlying motivations and repercussions of interracial adoption. We are told early on that Sheba “was adopted in the first place out of white naïveté,” and Zan grapples repeatedly with the question of what he, “a middle-aged white man,” has a right to feel and think — and write — about race.
Yet this preschooler’s precocity occasionally beggars belief. “I’m sorry,” she says at the end of a tantrum. “I’m only 4, I’m not 12 like Parker, I act braver than I am.” And despite Erickson’s evident thoughtfulness about the complexities of culture, privilege and marginalization, he exoticizes Sheba’s place of origin (“civilization’s ground zero, the land where God placed Adam and Eve”), her “otherworldly-looking” countrymen, with their “extraterrestrial features,” and Sheba herself, whose body “perspires in song,” literally transmitting sound on its own mystical frequency.
Complicating any reading of the Nordhoc family is the extent to which it mirrors the author’s own family, as well as the extent to which he means for us to figure this out, using the similarities as a lens through which to view the story’s myriad layers. (Even the most desultory Internet search turns up the fact that Erickson is married to an artist whose work includes “butterfly stained-glass windows,” which have figured in a controversy involving questions of plagiarism and the artist Damien Hirst.) Erickson, who has woven autobiographical and historical elements into previous novels, seems to invite us to fish out our trench coats and magnifying glasses. He sprinkles his breadcrumbs liberally. One subplot involves a novel Zan is writing, which (wink-wink) “isn’t remotely autobiographical.” We are told that Zan makes “an aesthetic out of coincidence,” and once the family travels abroad — to London and then, splitting off like the fractured segments of the book itself, to Addis Ababa and Paris and Berlin — the coincidences accrue, fast and furiously.
Oh yes, the plot(s). Brace yourself.
The family goes to London (where Zan has been invited to lecture on the novel in the 21st century). Viv departs for Ethiopia (where she hopes to find Sheba’s biological mother). Molly, a young Ethiopian woman, inexplicably appears outside the Nordhocs’ hotel room. (“I understand you are looking for a caretaker for the children.”) Viv vanishes; Molly and Sheba vanish; Zan and Parker set off for Berlin (don’t ask) in search of Viv. Meanwhile, in the novel-within-the-novel, Zan’s protagonist is beaten by skinheads in Berlin, encountered by a black teenage girl, encumbered with a battered paperback copy of an Irish novel that “all of the 20th century knows, its literature having begun with this book,” and magically catapulted nearly 80 years back in time, where he exploits the opportunity to plagiarize the famous novel before it is written. A third story line, also interwoven, takes place some 40 years in the past. Here a young woman of Ethiopian descent encounters a white Yank with “rabbit’s teeth” and a “high, nasal voice.” She campaigns for him in his bid to be president of the United States, is with him the night he’s assassinated in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen. Later, she lives in Berlin with a trio of musicians, whose real-life identities remain as opaque-transparent as that of the presidential candidate. (I had fun figuring them out.) One of these musicians sires the daughter who will be called Molly, also the name, “by coincidence perhaps,” of a character in the aforementioned famous Irish novel.
Occasionally Erickson’s prose swirls and foams as irresistibly as the sea. Elsewhere it’s more mind-boggling than the plot. For example: “Does one need to travel a birth passage, womb to uterus, to be a daughter, if already you’re the descendant of an unforgiving century?” And: “Zan feels a prisoner of mysteries he can’t name let alone solve, and implications of secrets so secret he barely knows they’re secrets.” Does he feel the implications or feel a prisoner of those implications, and either way — huh?
But perhaps plot and even sentence structure are of secondary importance in a work where “the arc of the imagination” is forever “bending back to history,” an idea that is thought by multiple characters in this book of multiple frames. Actions echo across time, continents and realities: historical, fictive and dreamed. Zan lectures on “the narrative as sustained hallucination.” In the end, Erickson’s seemingly fractured novel turns out to be something else — the novel as fractal, a series of endless, astounding tessellations.