Viewers have proved quite capable of processing the overlapping narratives and complicated timelines of movies such as “Crash.” But almost a century after “Ulysses,” any novel that plays with multiple points of view or challenges strict chronology is still slapped with that off-putting label, “experimental.”
With his exuberant ninth novel, “These Dreams of You,” Steve Erickson wears the label proudly — and even presents a theory about why innovative forms best make sense of our nonsensical present. After all, as a character in these pages muses about Barack Obama’s election as president: “A black Hawaiian with a swahili name? It’s science fiction. . . . Or at least the sort of history that puts novelists out of business.”
A white Los Angeles couple, jubilant about the possibility of a post-racial America after the 2008 election, has adopted an Ethiopian toddler. They’re the kind of hipsters who find it amusing to name an African girl Sheba. Alexander “Zan” Nordhoc is a disaffected novelist working as a disc jockey. His blue-haired wife, Viv, is a struggling photographer whose most original work has been plagiarized, but she can’t afford to sue. In fact, the Nordhocs can’t finance their emergency dental work, let alone their mortgage. Their house, overrun by rats, is moments from being repossessed. And a series of international mess-ups may have gotten the couple branded as human traffickers.
When an opportunity arises to lecture at a British university on “The Novel as a Literary Form Facing Obsolescence in the Twenty-First Century,” Zan accepts, despite his queasiness about the source of the offer: one of Viv’s ex-boyfriends. Zan stays in London with Sheba and his 12-year-old son while Viv travels to Ethiopia to search for Sheba’s natural mother. But when Viv goes missing and then Sheba vanishes — perhaps abducted by her biracial English babysitter — father and son set out to unravel the mystery.
This globetrotting plot would be right out of an action-adventure film if Erickson played it for the suspense. But he strands the hungry, exhausted pair mid-search and switches abruptly to a whole other set of characters 43 years prior. Suddenly, we begin to follow the babysitter’s mother, Jasmine, a beauty who serves as a confidante to Robert Kennedy moments before his assassination. Later, she becomes intimate with a debauched British rock star reminiscent of David Bowie or maybe Mick Jagger. As in past novels, Erickson delights in having his fictional creations collide with historical figures and events. The musician also appears to be Sheba’s grandfather.
As a creation myth, it’s a doozy. All adopted children who crave hearing about their real families deserve a story like Sheba’s. It’s not clear whether the genealogy is strictly accurate — after all, our hero is a novelist who compares the babysitter to Joyce’s Molly Bloom. Zan has to be branded highly unreliable, although he muses, “I’m the family’s sanest person. . . . That’s like Ahab being the captain of a Carnival Cruise line.”
The story is wild enough to do justice to the paradoxes and swings of our “democrazy,” as Jasmine calls it. The rock star muses that her native Ethiopia is “the beginning of time . . . and L.A. is the end of time,” while Berlin is “time in the crosshairs, where the latitudes intersect.” Erickson argues that the job of the best art is to bend time: “It’s as though Jasmine could climb into a song and ride it back ten years to the kitchen of an old Hollywood hotel, in time to prevent an assassination, or forward twenty years in time to prevent her own.”
We’ve seen less of this kind of innovative fiction since the 1970s, when novelists such as John Barth and Robert Coover showcased formal inventiveness. The success of Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Visit from the Goon Squad” may whet appetites for unconventionally structured fiction of the sort that Erickson champions. His jagged, jazzy voice is his own, as are his saucily surreal urban settings.
Readers will have different levels of patience with an author who leaves a character to die on the street after a savage attack and launches into a rumination on art. Erickson can wax a bit faux-profound, too: “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?” But the novel’s energy more than compensates for its occasional lapses. Nestled amid all of the stylistic play is a touching meditation on the anxiety of parenthood:
“Someone who doesn’t have children . . . can’t understand the way children won’t be compartmentalized, the way children can’t be consigned to their own rooms in the city of one’s life. Children are the moat that surrounds the city, the canals that run throughout. They get everything wet.”