“But years later, on a night in early November ...” Steve Erickson’s latest novel begins in mid-thought, a rebuttal to a point we never got a chance to hear, or the counterpoint to a voice echoing in the novelist’s head, but invisible on the page.
In so beginning These Dreams of You, Erickson is continuing a story, and an argument, that has threaded through his remarkable body of work, one of the finest in contemporary American letters (Jonathan Lethem, in his essay collection The Ecstasy of Influence, calls Erickson “one of America’s three or four greatest living novelists”), and one of the least recognised. The argument is about the past, present and future of the country he aches for. It is a love song to a country whose “national anthem of dreams deferred” is Sam Cooke’s haunting A Change is Gonna Come; a dream fulfilled, in part, by Barack Obama’s election: “Forty-five years after the song was recorded ... but then all the song says is that a change will come, not how fast, right?”
Erickson has been pondering the tormented history of the United States, and its tangled relationship with race, since his 1993 novel Arc d’X, a lavish fantasia on themes of slavery and freedom, in which slave Sally Hemings murders her lover and owner Thomas Jefferson, and sets the future of the country – and of the idea of liberty – atilt. Jefferson is a symbol of America’s forked heart, “habitually tormented about his slaves, whose ownership he could barely give himself to accept but whose freedom he could not bring himself to give”. So is Sally, who dreams of freeing herself simultaneously from the bonds of slavery and love in one swift cut: “I’ve been owned by this one and that one my whole life. And the biggest thing I ever did was to free myself.”
The setting of These Dreams of You is familiar from Erickson’s previous work: a vaguely post-apocalyptic Los Angeles of fires and floods, much like the LA of what he dubs the “Age of Apocalypse” in his astounding 1999 novel The Sea Came in at Midnight. Zan Nordhoc is a failed writer – another in the long line of Erickson’s authorial fill-ins and manqués – who has reinvented himself as a radio DJ, trapped within a family, city, and country on the brink of collapse.
The night in early November that begins These Dreams of You is in 2008, when a black man, married to a woman who is the descendant of slaves, was elected president of the United States. Obama (one presumes; Erickson never identifies any of the historical figures here, assuming our familiarity with the likes of David Bowie, Robert F Kennedy, and Iggy Pop) resets the American moral compass by humming a familiar tune, “a song the country could sing in common”. Zan and his wife have been swayed by the melody of a new America, but the euphoria of 2008 has given way to the hangover of 2009. At the same time, Zan is deeply unsettled by his preternaturally astute Ethiopian adopted daughter Sheba, whose presence, like Obama’s, is simultaneously the fulfilment of Jefferson and Hemings’ tortured romance, and a prod to his liberal guilt.
This is decidedly a Great Recession novel, complete with attached overdue bills and notices of foreclosure. Zan, his wife Viv, and his children flee Los Angeles for London, where Zan is scheduled to deliver a lecture, and collect a big fee, in the hopes of holding on to their home for another month.
Viv, tormented by a stray thought she cannot shake, leaves London for Ethiopia, where she hopes to track down Sheba’s birth mother. Zan, scrambling for assistance with childcare, hires a young Ethiopian woman named Molly, who takes a particular shine to Sheba. When Sheba goes missing, Zan cannot help but feel that, somehow, she belongs more to Molly than to himself. The family, stressed beyond repair, begins to fly apart amid the pressure of economic strain and the burdens of history.
Zan, meanwhile, has the kernel of an idea for a new novel, in which a young man roughly his own age, beaten terribly by skinheads in Berlin, awakes in 1919, with a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses – which would not be published for another three years – at his side. X, as Zan calls him, finds himself in the enviable position of being able to pre-empt the classic literature of modernism by writing it himself, and yet a certain presumption sinks in: “It isn’t such a far leap from cutting to editing to revising to recasting, enhancing, reimagining, improving.”
The divergent plots of These Dreams of You begin to intertwine, doubling and splitting and recombining like a half-remembered reverie.
Erickson’s work has always depended on inculcating a sense of the uncanny in readers, a nagging familiarity undercut by a sense that all the puzzle pieces have been subtly, carefully shifted by an impishly brilliant poltergeist. In The Sea Came in at Midnight, it was one character’s lovingly assembled Apocalyptic Calendar, with separate sections for “irrational assassins”, “mass exterminations”, and “moments of nihilistic derangement no scheme could accommodate”.
Here, it is the battered copy of Ulysses that makes its way from Zan’s story to Zan’s life, with a stop along the way in David Bowie’s recording studio. Characters are, to pilfer a phrase from a Bowie song, always crashing in the same car – treading in the same footprints left by their predecessors, believing themselves to be inventing when they are always unconsciously recombining what has come before them. Dislocation and separation are the common heritage of all human beings, and yet the promise of redemption – of that song we all sing together – hangs in the air, unfulfilled but pregnant with possibility. “Everyone is his own age of apocalypse,” one character observes in The Sea Came in at Midnight, and the same could be said for all the figures – historical and fictional – that populate These Dreams of You.
Zan is hired to deliver a lecture on “The Novel as a Literary Form Facing Obsolescence in the Twenty-First Century”, and it is that sense of the exhaustion of the form that perversely animates this wickedly entertaining excursion into, and undermining of, the historical past. The novel is dead, allowing Erickson to remix its familiar melodies until it pleases his own ears. These Dreams of You, like Arc d’X and The Sea Came in at Midnight, bounces between past and present, between Zan struggling to keep his family together in an unfamiliar Europe, and the unfamiliar terrain of the past.
Without warning, Erickson thrusts us in other times, and other places: an impossibly weary Robert F Kennedy taking an impromptu walking tour of London, preparing himself for campaigning as “an act of penance, the lashed slog from one station of the cross to the next”; or Bowie, licking his wounds after being accused of making a Nazi salute, retreating to Berlin, “attached to the rest of the western world by a thread of track and highway, like the balloon on the end of a string, isolated, besieged ... Divided down the middle – like me”. All these characters – men and women, Americans, Europeans, and Africans, those alive and those relegated to historical memory – share a single mantra, voiced by Kennedy: “I don’t know how much time I have ... to become the person that I hope I am.”
Erickson makes so bold as to acknowledge his own takings, and claim his right to them: “In a sense writers always are plagiarising something, albeit unconsciously, things they’ve read or heard or seen that they re-manifest in some singular fashion that’s the only true measure of a writer’s originality.” This is what Erickson has always been up to, from the imaginary film criticism of 1996’s Amnesiascope, to the unlabeled historical markers of The Sea Came in at Midnight. These Dreams of You is remix literature, with Erickson helping himself to a lavish helping of history and recombining it in the manner of the president whose aura infuses this book.
“He’s the mix-tape president of a mix-tape country,” Erickson says of Obama, “full of songs that it seemed everyone heard and loved and sang in common when he was elected. Now no one hears that song anymore, only all the other songs on the tape that they ignored.” Literature is Erickson’s idol, and yet it is one, he is disheartened to admit, of limited practical utility. Writers are uniquely incapable of effecting change in the world they describe, even as they create their own perfect worlds, lovingly constructed out of words and sentences and stories.
The outsized hopes placed in the 44th president were doomed from the outset: “He used to be a writer once ... That should have tipped us off right there.” We can never quite trust Erickson’s scepticism, undermined as it is by the luminous lyricism of his own writing. He is, in the final analysis, a battered patriot writing for a country whose lingering, bittersweet melody he has spent his career attempting to snatch from the air and commit to paper: “I’m a traitor. Better to admit we’re traitors of the country of the banged gavel, the Salem stench, the hate that hates in God’s name, so we might be patriots of the other country of the eternal pursuit, memory’s mystic chord, our nature’s better angels, and the promise that no God can help loving even when we break it.”