In 'These Dreams of You,' Steve Erickson writes incisively and movingly about issues of family and race, but the novel goes off the rails with tangents.
Zan Nordhoc's unhappy family is certainly unhappy in its own ways in Steve Erickson's new novel "These Dreams of You." For instance, in a third-act twist he suggests that the nanny of the protagonist's adopted daughter (and, potentially, that child's secret birth mother) was conceived in a booze-slathered Berlin orgy with David Bowie and Iggy Pop.
Well, that's one way to pep up the family holiday newsletter. But if it's possible to be disappointed by a group sex cameo with '70s art-rock stars, it's because Erickson's novel is, in many other ways, a finely felt hike through the messy ways relationships and history define us. But you have to hack through some serious storytelling weeds to get there. Throughout "Dreams," strangers improbably resurface across continents, a subplot about Bobby Kennedy's assassination drags on, and the novelist-protagonist's work-in-progress seems to foretell his future.
As Bowie sang, take your protein pills and put your helmet on first.
Erickson, the longtime CalArts professor and influential editor of the journal Black Clock, has with nine novels become one of the singular voices in contemporary L.A. fiction. With a knack for short, spear-pointed paragraphs, his books have made broad social and political forces feel as immediate as love and loss.
And for the first half of "These Dreams of You," these skills resonate. Nordhoc, a gently failing L.A. novelist, has just adopted an Ethiopian orphan, Zema, to complete a family with his pixie-ish artist wife and hormone-surly son. In a story set on the cusp of the 2008 economic implosion and Barack Obama's election, Erickson describes how a child with roots in a fraught Horn of Africa and a spiraling-away American dream reconciles with the gulf of pain between the two lands.
This book is asking some of the hardest questions a novel can. What price do we pay for the country's "unfathomable possibilities"? Can America ever ask forgiveness for its crimes against Africans and African Americans, and do they have to accept the apology? Can anyone, especially a middle-aged white guy, ever understand the lived experience of other races in this country?
Erickson is humble enough to not answer such things definitively, and lets Zan's self-doubt about his novel's black character answer an obvious question about Erickson's own vantage point for talking about race in "Dreams."
"Why is she black, Zan wonders, annoyed with himself for asking … or is it wrong to think there has to be a point to it? Characters are black only because they need to be? But what do I know about being black? Isn't any white person who writes about race asking for trouble?… For that matter, I don't know anything about being anyone else, other than who I am."
None of this comes at the expense of flesh-and-bone characters though. Even if contemporary fiction can do without another sad sack novelist protagonist like Zan, 4-year-old Zema is quite the wiseacre about her newfound familial situation. She defuses tension by declaiming "I'm a professional!," and touts her contrarian support for grandfatherly then-presidential candidate John McCain over her more-youthful peer in African ancestry, Obama. The family's ramshackle affections and idiosyncrasies feel genuine.
Erickson grasps the intimate and esoteric ways that the forces of society mold us, and this is an undeniably brave book. But his tactic to explore these themes by taking the scenic route through history make the second, globe-skipping half of the novel wander.
After his wife goes missing on a trip to Ethiopia, Zan's parenting decisions are often bad enough to be unconvincing as narrative. Would someone really leave his adopted child with a nanny he just met in a foreign country while he jets off to Germany to find his lost wife based on a vague tip from a photo blog?
Two flashback narratives — one set in the late '60s in the lead up to Kennedy's L.A. shooting, the other in late-'70s Berlin set in what's clearly meant to be Bowie's flat during his Berlin Trilogy years — seem shoehorned into the story. At least the Kennedy ramble connects the fulfilled potential of an Obama presidency to a time when a black president seemed much less possible. The Bowie one seems taken from a separate book entirely.
Plenty of recent novels, including David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas," have used the intertwined-narrative conceit to evoke the enormity and influence of history. But Erickson is already tackling such deep, difficult ideas about America that the device seems superfluous here. And when Erickson delves into questions of authorial reliability — as when the narrator of Zan's book hallucinates traveling through time in an attempt to preemptively write Joyce's "Ulysses" — the lit-theory-cleverness derails the story. A hero time-travels and just wants to reverse-plagiarize modernist fiction? No betting on ballgames?
Some of these flashbacks and travels might be imagined, some might be found text from the novel-within-a-novel, some might have actually happened. In any event, the vagueness unnecessarily muddies a book that, at its best, does real legwork in figuring out the slippery questions of race, relations and historical inheritance in America.
The book's rapturous final paragraphs do a great deal to make up lost ground though. They're part of a quick soliloquy, set in young Zema's fiery mind, about her future in this country. Here Erickson stares into the heart of America's pain and potential and doesn't blink. And no stoned pillow talk from the Thin White Duke was necessary.