Friday, September 14, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #257: Days Between Stations by Steve Erickson

Look, I'm tired of explaining who Steve Erickson is, all right? If you don't know after thirty years, it's no longer my fault.

He's one of the visionary writers of America in our time: I can't claim him for my generation, since he was born nineteen years before I was. But the writers we love best are always a generation ahead of us, aren't they? Those are the ones who were young and vital and exciting when we were just learning what it was to discover young and vital and exciting writers.

Days Between Stations was his first novel. Published in hardcover by Poseidon Press in 1985, one of the early Vintage Contemporaries in September 1986. I found a copy, as a remainder, probably eighteen months to two years later -- I found it alongside a similarly remaindered copy of his second novel, Rubicon Beach, and bought both -- in a mall B&N store outside Poughkeepsie.

I haven't re-read it since then: not in thirty years. But, with my intermittent Vintage Contemporaries series, I thought I might as well.

Erickson is often called a visionary writer: his books are full of connections based on image or affinity rather than logic, held together by fine writing and striking images, full of things that happen rather than conventional plots, moving through landscapes of startling transformations, as influenced by cinema as by novels. All of that was in place from the beginning -- he's been consistent from Days Between Stations until now.

So to talk about the plot is nearly beside the point, and the characters aren't much more central. There's a woman, Lauren. When she was young, she called the cats in from the Kansas farm-fields of her youth, and then she married a competitive bike-racer, Jason, who was always away and relentlessly cheated on her. After years of neglect, she makes a connection with a mysterious man, called Adrien or Michel, who manages a club they frequent in Los Angeles.

Adrien/Michel is the viewpoint character for a while, and we learn of his complicated American-French heritage -- he's the grandson of Adolph Sarre, a young wunderkind in early cinema who nearly completed a film called The Death of Marat, which would have been a masterpiece.

And then the focus shifts to Adolph as a young man of uncertain parentage, growing up in a secret room in a private Paris brothel in the years before The Great War. He's passionately in love with Janine, the daughter of the whore who he thinks is his mother and the owner of the house -- but the owner's legitimate son is also obsessed with Janine.

(I didn't notice this the first time around, but women are often things to be fought over rather than people in Erickson's novels, symbols and metaphors rather than independent actors. Of course, even the men are driven entirely by forces they don't understand, but the women seem to be instead driven by what the men do, one step further removed from agency.)

The middle of the novel is taken up with Adolphe's struggles, but we will return to Adrien/Michel and Lauren eventually, as they end up in Paris and find some happiness there, for a while, before things get worse again.

Everything is falling apart in Days Between Stations. In the modern plot, Lauren and Jason's marriage is basically a sham, even though she's still deeply in love with him, no matter how much she wants not to be. The world is falling into ruin as well: LA is wracked by sandstorms; Paris is powerless and icebound; the Mediterranean is drying up, leaving Venice high and dry, horrifyingly hot and smelly. In the historical plot, Adolph will never complete his movie, he will never get to keep Janine, and he has to get through WW I before he even gets to those further shocks.

You read Erickson not for the story or even the people, but for the moments and images and ideas: he's the fantastika equivalent of those SF writers most impressive for their new concepts. He writes sentences like no one else, drawing the reader into his dream-worlds and making them real. This is as good a place to begin as anywhere, since so many of Days's elements recur in his novels: uncertain apocalypses, the power of the movies, obsessive men and the women burdened with them, twins and lost children, and the horribly unrelenting power of what we might as well call "love."

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