Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Rubicon Beach by Steve Erickson

I've written about Steve Erickson before -- hit this link for more details.

But the short form is this: he's been writing imaginative, powerful novels since the mid-80s, books that orbit fantastika elliptically, books that are about things rather than telling stories, books that are unabashedly literary and thoughtful, books that are sometimes (like Leap Year) called nonfiction even when they centrally figure historical figures living in the modern world. His books are weird, quirky, unique -- whatever adjective you want that means "radically different" or "not for a lot of people" or "way out there."

And he's not Steven Erikson: that guy's real name is Steve Rune Lundin, and he started writing more than a decade after Erickson.

Rubicon Beach was his second novel, originally published in 1986 and reprinted by Vintage Contemporaries a year later. I found it, for the first time, then or in 1988, along with Erickson's first novel, Days Between Stations.

I've been reading him ever since. I think his books are some of the most important American literature of our time.

But I still struggle to write about them in any coherent way. His books -- Rubicon Beach strongly follows this pattern -- fall into long sections that each follow seemingly separate characters, in different time periods, doing different things. The obsessions are similar, and the visions of ruin and sadness are common. His main characters are driven by things they don't understand: sometimes internal demons, sometimes events in the world, often both. There are events, but, like our own lives, those events don't tend to be nearly organized into a temporal sequence to generate excitement and adventure.

In Rubicon Beach, we open with the first-person story of Cale, just released from prison in a dystopian, falling-apart America some indeterminate time in the near future. We don't know what happened to this America. There's talk of American One and America Two, of annexes and territories, but no explanations. Cale is dropped of in a flooded Los Angeles, full of canals and ruined buildings and discrete islands. We don't know how that happened, either. He was a political prisoner, arrested for belonging to an organization whose name we never learn and whose goals aren't clear. Maybe to overthrow the government? (But, then, the government of America One or of America Two?) And he was released for an indiscreet moment: he accidentally told a joke in prison that got someone else executed.

And he keeps seeing a young barefoot Latina woman on the edge of the water, here and there in LA at night, with a man kneeling in front of her as she cuts his head off.

He's pretty sure the man is him. Every time.

The second section begins years earlier, and follows a young woman named Catherine, growing up somewhere unspecified in South America. (Yes, she is. Well, maybe she is. Erickson's like that.)

She's alone in life, friendless except for her father, but has a near-supernatural beauty, a face that sometimes transfixes everyone who sees it and sometimes disappears entirely, seeming to be other things so that Catherine herself can't be seen. She's torn from that world. kidnapped, set on a rambling path northward. She makes it to LA, in what seems to be the late '80s, in a world just like the one this novel was published into. She thinks, or is told, that crossing a specific street in LA marks her real entry to America.

That may even be true.

Her mere presence -- she doesn't even speak English; like so many women in Erickson, things happen to and around and because of her but not due to her agency -- wrecks the life of a screenwriter and his family. It destroys more than that, actually. None of that is her fault, or her action.

Her understanding of the world does not match our own. It's difficult to say which of us is correct, in the world of Rubicon Beach.

The third section of the novel dives further back in time. Its central character is Jack Mick Lake, born about 1914 and possessed of an amazing mathematical mind. He comes to believe that he's discovered a new number -- between nine and ten -- and that this number, which could have only been discovered in America, implies a whole new landscape of life. He has a complicated, tragic family. He falls in love with a young radical woman and loses her horribly while in college.

Many quiet, spent years later, he moves to Penzance in England in 1951, for no obvious reason. There he meets an old man who may be Cale and a woman who may be Catherine. And, in the end, he has to return to America, to take another long journey to that final beach.

What these three sections have to do with each other is never cleanly evident. It's nothing simple. In one sense, Rubicon Beach is a novel all about the assassination of Robert Kennedy, even though his name appears nowhere in the book. (Erickson, again, is that kind of writer: his most direct line is elliptical.)

Reading a Steve Erickson book is a distinctive experience. (This isn't even the weirdest one.) Rubicon Beach is actually relatively straightforward for Erickson, with each section telling its story cleanly, always moving forward in time.

If you read books to think deeply, to immerse yourself in new ideas and unexpected constellations of words, to wonder at amazing phrases and be surprised by endless inventiveness, you should try Erickson.

This book isn't a bad place to start, in 2019 -- it shows us a world flooded in the near future, an America broken in two for reasons it won't tell us, secret police and radical cells, women treated as objects, and the yearning for something better and truer. Sound familiar?

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