Wednesday, August 01, 2012

These Dreams of You by Steve Erickson

I discovered Erickson's first two novels -- Days Between Stations and Rubicon Beach, both mid-'80s Vintage Contemporaries, with that over-designed look that signaled Smart and Literate to so many of us in those days -- as remainders not too long after publication, right next to each other on a table in a mall bookstore that's probably been gone for two decades. And they were just the beginning of a long, strange career, through six more novels and two non-fiction books (though one of those involved traveling the US, during an election year, with the ghost of Sally Hemmings, and the other was a similarly phantasmagorical story of another election year -- Erickson is as fearless when he tells the truth as when he tells stories) over the next two and a half decades.

As far as I can tell, the only time I've written about Erickson before is in 2007, about his previous novel Zeroville. And, for those of you who are confused, this is a different writer than the epic fantasist Steven Erikson; this one was born with the name and was using it professionally a decade before the Malazan books started.

Erickson could be the American J.G. Ballard -- his obsessions and imagery is different, but he's equally captured by his own imagination and driven to write surrealistic, fantasy-tinged versions of his homeland to work out the differences between how the world does work and how it should work. All of his books have unlikely and fantastic elements -- near-future dystopia, the career of Hitler's private pornographer, a hero who only parrots back the last opinion he's heard, lakes suddenly appearing in downtown Los Angeles -- and a sense of America as a land of myth and possibility. (Not a perfect land by any means, but a land containing wonders and vastness.)

These Dreams of You extends Erickson's world further, having perhaps the least focus on his homeland of any of his novels. It's the story of a failed LA novelist and former college professor, Alexander "Zan" Nordhoc, who now only works as a "pirate radio DJ" (which doesn't pay, of course), along with the rest of his family -- struggling photographer wife Viv, twelve-year old Parker, and their newly adopted four-year-old Ethiopian daughter Sheba/Zema, preternaturally aware and present -- who have been spat out by the recent financial crisis (it hit just after they adopted Sheba) and are waiting for either something good to finally happen to them or the banks to finally get organized to take away their over-leveraged, under-paid-for house away from them.

But Dreams then sends Zan and his family away from that home and America -- first he gets an offer to give a very remunerative lecture at a London college (set up, perhaps out of guilt, by an ex-lover of Viv's), and then questions about Sheba's mother sends members of the family to Ethiopia and Berlin. Dreams's plot is a whirlpool, spiraling out of control and dragging the members of the Nordhoc family away from each other before they finally can pull themselves together. Along the way, Erickson is as thematically focused on what it means to be an American now -- during a major financial crisis, thrilled by the first black President, representing your country abroad after a decade of wars of choice -- and how Zan and Viv live up or down to those possibilities.

These Dreams of You is one of Erickson's most accessible novels, without major intrusions of the fantastic or complicated structures, while still acting like a stream of consciousness blast straight from the heart of America to the world. Erickson cares passionately about what America is and means, and has once again embodied what the world is like today into a fabulous, compelling fictional form.

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