Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson

Some novels are about story, a narrative that moves forward and goes from Point A to Point B. Those kind of books can range from the most relentless chase thrillers to discursive books like Dickens's and across several dozen other variations. Frankly, that's what most people would think of as "a novel" to begin with.

Steve Erickson doesn't play that game.

Shadowbahn is not his least narrative novel -- I think that's still Amnesiascope -- but it's not a story of things that happen in a certain order. It's a collection of things that did happen, or are happening, or that no one can stop happening, or that we wish happened, or dream that they didn't happen. It's the kind of book that reviewers call a meditation or a fantasia or other fanciful terms: a book loosely about things rather than telling the story of them.

In this case, it's rock 'n roll, Elvis, the Beatles, American music in general, the late twentieth century, and, looming over all of that like some Tolkienian Shadow, 9/11. Erickson will not tell us clearly what the one has to do with the other: he's not a writer to draw straight, crisp lines.

So let me sketch some of the things that happen, or appear, in Shadowbahn. They will be in no particular order.

  • Off Highway 44 in the South Dakota badlands, in what seems to be 2021, two matching blocky skyscrapers appear mysteriously. Those two matching blocky skyscrapers, the ones violently destroyed twenty years before.
  • Parker and Zima, twentysomething white brother and teen black sister, are driving cross-country, from one side of their family to another, when this happens. Their car is soon the only place in the country where music still plays.
    • That music seems to come from Zima herself, and may be entirely from the massive number of playlists compiled by their obsessive father.
      • That father, who never appears on-stage in Shadowbahn, is pretty obviously a 
      • version or self-insert for Erickson.
      • He, and Parker/Zima, have appeared in Erickson's novels before, notably in These Dreams of You.
  • Jesse Garon Presley wakes up near the top of one of those towers, somewhere in his middle years -- not young, but not as old as a man born in 1935 should be. He is alone there.
    • His twin brother died at birth. We are to presume something has shifted the universe so that we got this Presley rather than another, and probably all of the other changes we see. 
    • Presley had a minor career as a male model and hanger-on in Warhol's Factory, then increasingly became obsessed by his dead/non-existent twin, symbolized by one 45 by that twin.
    • This Presley cannot sing at all.
    • He knows -- and many people around him know -- that he was supposed to die, that the world they live in is the wrong one, and that it is Presley's fault.
    • Rock 'n roll basically died out by the early '60s. The Beatles were never famous. We may presume that American popular music either was locked into sever-duller iterations of The Great American Songbook [1] or that music stopped being a serious cultural influence at all, as we choose. The latter seems more likely, given the silence in the Parker/Zima sections. 
The narrative bounces from Parker/Zima to Presley and back, looping around that car trip, Presley in the tower, and Presley in the '60s and '70s. Again, Erickson is not telling a story here. Maybe he's constructing a mosaic, or painting a picture, of an America without something central and foundational -- showing us a society shattered at its center, broken and jagged with pain in the broken places. That's Shadowbahn.

As always, Erickson writes compellingly. He's a masterful prose stylist, with sentences that sing and characters that appear full-formed immediately. This book is structured into single-page pseudo-chapters (or vignettes), each one with a "title" that is often just the first words of the first sentence, rolling up into several large sections that mostly focus on either Parker/Zima or Presley.

Most readers don't want a novel like Shadowbahn. That's fine. But one sign I have that we don't live in a broken, shattered world -- maybe one of the few, these days -- is that Erickson is out there, writing novels like this.

[1] Amusingly, this could connect to another one of my obsessions: the Fallout video game series. Those are set in a world without rock 'n roll, a world devastated by a massive nuclear war in the late 21st century, a world crueler and nastier than our own. Shadowbahn, if you squint, could almost be a prequel to those games.

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