|Science Fiction Eye - Issue #12, Summer 1993|
By Steve Erickson
I grew up in the San Fernando Valley before it became a metaphor for modern American suburbia. At this time in the Fifties, the valley was very rural, with ranches and orchards and horses and strange white mansions that stood alone on open plains. When I was five years old we moved into a tract house that was part of a new tract neighborhood in the northern part of the valley, which was exploding into a hundred similar neighborhoods.
Ten years later the neighborhood was gone. Ten years after the dirt and dust of the valley had given way to lawns and pools, a freeway was built and the lawns and pools gave way back to dirt and dust. The neighborhood of my childhood lived its entire life within the time of that childhood. Later when I went back to see the house where I grew up, the house was gone but our swimming pool was still there, having missed the boundary line of the freeway and been given by the county to our former next-door neighbors whose house also remained. Beneath the beams of the still-unfinished freeway all that was left of my childhood was this patch of blue shimmering in the twilight, claimed by the chain link fence that jutted hungrily into the wasteland from our neighbors’ yard. It was common in my childhood to see the landscape change, not just month to month or week to week but day to day, to walk the same route to school year after year only for it to radically metamorphose from a row of eucalyptus trees to a block of new houses to a shopping center. By the time I was a teenager in the mid-Sixties nothing about where I grew up looked like it had only a few years before, and I had no way of knowing this acceleration of time was unusual until, at the age of twenty in Paris, I was surrounded by buildings and streets that hadn’t changed in hundreds of years. I had to leave Los Angeles and come back to it to understand it.
I was an only child and stuttered badly. It alienated me from other children and convinced my early teachers I couldn’t read. A short story I wrote at the age of seven surprised these teachers, who believed I plagiarized it. This was a common assumption through much of my schooling except for those occasions when the work was somehow regarded as too disturbed to have been plagiarized; following one such episode I stopped writing for several years. At UCLA I was editor of the literary magazine and received the university’s Samuel Goldwyn Award for my first novel—a rare instance of a work of fiction winning a prize that usually went to screenplays and television scripts. (This was scandalous enough that the prize was suspended for several years afterward.) I received a bachelor’s degree in cinema with a minor in literature, and a master’s degree in journalism.
Over the next twelve years I wrote three more novels, none of which was published. I lived in Paris, Rome, Amsterdam and New York before returning to Los Angeles. It may be some perverse part of me that gravitates toward the anomalous nature of a novelist’s existence in Los Angeles, but I’ve also believed that because the city is psychologically neutered with no identity of its own, for awhile the creative possibilities were greater than in any other major city in America, though I’m no longer sure that’s true. For several years I held a job with a company I would rather not name, from which I was finally fired for insubordination and being a “disruptive influence.” I’ve made a living as a journalist and for two years in the early Eighties wrote for an alternative newspaper in Los Angeles a column called “Guerilla Pop” that interwove popular culture and politics. My novel Days Between Stations was rejected by four agents and twelve publishers before it was published by Poseidon Press three years after I wrote it. I received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1987, in the days before one had to sign an anti-obscenity pledge to get such a grant, and wrote Tours of the Black Clock, about a man who wipes out his family and becomes Adolf Hitler’s private pornographer. I flatter myself to think Jesse Helms would find such an investment of government funds unfortunate. I’m currently the movie critic for the L.A. Weekly.
Some of the writers I’ve been compared to I’ve never read. I’ve never read Angela Carter, and I only read J.G. Ballard for the first time five years ago, after the publication of my second novel, Rubicon Beach, which reminded some people of Ballard. (Ballard has even written a novel called The Terminal Beach, a book—and title—I was previously unaware of.) William Faulkner was the first and greatest influence on my work. He taught me how reality ticks not to the clock of time but the clock of memory. The professors tried to teach me in college that while Faulkner was a great writer he didn’t understand structure, but it was obvious to me even then that Faulkner’s structures were the most revolutionary thing about his work. His great characters exist as both metaphors and true lives, transcendent in the first case and detailed with psychological specificity in the second— Joe Christmas, for instance, that cipher of rage and passion in Light in August who literally does not know if he is a black man or white, and therefore embodies everything that’s hopeful and damned about America. The second writer to have great impact on me was Henry Miller, not for the sexuality of his work, which by the early 1970s didn’t seem particularly revelatory, but rather its emotional nakedness, the way he razed the conceits of literature and insisted on integrating the lyrical with the vulgar, the cosmos with the gutter.
If these writers had a formative impact on my writing, Gabriel Garcia Marquez had a crystallizing one. When I saw how Marquez applied the lessons of Faulkner to his own experience, it brought into focus some lurking lesson in my brain that I hadn’t been mature or talented enough to grasp. In his best books Philip K. Dick questioned first the nature of reality and then the nature of humanity, followed by, almost incidentally, the nature of God. Stendhal interwove the concerns of politics with the conflicts of the psyche; Emily Bronte, whose Wuthering Heights is of the most subversive novels ever written, upended the Western world’s frantic efforts to contain people’s passion. I admire the post-Einsteinian conceptual synthesis of Thomas Pynchon and the intellectual adventurousness of Don DeLillo. The poetry of Rim-baud and Baudelaire and Pablo Neruda gave to surrealism the soul that surrealism abandoned later in nihilistic pique, and which rock and roll reclaimed. Bob Dylan is the single most important writer of my generation. His records High- ~ way 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde and The Basement Tapes are great American novels, mystic journeys through American frontier towns and women’s bedrooms, and I don’t mean just the words of these records, I mean the sound of them—the organ and guitars and drums and, above all, Dylan’s voice. Van Morrison is the son of some clandestine union between William Butler Yeats and Bessie Smith. I readily, enthusiastically concede the influence of Ray Charles, John Lennon, Lou Reed, the Doors, Otis Redding, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and the Beatles.
My work has been called cinematic. I wish I didn’t believe film is the art form of the Twentieth Century, because the fact that it is only serves to remind me of the novel’s obsolescence. In college I briefly considered the possibility of becoming a filmmaker but decided I couldn’t be both a filmmaker and a novelist, that either would demand a full commitment, and that while I had reason to believe I might have the talent and temperament for the latter, I had no way of knowing whether I had either for the former. It’s difficult for me to know the extent to which the movies have informed my imagination’s vocabulary, but I think Michael Ventura was correct when he argued that my stories do not take place in the camera’s eye but the mind’s eye. Somewhere between the two is the terrain of the dream.
Over all of my novels hovers the ghost of America. In the first two books, Days Between Stations and Rubicon Beach, that ghost manifests itself in Los Angeles, which is not an aberration of America but rather the farthest extension of the American idea, taken to the point of no return. In Tours of the Black Clock the ghost manifests itself in the Twentieth Century, when America returns to the dark heart of the Old World to infect the Third Reich with its anarchic spirit. In a political memoir I wrote called Leap Year, a traveller searches the country for America only to find the United States. This new novel, Arc d’X, is about the choice made one afternoon in Paris on the eve of the French Revolution by a fourteen-year-old American black girl. It’s about a man named Thomas who believes in the natural-born right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the last of which gives birth to the millennium two centuries later—not the millennium of the calendar but the millennium of the spirit.
John Locke, whom Thomas considers one of the three greatest men that ever lived, once wrote of the right to life, liberty and property. But when Thomas, updating Locke, wrote instead of the pursuit of happiness, the country born of that pursuit broke loose of history. Thomas’ own happiness is embodied by his property, the fourteen-year-old slave girl he owns, who one afternoon finds herself free of the bonds of his ownership and must choose either to return to her country as his property or to leave everything behind in freedom, including her family and home. So the girl named Sally becomes the first modern American, changing the outcome of not just one revolution but two; and the man who inspired both is consumed by the dark expression of his own idealism. Later, when Sally wakes in a strange theocratic city that is outside of history, the country she invented is only a dream she had the night before. In the mouth of a volcano, a man named Etcher rewrites the Unexpurgated Volumes of Unconscious History stolen from the archives of the church. And in the year 1999, in the city of Berlin, a middle-aged, washed-up American novelist watches a small guerilla army in the dead of night rebuild the Wall so the world might understand again what freedom is. Seeping into all these places and times are the domination and submission of sexual obsession, and the obsessions of those who have been changed by the promise made in a dream, by a girl who chose to remain the slave of the man who defined modern freedom.
Progressively over the course of my novels the dark and the light of my work have each pushed further out from the center. I don’t chart the trajectory of my novels: they chart themselves. I never write from notes or outlines. When pressed to explain my work, I invariably wind up answering in terms of what it isn’t. My novels are not surreal because they don’t view human relationships as essentially absurd, nor do they have an absurd view of existence. My novels aren’t science fiction because they’re not interested in the relationship of man to technology or his own evolution, even in humanist terms. My novels aren’t “experimental” because their first priority isn’t a reinvention of literary form; nor are they fantastic because they aren’t tonally characterized by a sense of wonder, though some people may or may not feel a sense of wonder when they read them. They aren’t post-modern because they’re not preoccupied with the artifice of modern art.
My novels are very traditional. Their concerns are traditional while cast in modern psychic terms, in a post-nuclear age that renders obsolete whatever imagination is paralyzed by the abyss rather than liberated by it. My books are about the oldest themes in the world—love and freedom, sex and history, obsession and idealism, identity and redemption—all threaded by the glue of memory, in which lies the only “real” time. Each time I write I hope not to call attention to the artifice of the work, as the post-moderns would have it, but rather to make the reader forget it, to persuade him or her to exchange his or her reality for mine, an exchange which of course is inevitably doomed to failure since the reader must either reclaim his reality or go crazy. I assume it’s the job of the novelist to fail again and again. I assume it’s his job to fail by narrower and narrower margins, investing everything in his failures, until there’s nothing left with which to fail.