PHANTASMAL AMERICA BY MICHAEL VENTURA
From The L.A. Weekly, August 29 - September 4, 1986
The best compliment Iíve gotten on Rubicon Beach is from [L.A. Style editor] Bob LaBrasca, who said, ĎIíve read 10 pages of this book and I canít find my own bathroom.í
Steve Erickson delivers the line with as close as he gets to glee. His second novel, Rubicon Beach, is being shipped to bookstores as we speak; his first, Days Between Stations, will soon be in paperback as part of the prestigious Vintage Contemporaries series. Both books carry a heady quote from Thomas Pynchon hailing Ericksonís ďrare and luminous gift.Ē Meanwhile, Erickson, 35 and newly married, does some free-lance journalism and mans a cash register nights in a comic-book store in Hollywood.
Why would an author not want his readers to easily find their bathrooms? I didnít want to ask the question at the time, but if I had it wouldnít have been flip, because a character in Rubicon Beach suddenly does become lost in his own house. He canít find his study, bathroom, bedroom, or front door. It looks to him like even the windows are in different places. He keeps hiring contractors to work at putting things right. His wife, who isnít lost in the house, is terrified as she sees him demand that rooms and windows be drastically rearranged in patterns that make no sense to her. Her husband is trying to take his inner journey as far as he can, and that can be damned inconvenient. Earlier in the novel another character thinks, ďBy the plain form of my delirium I will blast the obstruction of every form around me into something barely called shadow.Ē Sometimes thatís how meaning is discovered. Sometimes thatís what passion demands. Sometimes you have to be willing to go that far, and farther.
Which is what Rubicon Beach is all about: how much weíve lost, and how far we may have to go to get it back. And this is quite a "we". On one level Ericksonís ďweĒ is men and women in all our convoluted efforts to simultaneously find and escape each other. But his ďweĒ also speaks of Americans as Americans, citizens of a country defined, as Erickson told me ďnot by a common territory or a common language or common customs or common religion, but an idea, a dream.Ē Hence it is easier for us to lose our country.
Ericksonís style echoes the approach of a character in Norman Mailerís story The Man Who Studied Yoga: ďHe does not want to write a realistic novel because reality is no longer realistic.Ē A literary descendant of Faulkner, Henry Miller and Philip K. Dick, rather than of Hemingway and the literalists who followed him, Erickson tells a story by re-creating the essence of the world rather than describing its surfaces. Rubicon Beach, in its first part, gives us a Los Angeles in which a wide river passes through downtown, a Los Angeles of deserted buildings and noisy waterfront bars where a few remaining citizens travel by boat on canals, and where Hancock Park is an island populated by whores. This Los Angeles is an annex of America Two, where people who remember America One are arrested as subversives.
But this isnít the future. In Part Two we see that the Los Angeles of Part One exists just under the surface of the present, in our nightmares and in our mistakes. It is an L.A. and an America that are already quite alive, in inner life rather than daily life.
Then, in Part Three, this is all taken frighteningly further. In elegant, intricate plot twists the characters realize that they have come together under the auspices of ďa dream that destroys what is not fulfilled.
What an idea. What a force loose in the world. I have never seen it expressed with such precision. To have a dream -- as individuals, as lovers, or as a country -- is to subject yourself to the law that your very dream will reach out to destroy you if you fail its demands. Erickson is saying that this is a plight not only of America today, but of the 20th century itself. Our society is being demolished from within by the force of the dreams it has betrayed.
Obviously Steve Erickson is playing for much higher stakes than, say, a Jay McInerny, an Anne Beattie, or a T.C. Boyle -- as one would expect of a man who has exhorted his fellow writers like this: ďWe have to write every word as though it is the first or last ever written.
Here, in Rubicon Beach, is a musical prose of utter clarity that can weld the abstract and the concrete, the daily and the surreal, into a seamless whole. Here is a mind that can both conceive visions and follow them way over any edge. Here, I mean, is a writer -- a man whose words reach for you where you live and whose meanings look back at you from your mirror, whether you like it or not.
So, yes, while reading Rubicon Beach you may not be able to find your bathroom or your front door as easily as youíre used to. But you may find that by inducing this confusion Erickson has enabled you to see several worlds at once: and that this act of vision will bring you closer to the quick of your dreams.
Which is the most an artist can do: put you in proper danger. The rest is up to you.
VENTURA: You once wrote in a Guerrilla Pop column about how in our century it is both terrifying and releasing that all things, even the end of the world, have become possible. You ended it with this remarkable sentence: ďOn this beach, we stay alive by the mutuality of our nightmares.Ē I think that could be a plot summary of Rubicon Beach. So letís frame that as a question -- do you think so?
ERICKSON: Why donít you elaborate before I elaborate?
VENTURA: Rubicon Beach is divided into three parts concentrating on three different characters and each of them dreams of the others. The connection between them ---
ERICKSON: --- is their nightmares. Right. Itís true. But I wonder if they survive by that.
VENTURA: Well, it depends on what you call survival. Iíve resurrected an old word: square. My kid asked about the behavior of certain people who will go unnamed in this interview, and, I said, ďMan, theyíre just squares. You canít expect too much of squares. The worst punishment for being a square is that youíre a square -- a person who canít get beyond those four points.Ē Well, in a square sense your characters may not survive, but --
ERICKSON: -- they find meaning. In their lives and in the things that are important to them.
VENTURA: Thatís why I consider Rubicon Beach such a moral book -- each of the characters makes a decision to stay conscious through the paid. Nobody decides to numb out.
ERICKSON: I think thatís true of both the novels. Theyíre about people trying to resurrect their passion in this scheme where things are crumbling, and falling apart. I have a good friend who once wrote me this tortured letter about whatever love affair he was going through at the time and I wrote back and said, ďYouíve got to remember, Fred, that a lot of people go through their lives never feeling anything at all.Ē And thatís what these books are about. Itís easy to go numb. Itís the easiest thing in the world. And these are characters who will not go numb. Theyíll slap themselves silly to get the feeling back. To keep the blood going. To keep even the worst nightmares alive -- because at least thatís a dream. It may be a bad dream but itís a dream, and itís better than no dream.
VENTURA: Your setting for this issue, this struggle, is Los Angeles. Other than the fact that youíve lived here most of your life, is there a reason for that?
ERICKSON: I think most Los Angeles novels have been written as an aberration of America --- have seen Los Angeles as this little port of weirdness in America, not connected with the rest. That is not what I wanted to do. I wanted to write a Los Angeles novel which was by definition an American novel, that is, Los Angeles as the furthest psychological and geological extension of America -- America as far as it goes before it comes to the point of no return.
VENTURA: You once wrote in a column, ďLos Angeles does not exist in time. Los Angeles is a vapor-trail of yet-to-be-lived memories that glides by as youíre hurtling down the years . . .
ERICKSON: It sounds good. I donít know what the fuck it means. But certainly in the novel I took Los Angeles out of time. I wanted to create a free-floating Los Angeles that was rootless in time, where the past and the future are all kind of the same thing. The assumption of everyone who reads Part One of Rubicon Beach is that itís a future Los Angeles, but, as you find out in Part Two, thatís not necessarily the case at all. Part One shows a different Los Angeles in a different time, rather than a future time. Iím trying to get at a sense of Los Angeles being an existential blank, a psychological white wall, a geographical neuter.
VENTURA: How would you say the ďexistential blankĒ that is, perhaps, the background or backdrop of the Los Angeles sensibility differs from the New York or East Coast sensibility?
ERICKSON: I donít know what the East Coast sensibility is, exactly, except I know it has a pretty narrow idea of what the West Coast is about. Thatís why they loved Bret Ellisí book [Less Than Zero], because it confirmed everything they just know Los Angeles is about.
VENTURA: Theyíre not wrong, but it only applies to a tiny segment.
ERICKSON: A segment, exactly. My own feeling is -- and Iíve made this point to New Yorkers who are a little disgruntled to hear it -- that I think Los Angeles, of all the major cities in this country, has the most creative possibilities. That isnít to say the possibilities are being fulfilled. But it has the most creative possibilities because Los Angeles is a blank slate on which you can write basically what you want to. Thatís what attracts a lot of people here. And itís also why so many people come here wind up so lost. Because if you live in New York you may not know who you are but you know youíre a New Yorker. You donít have that here. If you come expecting the city is going to give you some kind of identity, youíre going to wind up one of those crazy walking Hollywood Boulevard. Itís a great town for self-invention but the problem with self-invention is youíve got to know what youíre inventing. Youíve got to come here with some sense of self in order to reinvent it.
VENTURA: How did growing up in this ďexistential blankĒ influence your writing?
ERICKSON: I grew up in the San Fernando Valley basically before it was the San Fernando Valley, when it was virtually rural. We were in Encino and we were moving north across the Valley just about three steps ahead of the telephone lines. Iíd be going to school one year -- going from my house to school and walking through an orchard of lemon trees lined by eucalyptus, and thereíd be horses and dogs and stuff. And a year later the landscape was different. I mean, completely different. Absolutely transformed, going from the same point A to the same point B -- instead of orchards there were malls, theaters, McDonalds. And when I was 10 years old I thought, ďWell, this is the way reality is. Things change just like that.Ē Then later I read Faulkner, who basically blows away the world between exterior landscape and interior landscape; blows away the world between literal time and figurative time, metaphorical time -- the way, for instance, in The Sound and the Fury, youíve got Benji, who will be 5 years old at the beginning of a sentence and heís 32 by the time you get to the end of the sentence. Faulkner crystallized for me the kind of reality Iíd basically grown up in. And I realized that this was the way I had always wanted to tell a story.
VENTURA: Both Rubicon Beach and Days Between Stations postulate the end of America.
ERICKSON: Rubicon Beach assumes that America ended a while ago. That may or may not be true. Iím still not clear whether Ronald Reagan is the end of an old America or the beginning of a new America. I would rather believe the former, because it would mean thereís still a chance for the new America. But I have a funny feeling that may not be the case. There are just too many scary things going on right now. Weíve got an attorney general who says the states are not obligated to enforce the Bill of Rights. This is an America thatís been losing its identity for at least 20 years. A pivotal day in Rubicon Beach, the coordinate that all three parts fall on, is the 6th of June, 1968, when Robert Kennedy died. And I chose that day not because Iím especially convinced that Kennedy was a great man or would have been a great leader. I chose it because probably thatís the point at which America turned away from the possibilities of redemption.
ERICKSON: The failure involves not how pure or impure America is. Nobody is pure. Thereís a litany of American sins, beginning with what America did to the Indians, followed by what America did to the blacks, but I donít think the measure of a great country is how pure it is. I think itís in whether or not it confronts the way it has sinned, if you will; and then in the ways it finds redemption. There was a period between November of 1963 and June of 1968 where I think America looked for redemption, or it looked for the means by which it could redeem itself. Then the wind really went out of the countryís sails. I think what has happened is one kind of dream got displaced with another. The hard dream got displaced with the easier dream. Reaganís great insidious success is that he has persuaded people to redefine the dream, at least for the time being -- yet still keep calling it the American dream. When Reagan had his debate with Carter he said, ďAre you better off now than you were four years ago?Ē, which is the sentence people latch onto; but the follow-up sentence was to the effect of, ďCan you still go into the stores and buy what you used to buy?Ē There it was, the essence of being an American as summed up by Reagan: Can you still buy what you used to buy? The real insidious thing is that the current conviction seems to be that being an American should be easy. It shouldnít involve risks. It should be a society, a place, an experience in which success is somehow guaranteed to you and you donít have to make the hard choices that I think were meant to be made on an almost daily basis. I think the guys who invented this country saw it as a long and hard road, and one that was never going to be easy if, as was the ideal of this country, you were going to keep a lot of different interests free and in balance. People on all sides of the issues are latching on to simplifications. In order to protect ourselves, from Ed Meese censoring what we read, people are beginning to argue that pornography cannot corrupt somebody. I think that is a dangerous point to make. Because I believe in a culture that has consequences. If my book can make somebody better off you have to accept the consequences of the fact that maybe pornography can make somebody worse, and that those are consequences we live with. Or else we can live in Russia where they write social realism, quote-unquote, and produce a culture that is basically innocuous. But for all the things that are wrong with America, there is a vibrancy about the culture here, a dynamic quality that you just donít see in the rest of the Western world, because weíve got a culture of consequence, a culture that involves risks on both the part of the artist and the audience. What somebody like Meese wants is a culture of no consequence. The guys in this administration, when talking about economics, talk about freedom to fail, one of the basic tenets of capitalism -- you have to have that risk, thatís what makes capitalism a vibrant economic system. But culturally they donít want it. So I guess Iím writing about the ways the American idea has failed. And the ways in which itís been brought to failure by the people who give it the cheapest kind of talk.
VENTURA: Letís back up a little. Define what you mean by the ďhard dream.
ERICKSON: The most radical thing about America was not democracy, because thatís not really a radical idea; it was the idea that they would establish in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, and later in the Bill of Rights, the idea that there are moments when the state must subvert its will to accommodate the freedom of one citizen. That is probably the hardest part of it, especially when youíve got a democratic system constantly reinforcing the idea of majority rule. The idea, especially, is that that right -- the right of individual free speech, for instance -- is not a right given to the citizen by the state; itís a right that a citizen has by virtue of being a person. That is what the second sentence of the Declaration says: God gave you certain inalienable rights; the state cannot take them away. The state doesnít give you the right to free speech, youíve got that right, you were born with that right. The only thing the state can do is not take it away.
VENTURA: But in Rubicon Beach you handle all this metaphorically -- almost allegorically. Your characters are threatened by the state not for their exercise of free speech but for their search for a private, inner identity. When your character Catherine appears in Los Angeles, you write, ďThe town was terrorized by her. America was terrorized by her, but the mere fact of her being.
ERICKSON: Theyíre terrorized by the idealism of her self-knowledge, the free self-knowledge of her own identity that she has brought with her from the jungle where she was born. She is sort of a last American.
VENTURA: Never more so than when she says, ďNot another moment will I be the sacrifice by which America pretends that its dreams have never changed.Ē But it interests me that neither Catherine and Cale of Rubicon Beach, nor Michel and Lauren of Days between Stations, ever try to change the world theyíre in.
ERICKSON: Cale doesnít really try to change the world but he does try to change his own life.
VENTURA: They all try to change their own lives, in some way, but your concept of change is always private. Nobody in these novels thinks they could effect a wider change.
ERICKSON: No. Theyíre all loners. And Iím a loner.
VENTURA: At the same time, youíre writing novels.
ERICKSON: Which is a lonerís work. Thatís the paradox. A loner who goes a singular individual path which is going to then be received by a lot of people and maybe change them, hopefully. But that brings up a point I want to make. Iím not a radical. I wasnít raised a left-wing radical. Iíve always basically accepted the system. I come to this as somebody who considers himself a basically conservative person. But I think America is not the kind of dream you turn away from without the knife coming down, as it does in Rubicon Beach. Because both in terms of the psyche of America and in terms of the institutional liberties of America, I donít think America will be able to live with itself having betrayed the dream from which it was born.
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