“The last time he was in the United States,” begins a sentence in Steve Erickson’s 1993 Arc d’X, “driving aimlessly through Wyoming and the Dakotas for the purpose of being aimless, he heard the news of the Cataclysm the same way he heard all the news that year, on the car radio.” The nub of Erickson’s fiction, the physical and metaphysical essence, is in that line.
Since 1985, with his first novel, Days Between Stations, and now with Zeroville, his eighth–and best–novel, Erickson has been a singular voice in American fiction, for my money our most imaginative native novelist. The praise he’s received–“visionary,” “a dealer in myths,” “mind-warping,” “almost violently individual”–while perfectly accurate, may also have led some readers to assume that Erickson is too wild for them, that his books don’t offer the pleasures of character and narrative that are still the main reason people read novels.
There’s no denying the hallucinatory nature of Erickson’s novels. But even when they spiral off into the strangest territory, they always make emotional sense (you could say the same of “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “Visions of Johanna”). Look at that description of the drive from Arc d’X, the sense it conveys of the everyday suddenly invaded by bad news that travels like a rumor or a secret, by word of mouth or radio waves. No matter how much of that news we hear in Erickson’s books, we can never make total sense of the story it’s telling, even though the dread it imparts has been lurking there all along.
We’re not told how Los Angeles is taken over by water (Rubicon Beach, Our Ecstatic Days) or by the desert (Days Between Stations). And that’s why the novels deserve that overworked appellation “dreamlike”–because they present the most fantastic things matter-of-factly, without explanation. We find ourselves having to cope with a situation that’s both concrete and inexplicable. “He woke nine years later remembering nothing,” begins one passage in Days Between Stations. “It wasn’t so much that he couldn’t remember, but rather as though it was gone, his life before that morning.”
But the feeling of being adrift in vast physical spaces touches something familiar in the back of our minds, and I think it’s what makes Erickson a quintessentially American novelist. The scale of his dreamscapes–water and sand swallowing entire cities; a train journey covering an area so immense that there are literally days between stations–are fantastical versions of American vastness. As with the vistas Edward Hopper painted, Erickson creates spaces that are both empty and haunted, spaces that threaten to swallow their inhabitants. For Erickson’s characters, trying to live in these spaces is a way of both declaring their presence and accepting anonymity. And so they’re constantly prey to an anxious spiritual homelessness, caught by the inchoate mix of both promise and doom in America’s wide open spaces.