Theodore “Ted” Bellefontaine, the hero of Jim Krusoe’s surreal new novel, Erased, is the son of a transcriber. His sixty-something mother, Helen, is paid to copy radio interviews or lectures. Trans means “across,” of course, and a transcriber is a bridge of sorts. Transcription also serves as an apt metaphor because, in its exploration of the hereafter, Erased attempts to bridge the gap between life and death.
Ted is the proprietor of a successful mail-order “gardening-implement” business in St. Nils (also the setting of Krusoe’s previous novel, Girl Factory). A neighbor named Linda raised Ted after his mother left him when he was four and moved to Cleveland. His mother returns to St. Nils when Ted is “approaching middle-age,” but their budding relationship is cut short by her sudden return to Cleveland and subsequent death. When Ted receives two postcards from the deceased Helen, he sets off for Cleveland to find her.
To the ingenuous Ted, Cleveland is a resplendent city of artists—where everyone is encouraged to write, paint, or sculpt—a place deserving of its slogan, “The Best Location in the Nation.” He enrolls in sculpture classes taught by a woman named Sunshine and, when he’s not looking for clues to his mother’s disappearance, spends his time working on busts of Greek goddesses.
Interspersed with Ted’s narrative are transcripts of interviews chronicling near-death experiences. Interviewees describe crossing over briefly into the hereafter. Some familiar tropes (tunnels, bright lights, a voice that says “you are not alone”) appear in these very funny interviews, but Krusoe seems less concerned with the details of the afterlife than in exploring the meaning with which we imbue it. Ted’s chapters read as a transcript of his own brush with death, including many of the same dreamlike elements of the transcribed interviews.
His search for Helen is peppered with characters and numerous coincidences. A chance encounter with a biker-chick named Uleene leads Ted on a tour of Cleveland’s nutty women’s clubs, where he hopes his mother will turn up. At every club’s meeting, the same representative of an organization called the Fellowship of the Open Door—a character named Doorperson Muriel—is the guest speaker. She warns that “the hereafter is not what you think. Neither, for that matter, is the past, nor the here and now.” But as in dreams, prophecy in this novel is scattered among mundane details and absurd events.
One of the most vivid passages describes a crusade against the rat population of Cleveland by a gang of citizens armed with “city-issued clubs” and other tools. As the group approaches the army of rats, Ted notes, “I began to feel the prickly sensation that I’ve heard people describe as a precursor to the presence of the supernatural.” The face-off inspires a long, hilarious rat monologue imagined by Ted; as he muses on the nature of life and death, the people around him swing at the “endless carpet of small yellow incisors and scratchy brown claws.”
Ted is a naïve narrator: He actually believes that the dime bags Linda sold out of her basement when he was a child were filled with “rare kelp,” and he trusts the MBA he hired to run his business while he’s in Cleveland, even when his bank funds start to dwindle. And he is susceptible to the nonsensical advice thrown at him by Uleene, Sunshine, and the proprietor of the sex shop below his rented apartment, who strangely enough is the cousin of the proprietor of the sex shop below the apartment his mother rented in St. Nils. The irony required to convey Ted’s naiveté runs the risk of undermining the sincerity of Krusoe’s meditations; I sometimes found it hard to stay invested in Ted’s quest, even as I marveled at the imagination at work in this book.
Erased is propelled by so many coincidences that one begins to feel Ted has no real agency; this raises questions about fate and predestination. Are we all just drifting through life with no will? Or does Ted already have one foot in the grave—is he on the brink of being erased? Where do we draw the line between life and what comes next? As the novel progresses, similarities between Ted’s and his mother’s experience emerge. The pace of the book resembles a dream: It starts slowly, carefully accumulating details, and then rushes at the end when Ted’s mother reappears to offer some bizarre revelations. Erased raises more questions than it answers, but it offers some very entertaining speculation along the way.