Steve Erickson is one of the most imaginative, most original, most surprising, and most enduring writers working in fiction today. He is in the league of Pynchon, DeLillo, Atwood, Rushdie, Okri, Pamuk, Ondaatje, Lethem—a maximal visionary, with a restless historical consciousness that devours epochs and artistic phenomena the way a shredder lattuces up your secret documents into recyclable collages. Erickson has never repeated himself, not even once, in a literary career that now spans several decades. He fits as easily in speculative fiction as he does in literary writing, and he could just as happily burst the confines of either. His subjects are the West, America, film, music, history, desire, excepting that he exceeds all of these. He is never less than innovative, but never less than heartfelt either. Political rage and human longing are just as liable to be motivating forces in the work. And the writing, in every single novel (there are now ten of them, including the just-published Shadowbahn), is inspiring and singular, with lancing moments of intensity. I can think of few novelists writing today whose vision I admire more, whose new work I look forward to with more enthusiasm.
Shadowbahn, released on February 14 from Blue Rider Press, is among the most unusual, and most extreme, in a literary career that has often been marked by its unpredictability. As Erickson notes below, Shadowbahn begins with the sudden appearance in the Badlands of the Great Plains of a replica of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, and it goes on from there, tying up loose threads of popular culture, and calibrating them against eruptions of national insecurity. Somehow, moreover, the playlist of the 21st Century, that mock turtle soup of curatorial routine, becomes the de facto way that Shadowbahn gets told, in little bursts of curated recorded music, and I will leave it to you to see how this is the case. The counternarrative of Shadowbahn is, in this journalistic context below, the occasion for me to ask Steve Erickson a few questions, as I have often done in person (he frequently edited my work when he was Editor-in-Chief of the late, lamented CalArts literary magazine Black Clock, and we have therefore been friendly for some ten years), further to the project of bringing your attention again to this incredibly important American writer. We talked primarily by email (but with the intention to render email functionally indistinct from a human face to face conversation), over the end of January and beginning of February.
The Rumpus: How long after These Dreams of You did you conceive of Shadowbahn and what was its point of origin?
Steve Erickson: It was one night in March 2013, about a year after the publication of These Dreams of You. My head had been completely blank since finishing Dreams at the end of 2010—I felt completely tapped out. Often in the past, a new novel has picked up on something that, I would realize in retrospect, didn’t get fully resolved in the previous book—but while there was a connection between Dreams and Shadowbahn, it wasn’t in that way.
I was home by myself, my wife and kids were elsewhere, and I was thinking about a workshop I had taught that day, where I had been trying to make a point about the role that research plays or doesn’t play in writing fiction, and how one may research for the sake of verisimilitude without necessarily becoming a prisoner of that research. In the workshop I had done something I don’t usually do, which was give an example from my own work, a scene in Dreams where a father and son take a train from Paris to Berlin, and the train pulls into Berlin at night and the son is wonderstruck by the flashing neon futurism of the Berlin Hauptbahnhof. There’s only one problem, and that is the train from Paris doesn’t arrive in Berlin at night. It arrives in the early morning. I know because I’ve taken that train. I researched train schedules to find out if the schedule for the Paris train had changed in the years since, but it hadn’t. And then I decided I didn’t care. I told my students, “It’s my novel, and my story, and my train, and if, for the sake of advancing my story, and maybe revealing something about my characters, I want my train to arrive at night, it will arrive at night. For that matter, it’s my Berlin, and if I want to put it in the middle of Iowa, I will.”
Exactly what synapse morphed Berlin in the middle of Iowa into the Twin Towers in the middle of the Badlands, I’m not sure, and I’m not sure how I thought to put Elvis Presley’s stillborn twin Jesse in one of the Towers. Both ideas pretty much came at the same time, though, and suddenly that image of the Towers also became informed by everything I had been thinking about the country over the previous twenty years. It became informed by this idea of where the country was heading, and even then, I wasn’t feeling very optimistic. I do remember mulling for an hour or so whether someone should be in the second tower before realizing that, as I wound up writing, “the whole point of the other Tower [was] its emptiness”—that the other Tower was, in a sense, the twin who was missing. So I carried that around in my head for the rest of the year before I began writing the first week of 2014.
Rumpus: I admire the point about research, and also the idea that the world can be altered imaginatively. I often think about the impossible Malta of Catch-22, and the way it becomes a character in that book. That particular perturbation of reality has empowered me many times of the years, along with, of course, models like Philip K. Dick and the London of Gravity’s Rainbow. When you conceived of the Twin Towers image, were you already thinking about the political ramifications of it? Or was it more intuitive and emotionally conceived? How important is the political substratum to you generally?
Erickson: Oh, it was as close to a completely out-of-the-blue idea as I’ve had. Entirely intuitive. But that’s typical. Ideas are mysteries to me—I get them and have no idea where they came from, which I assume is true for a lot of novelists, and have no idea what they mean. When I start writing the story, I don’t necessarily even want to know what they mean. Having said that, the metaphorical implications of the Twin Towers in the Badlands weren’t exactly coy. I wasn’t looking for a metaphor—as a novelist yourself, you know the metaphors you go looking for usually aren’t any good. But it didn’t take long to figure out that one had been presented to me. Politics seem to naturally find their way into my fiction anyhow. I never envisioned myself a political novelist and still don’t—was it Stendhal who said politics in art is like a gunshot in church, unseemly but impossible to ignore?—but there’s usually been a subtext if not something more overt, and these days in particular it seems not only unavoidable but even irresponsible to not acknowledge politics in some way.
That’s a great point, by the way, about Pynchon’s London. The audacity was that it wasn’t a future-London or even an alternative-London but a historical London, a London very fixed in the historical memory and historical imagination, and he still made it his own, and did so even as that particular London in that particular recent history was no farther from him at the time than Berlin right before the fall of the Wall is now to us. If not so flamboyantly, I always felt Durrell’s Alexandria seemed reimagined, but not having been to Alexandria, I’ll never know.
Rumpus: How does the image feel to you now? Presumably entirely unimaginable to the Steve Erickson who came up with this idea in 2013 was the political drama of the present moment. It would have been unimaginable to me, too. (As you know, when I started my diary of presidential politics in 2015, and covered Donald J. Trump’s announcement of his candidacy, I said: “This clown will never be elected.”) Does the image seem to have more imaginative and emblematic contour in this present instance?
Erickson: Well, the Erickson who had the vision of the Towers may be the only Erickson among however many of us there are who could have imagined the present moment, which isn’t to say I would have imagined a Trump presidency in 2013, or 2014, or 2015, though by the spring of last year I was getting an uneasy feeling about all of it. I never really thought he would get elected, but by last April I wasn’t entirely discounting it either. Had you told me he would carry white women—that I wouldn’t have believed. I thought that was the firewall, that there just weren’t enough old white men to put him in office. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that while this old white man, which is to say me, was voting for Clinton, white women were choosing an overt misogynist over the first woman president. Someone will have to explain that one to me someday.
What I did foresee those four years ago was the country slipping past any prospect of unifying over what the country means, and that this last election, whoever won it, wasn’t going to be the end of it. That scene on the new novel’s second page with the truck driver who has the bumper sticker that reads SAVE AMERICA FROM ITSELF—I wrote that at the beginning of 2014, and if not as a novelist then at least as a human being and an American and a father, I would have hoped that scene would be less relevant now rather than more. In retrospect any resurrection of the Towers in the Badlands almost feels… optimistic. In all the ways it’s ominous, it offers some redemptive possibility in my own mind that now I worry is behind or beyond us. Now I think the only way of saving the country is for one side to win and one side to lose. I think for the foreseeable future we have to disabuse ourselves of any ideas of unifying, or coming together, or all getting along. I don’t think we’re going to reconcile the America that elected the first African American president with the America that just elected a president avidly endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan—I’m not sure I even want to reconcile the two. I have members of my immediate family, and my wife’s immediate family, who voted for the guy, and now there’s this gulf that I have no interest in bridging however much I love those people. It’s almost like the Civil War.
Rumpus: I know this is a personal question, but part of why I have always felt you had a uniquely pertinent and important sense of how politics play out, and how they are liminal in literature and in culture, is because of your own political journey from your youth to your adulthood. Would you mind sketching out that journey here?
Erickson: I was raised a right-wing Republican and was about eighteen when I had to admit to myself that in regards to the great domestic crucible of the day, civil rights and racial justice, conservatives were on the wrong side historically and morally, and that it took too much intellectual and psychological jujitsu to pretend otherwise. I didn’t want to pretend anymore; I wanted to be on the right side. This led to the realization that one of the basic philosophical tenets of conservatism—which says that the more power devolves from the federal government to the states, the greater individual freedom grows—is just flatly contradicted by crucial junctures in the country’s life, most conspicuously in the 1860s and 1960s, when it’s been the federal government that’s interceded against the states to secure individual freedom.
Then in my early twenties the nature of conservatism itself changed. When I identified as a fourteen-year-old conservative, it was closer to what we today think of as libertarianism—conservatism, at least for me, had been defined by Jeffersonian credos like “the best governed are the least governed” and “I have sworn eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man” that were very idealistic and romantic to a kid. By the late 70s, however, conservatism was becoming more corporate on the one hand, more theocratic on the other. In reaction to the 60s, conservatism was more about order than freedom, more about conformity than singularity. It became inescapable that as conservatives were wrong about people of color, they were also wrong about women. They were wrong about gay people. The only individual freedoms they seemed to get exercised about were the freedom to make a profit and the freedom to own a gun.
And then just as important, maybe more important, is that I didn’t just change the way I thought, I changed the way I was. Out of the house and on my own, I faced the fact I didn’t much like who I was. I didn’t like my judgmentalism; I didn’t like my absolutism. I didn’t like my repression of natural empathy, my pinched lack of emotional generosity. How I had been thinking politically had less to do with what was wrong with the world and more to do with what was wrong with me, with my fears and insecurities, failings, weaknesses. Moreover, all those things were at odds with the things about myself that made me want to be a writer. So I decided I would change myself, be the person I wanted to be, be the person that I hoped I really had been all along. I would rip out my wiring and rewire myself. Plus, I was listening to Electric Ladyland a lot. [Laughs]
Rumpus: Well, that’s sort of where I wanted to go next. Can you chart your listening through the crucial period of early 70s, etc.? Music is so utterly central to Shadowbahn, is written into its very form, that I’m curious to hear how music has played a part in your life and work up until this novel.
Erickson: Yeah, that’s a really long story. I hope I can be just a little succinct, but feel free to turn off the tape recorder figuratively or literally. [Laughs]
There’s just no overstating the role that music played. The truth is it played at least as great a role in my life and writing as literature and maybe more. In the contemporary literature of the time, the only thing that was having a comparable impact was Marquez and Pynchon, Dick, Borges, maybe DeLillo a little later. Music shows up in most of my novels, maybe all of them, which obviously isn’t unique—it’s in your novels and Lethem’s and Dana Spiotta’s and Richard Powers’s, Bruce Bauman’s Broken Sleep from last year. Colson Whitehead has talked about the impact of music on his work.
The two defining events of my musical education were hearing Ray Charles and then, one epic afternoon, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde back to back, both for the first time. Charles was a shock because I was a white boy living a white-bread existence, an only child in a house whose parents had no use for rock and roll or Elvis Presley. I was raised on Sinatra and Nat King Cole, and please let me hasten to add it’s no disrespect to Cole, who I still love, when I simply note he didn’t exactly represent black music at its grittiest and most soulful. Rhythm & blues purists may disdain Charles’s country albums of that time, but they were the Trojan horse that smuggled into my white sensibility an unmistakably black voice—I hadn’t heard anyone sing like that. Ray Charles was the gateway drug. Once you’ve heard “Born to Lose,” sooner or later you’re going to get around to “Lonely Avenue” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” and then Aretha and Otis, and Sam Cooke and Bobby Bland and Wilson Pickett.
As for Dylan, I never much cared about his folk era and still don’t—other than “A Hard Rain is Gonna Fall,” one of his half dozen greatest songs, little of it made the impact of “Visions of Johanna” or “I Want You.” “Like a Rolling Stone.” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” “Absolutely Sweet Marie” and “One of Us Must Know” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” Those records changed my ideas about writing, about art—not just the words but also their sound. For better or worse I’m the writer I am today because of hearing those Dylan records. For better and most certainly not for worse, I’m the person I am today because of hearing Charles.
As for the early 70s, having moved out of my folks’ and living in Echo Park, which was then and remains heavily Hispanic, I was living a non-sequitur life musically speaking. The surrounding airwaves were filled with the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt, who I didn’t care about. I don’t want to misrepresent here any nonexistent cool-factor on my part. It’s hardly like I was too hip for that stuff, and if “Hotel California” came on the radio right now, I’d turn up the Joe Walsh guitar at the end. I think Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne each made at least one really good album. I did listen to quite a bit of Randy Newman and Neil Young at the time, Van Morrison who was in his California phase, and my brain tells me that Steely Dan were probably better than I liked them. And there was a lot of LA music from just a few years before that I loved and still do. But none of that early-70s LA music that was the currency of the time was anything I obsessed about, and I didn’t know anyone else who obsessed about what I obsessed about—so my taste sort of isolated me, in the way it felt ten years later like my early novels isolated me from the rest of what was going on in fiction. I was the only person I knew in LA who had a Roxy Music record. I was the only person I knew in LA who had a Mott the Hoople record, or a Velvet Underground record. I was the only person I knew who had a New York Dolls record. For that matter I was the only person I knew who had a Bruce Springsteen record—his second one, before the breakthrough. I wasn’t the only person I knew who had a Bowie record but I was the first person I knew who had one. Those records had drama that I missed from the other stuff—audacity, danger; they were bigger than life when James Taylor quite deliberately meant to be smaller than life.
Same with punk—at the beginning there were about six and a half of us in LA listening to it, and I remember the owner of the Music Odyssey on Wilshire Boulevard openly and loudly berating me to the rest of the customers for buying the early import of the Sex Pistols’ first album, standing behind the register taking my money while announcing, “Hey everyone, check out the asshole buying this shitty record!” A month later the American version of the album came out with a song added to it so of course I had to get it and submit myself to the indignity all over again. [Laughs]
That was the peak of my musical life in terms of following it obsessively. Because as you know, being a man of taste and sophistication, the 80s were objectively, quantifiably, empirically, diagram-it-on-a-blackboard the worst decade in the history of recorded music, and more and more of it just started passing me by, maybe not Prince or Run-DMC or the Jesus and Mary Chain, but a lot of it. And these days, while there are artists I keep up with—I suspect PJ Harvey is one for the pantheon—I have, as my friend [film critic] John Powers once put it, “reconciled myself to my taste,” which is to stay that instead of checking out Twenty One Pilots, I’m afraid I’m likelier to listen to my Eno playlist or James Brown. It’s taken me nearly twenty years to figure out that the Drive-By Truckers are pretty good. [Laughs] Mostly over the last thirty years I found myself exploring things that preceded me: Miles Davis, Duke Ellington. I went back to Sinatra—not the Rat Pack, ring-a-ding-ding shtick but the bluesy torch stuff of the late 50s. And that sense of context, that connection between the music and whatever was going on socially and historically when the music was made, found its way into this new novel. That’s about as succinct as I can get. And I don’t think I even mentioned the Beatles.
Rumpus: The engagement with music, however present in the earlier work (which, as you say, it certainly is), takes a dramatic turn in Shadowbahn. The novel is suffused with music. There is very nearly music on every page. Perhaps this even understates it. There IS music on every page, to varying degrees, and there are entire sections devoted to it. What changed this time out? And in what way does music become the best vehicle to perform the elegy that the novel seems to perform?
Erickson: The focus on music wasn’t initially part of the plan. That probably sounds ridiculous when one of the novel’s major characters is Elvis’s twin—how could such a book not be about music? And I certainly didn’t mean to write an Elvis Presley novel. I guess unconsciously I knew more than I knew consciously, because when I got to those Towers early in the story, they began singing, like the ground in Rubicon Beach or the lake in Our Ecstatic Days full of melody-snakes. Then I may have, if anything, overly steeped myself in music—since I usually can’t read other fiction when working on a novel, I gravitated to Marcus, Guralnick, Christgau, Mikal Gilmore, Ralph Ellison’s jazz essays and Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful, Lethem’s music pieces in Ecstasy of Influence and David Toop’s work on ambient music, Bangs’s gazillion-word piece on the Troggs, and in particular a book called On Celestial Music by one R. Moody that was probably the best example of sustained writing about music in a manner that feels unabashedly personal without abandoning its critical faculties.
So as you say, music became hardwired into this book like none other, and as the novel progressed, if anything I had to not let it take over. There are a lot of moving parts to the narrative and I spent months focusing on the balance of those parts, and as you know, having read an earlier version, about a fourth of the song entries wound up being cut, and what remained wound up collapsed or cut in half. I’ve just seen a fairly prominent review in which the reviewer [Fiona Maazel], who calls herself a “dilettante” about American music, got caught up in the story anyway and ran down each musical lead, which I take as an encouraging sign that—unlike Zeroville which fully intended to be a novel about movies—Shadowbahn is a novel about America and therefore, inevitably if tangentially, about music too. Western music is arguably America’s greatest contribution to the 20th century, cultural or otherwise. With a few exceptions like Kraftwerk, most great 20th century Western music is in some way American-based. And the great paradox of America, the paradox that distills America, is that this greatest of American contributions to humanity, this American contribution that probably has influenced more people around the world for the good, that probably has brought more people around the world unqualified joy, was born of America’s greatest evil, slavery. Or one of the two great evils anyway, counting the European extinction of those who were on the continent first. That’s your elegy.
Rumpus: I am very honored to be on a list of writers I really admire. Bang’s Psychotic Reactions was a book that significantly influenced my development, and the same is true of Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus. And But Beautiful is also lasting, and important, and remarkable. I have found Geoff Dyer to be a really reliable source for music tips. He turned me onto The Necks, for example, whom you would love if you don’t know about them already.
I admire what you say about American music and its origin in slavery. If you listen to West African music and then listen to the early blues, that leap doesn’t even seem like a leap at all. At least this is the case when the early blues are played by African American musicians (before the syncopations and extra measures got streamlined into the twelve-bar thing, when white musicians got hold of the idiom, or at least in many cases); their reliance on the West African model is easy to hear. And I agree that the indigenous music of America is so central to how it conceives of itself, how it identifies itself.
In Shadowbahn, along similar lines, on page 111, Elvis’s twin (J. G. Presley) develops a bona fide music critical voice and attitude himself, and it’s a voice that is significantly challenging and intense, as far as the book goes (those imagining a wooly, imaginative speculative fiction, for example, will be asked to engage with a significant jump cut, as far as style goes). At what point did that become part of the plan, and how did you come to inhabit that voice? And is it influenced by your readings in music criticism?
Erickson: Well, the specific section you’re asking about has to do with a record review that Jesse writes for a music magazine in the late 1960s, or rather I should say a late 1960s, since they’re not the late-1960s you or I or the reader knows, in large part because Jesse has replaced his brother. With the section’s sudden transitional lurch, which is hardly the first or last in the book, I was trying to have my cake and eat it, in that I wanted to disorient readers but not so much or so soon as to lose them entirely, even as I know it’s undoubtedly bound to lose some.
Whatever else the book’s virtues or flaws may be, if you’re the kind of reader who likes to know where a story is going before it gets there, this is not your book. To some extent Jesse is the difference between an idea—the Twin Towers resurrected in the Badlands—and a novel, so I spent close to a year thinking about him before I began writing. As the stillborn twin of the most famous and influential singer of all time—however reasonable or unreasonable anyone might consider that distinction—who would Jesse be? I did some research into identical twins, talked to people I know who have identical twin children, and was struck by how much the subject of twins is still a mystery to biological and psychological science. In a very real embryonic sense, of course, twins literally are two halves of the same person, and yet, once born, they’re not the same. And in this story Jesse is haunted not only by the twin who didn’t make it—as in real life Elvis was haunted by Jesse—but also by a knowledge of who that twin would have been and how he would have changed everything.
The result was the section on page 111 that wound up cut down considerably from its original length. It was one of the earliest things I wrote in trying to find a character who was a contradiction, a yahoo who, nonetheless, has these incongruously cerebral outbursts, whose language is mostly hayseed interrupted by impenetrably intellectual allusions, and this section is the most conspicuous display of that. And again, as somebody who read a somewhat earlier version of this novel, you know that just as it was a challenge to balance all the various elements of the book, it was a challenge to balance all the various elements of Jesse, particularly when Jesse himself has no real idea who he is. I was hoping to find some sweet spot between the archetype on the one hand and the not-utterly-abstract on the other, especially in contrast to the other two main characters in the story, white and black siblings who I wanted to be as real-life as possible. And because of whose shadow he lives in, Jesse’s relationship with music in general is estranged to say the least and becomes increasingly violent, since he comes to believe that just the very existence of music threatens his own existence, in the same way that the very existence of music provides a shadow history of America and how it went wrong from the outset.
Rumpus: I want to pause for a moment over your “transitional lurch” here, because it’s such a beautiful way to describe a gesture that is quintessentially Ericksonian. In Arc D’X e.g., there is moment when Sally Hemings hops disconsolately over some centuries, and moves out of her subjugation at the hands of a great founding father of our nation, into a much more speculative novel. I’m wondering whether this “transitional lurch” itself has a musical footing. It reminds me, for example, of some of the really abrupt changes in form in the Miles Davis of the electric period, when he was thinking about Stockhausen. Or: it reminds me of the Mothers of Invention, when the players were waiting for Frank Zappa to cue them from his baton. Or: you hear such things in that great five-year period of Sun Ra from the mid-to late-60s. Is it a musical figuration for you?
Another point of origin, it seems to me, is filmic. You have written a lot about film, and film is as essential to what you do, I think, as music is. Would the “transitional lurch” have to do with the jump cut in experimental film of the 60s and 70s? As someone who has occasionally visited one upon a reader now and again myself, I feel great excitement and admiration when I come upon one of these Ericksonian “lurches,” because they are merciless, and unapologetic, and they require great interpretive leaps, arabesques even. How do you think about this tendency in your work?
Erickson: Wow, what an observation. I’m not sure I’ve ever put my finger on it but you’re obviously right. In terms of film, the whole last ten or fifteen minutes of 2001, say, is one such lurch after another, in a way that had nothing to do with then-conventional notions of science fiction but in the process invented a whole new science fiction. In retrospect we can see that Miles in the Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro were really just inspired warm-ups for In a Silent Way, and beyond that beckoned Bitches Brew, Pangaea and all the rest. Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds is a quantum lurch from “California Girls” and Beach Boys Party that came just months before. The Beatles may be the best example with “Tomorrow Never Knows” concluding Revolver and taking it off into something no other pop music had done, Zappa being one of the possible exceptions with Freak Out, I suppose. What’s interesting, of course, is that in fact “Tomorrow Never Knows” was the first track, not the last, recorded for Revolver, in the same way that “Strawberry Fields,” “Penny Lane,” and “Day in the Life” were the first tracks recorded for Sgt. Pepper before the band decided, in one of the most consequential mistakes in pop music history, to leave two of them off the album—the main point being that, after making those lurches, the band had to keep retrenching in order to catch up with itself. The White Album turns these abruptions and juxtapositions into a world-view—the chaos of 1968 as organizing principle.
It doesn’t seem irrelevant that all this was happening in a two- or three-year period and I assume acid had something to do with it, though I’m not aware of Miles doing acid and I’m certainly not aware of Kubrick doing acid. I never did acid, unless listening to Revolver and watching 2001 counts [laughs], but this was a period when I was coming of age and absorbing the influences of an emerging aesthetic that incorporated Einsteinian notions of space and time even if you didn’t know anything about Einstein, which I certainly didn’t. Transitions per se were superfluous. There was no reason for a transition if all it was doing was performing a transitional function, if it wasn’t doing something else as well. Of course you can argue that Pynchon’s V. anticipated all of them.
Rumpus: All of your work, or the majority of it that I have read (which is almost all), traffics in really dynamic ideas about form. In Shadowbahn it’s the little short-take chapters, each with its chapter title, in a nearly square size that I sort of thought of (when I first beheld them) as CD (box set) liner notes. In Zeroville the story is told inside of film grammar, in the mise en scene in which the protagonist labors as a film editor. (I’m trying to come up with a good way to describe the effect of the shape of that novel, and this is it for this morning!)
I wonder whether these forms are in the imagination phase of composition, are preliminary, or are more a thing that you discover along the way. Are they always integral to the expression of the theme? Or do they represent an ambition with respect to form, i.e. something that you want to make literature do?
Erickson: The form is always integral to the expression of the theme, as you put it, or to the sheer telling of the story, and sometimes the right form is apparent to me from the outset and sometimes it isn’t. One of the reasons I’m not so keen on people calling me an “experimental” writer is that it suggests the work is about the experiment, when it’s always the opposite—any “experimentation” is dictated by the material.
About twelve years ago I published a novel called Our Ecstatic Days about a single mother trying to protect her small son from the chaos of the world as represented by a lake that has suddenly sprung up to flood Los Angeles. Her son vanishes and the mother gets it in her head that if she swims down to the bottom of the center of the lake and down through the hole where the lake has sprung, she’ll surface in another lake in another Los Angeles where her son will be waiting for her. So about a quarter of the way into the novel she swims down this hole… and then I got this idea to have her swim through the rest of the novel in a single line that would cut through the rest of the text over the next 230 pages—one line that would represent one narrative reality while, back in that reality where our story began, that other narrative would continue to unfold over years and decades as the woman grew older and lived out the rest of her life, never getting her son back. Until I got to that point of the story, I had no idea I was going to do this. This idea of the woman swimming through the other story came to me only when I reached the moment when it happened—and I knew it was a fork in the writing process, that there was no going back from this idea and that it would, in turn, dictate many other decisions as to the form of the rest of the text and the rest of the book.
On the other hand, in the case of Zeroville I decided from the outset that the storytelling should follow the dramatic laws of a movie, as you imply. Everything is externalized in the present tense in terms of action and dialog, there’s not a lot of back story, there’s a minimum of motivation which renders as an enigma the lead character, who’s in every scene, and it’s the only truly linear novel I’ve written. These Dreams of You took the fractured form of a mosaic, which it made sense to push further in Shadowbahn only once I had written half of it, when I found myself drawn more and more into Calvino-crossed-with-the-White Album territory, by which of course I don’t mean Didion. Then, in the revision process, I pulled back a bit from all that kaleidoscopia, asking myself at each juncture how much I wanted to challenge the reader and how much I wanted to help him or her over the cracks of my landscape. A constant process of putting in and taking out, of cohering and coming apart, of gravity and entropy. Those choices are always about what best serves the story I want to tell, not the other way around. In essence I’m really a very traditional writer. I subscribe to the notion that, ultimately, characters do drive everything else.
Rumpus: Our Ecstatic Days, as you describe it, brings us around again to the issue of twinning, which is so central to Shadowbahn. There’s not only J. G. Presley therein, and the anti-matter Beatles described in the book (they are sort of a preoccupation of Presley’s), and there are also the Twin Towers themselves. (As a footnote, let me say that as someone who lived in the city of the Twin Towers, I hated those buildings architecturally, for my whole youth, until, at a certain point, I became really interested in Donald Judd and minimalist sculpture. Then I began to think about them AS TWINS, as identical objects, whose most interesting feature was how they related to each other in space, and how that fraternal relationship changed as you moved about them in downtown NYC. I came to love their strange diagonal orientation to one another, and to the plaza where they sat, and that relationship continues to be luminous, spooky, and very powerful, in the memorial spaces that, with a continuous rushing of Hudson River water, now occupy the footprints of the former twins.)
The twinning seems like a Steve Erickson gesture, as though there are always possible worlds, with their slightly perturbed realities hovering just beside the story, whatever the story is. We know that this kind of counternarrative activity has a strong analogue in the mainstream of speculative fiction, in, e.g., The Man in the High Castle (by which I mean the novel, not the television series), but also in slightly more conventional works like Roth’s The Plot Against America. What does the twinning mean to you? I’m taken by your remarks about Einstein, above. Now that we are in the 21st century, not the late 60s, the scientific support for a much more flexible and nuanced theory of how time and space work is everywhere around us: there is string theory (with its ten dimensions), the theory of everything, and all the manifold discussions of subatomic physics and spooky action at a distance, and so on. Your holes in Los Angeles, conceived of by extension as holes in spacetime, seem to be springing up all around us.
Erickson: That’s a great observation about the Twin Towers, one I could never have come up with because I never lived with them the way you did, though I did go to the top once and—even as it was seemingly safe—it was terrifying in some elemental or even primal way.
As for my preoccupation with twins, that’s something for a psychiatrist to decode, because it’s been a recurring motif since my first published novel thirty-two years ago [Days Between Stations] where there are not only twin brothers separated at birth but another character who wears an eye patch and changes his identity depending on which eye he covers. Maybe there’s something I don’t know about my own birth. [Laughs]
That said, when I started writing novels I was less conscious of twins as such than of a sense of something other, the sense that there’s always another possibility or, as you imply, maybe many. A Cartesian argument—and let’s be clear that I’m no less out of my depth discussing Descartes than I am Einstein—might hold that if we can imagine other possibilities, they must exist. That the human imagination couldn’t conceive of other possibilities if we hadn’t somehow glimpsed their shadows cast across our imaginations in the first place. That we actually remember these other possibilities as much as we imagine them. And if the Original Moment that first shadow was cast, however long ago it was, split into twin possibilities, and if each of those twins split themselves into twins, then the number of possibilities is way, way, way beyond exponential, way, way, way beyond billions or trillions or quadrillions or whatever higher measure there is.
In terms of America, I think any profound consideration is bound to return us to the notion of twins because, though you certainly can contend there are many Americas, our history has been binary from the beginning, with its hairline fracture down the country’s center between what American has wanted to be and what America has been. That fracture is slavery, of course. To some extent it’s still slavery, in that collectively we refuse to come to grips with the American fact of slavery. There are millions of white Americans today who still can barely bring themselves to acknowledge that the Civil War, with its twin Americas locked in a death match, was about slavery. They’ll argue it was about economics, and they’re right only because one of those economies was a slave economy. They’ll argue it was about culture, and they’re right only because one of those cultures was a slave culture. Half the country seceded from the other half when Abraham Lincoln was elected because half the country couldn’t abide his position on slavery. You would think 150 years later this had all become pretty historically incontestable. Yet millions continue to contest it in the face of history. Rather the denial of slavery and all its monstrous repercussions defines to one twin America what the country is and means, and therein is the DNA of those “alternative facts” that people believe when they can’t stand to believe the truth. It’s the American version of Holocaust denial and no less an intellectual obscenity. It’s a kind of treason. And I don’t think the twins can get along anymore. I don’t think they can transcend their division anymore. And I think this will be a hard lesson for those of us who make an effort to be tolerant and empathetic. One twin is good and one is evil. One is going to have to win and the other is going to have to lose, as happened in the 1860s. Out of that will emerge yet another American Possibility, for better or worse.
Rumpus: One last question, about human emotions. Your work, it seems to me, for all the spectacular prose (which I deeply admire), and the highly imaginative fields of story in which you plow, is always first and foremost about human emotions. According to this logic the work doesn’t, to me, seem conventionally “postmodern,” but, rather, much closer to how some people conceive of “post-post-modern,” a kind of writing that is both formally inventive and aware, but not at all antithetical to humanism and its truths. This is in stark contrast to the writers of the “experimental” period of the 60s and 70s, whose modality was often comic (I’m thinking of Gaddis, Barthelme, Gass, Elkin), but who would otherwise not be mistaken for sentimentalists. Is your humanism baked in? A first cause, or a fact of the matter?
Erickson: I think it may have been Sarah Vowell who once wrote that, for all the crazy things that happen in my novels, I’m basically an old-fashioned guy. [Laughs] Strip away the morphing landscapes and rips in the space-time continuum, and my stories are about things that novels have always been about: love and sex and identity and memory and history and redemption. To the extent that I’ve ever understood postmodernism—and I’m sure there are people out there who do, but I’m not one of them—one of its distinguishing traits is the story’s awareness of its own artifice, and how that awareness becomes part of the story. And if that’s right, then I have no idea how I ever got lumped into postmodernism except that I believe, since I was first published, people just haven’t quite known where else to put me.
To some extent this has accounted for the, uh, vagaries of my so-called career. The last thing I want is that sense of artifice—rather I want the reader drawn into the story and lost in it and vested in it. So the emotional connection is everything, albeit a connection on my terms. Obviously cheap sentimentality isn’t something any good novelist wants to traffic in, but I think it’s a problem if you consider it to be the most egregious of all creative sins. I think it’s a problem if you consider it the thing to be avoided at all cost. I think it’s a problem of you’re not willing to risk the consequences of that kind of emotionalism under any circumstances. Then you wind up in the cul-de-sac of irony, and while a particularly deft sense of irony may be one of the tools of great storytellers, I think it’s also true that if irony serves as a retreat from an emotional engagement that you’re overly concerned is uncool, that’s a failure of nerve.
So in answer to your question, Is the humanism intuitive or labored over?, the answer is: Yes. It begins intuitively, it becomes the reason for writing the thing, and then it’s to be considered and fine-tuned and even calculated, if you have a good editor like Katie Zaborsky was for me at Blue Rider who might try to reel you in now and then, let you know you’ve taken it too far. If you’re a smart writer, you listen. But I’d rather first risk taking it too far than not far enough, I’d rather first risk taking it far enough that there’s nowhere else to go—which probably accounts for why every novel lately feels like the last. One of these days, I’ll be right.