“But years later, on a night in early November ...” Steve Erickson’s latest novel begins in mid-thought, a rebuttal to a point we never got a chance to hear, or the counterpoint to a voice echoing in the novelist’s head, but invisible on the page.
In so beginning These Dreams of You, Erickson is continuing a story, and an argument, that has threaded through his remarkable body of work, one of the finest in contemporary American letters (Jonathan Lethem, in his essay collection The Ecstasy of Influence, calls Erickson “one of America’s three or four greatest living novelists”), and one of the least recognised. The argument is about the past, present and future of the country he aches for. It is a love song to a country whose “national anthem of dreams deferred” is Sam Cooke’s haunting A Change is Gonna Come; a dream fulfilled, in part, by Barack Obama’s election: “Forty-five years after the song was recorded ... but then all the song says is that a change will come, not how fast, right?”
Erickson has been pondering the tormented history of the United States, and its tangled relationship with race, since his 1993 novel Arc d’X, a lavish fantasia on themes of slavery and freedom, in which slave Sally Hemings murders her lover and owner Thomas Jefferson, and sets the future of the country – and of the idea of liberty – atilt. Jefferson is a symbol of America’s forked heart, “habitually tormented about his slaves, whose ownership he could barely give himself to accept but whose freedom he could not bring himself to give”. So is Sally, who dreams of freeing herself simultaneously from the bonds of slavery and love in one swift cut: “I’ve been owned by this one and that one my whole life. And the biggest thing I ever did was to free myself.”
The setting of These Dreams of You is familiar from Erickson’s previous work: a vaguely post-apocalyptic Los Angeles of fires and floods, much like the LA of what he dubs the “Age of Apocalypse” in his astounding 1999 novel The Sea Came in at Midnight. Zan Nordhoc is a failed writer – another in the long line of Erickson’s authorial fill-ins and manqués – who has reinvented himself as a radio DJ, trapped within a family, city, and country on the brink of collapse.
The night in early November that begins These Dreams of You is in 2008, when a black man, married to a woman who is the descendant of slaves, was elected president of the United States. Obama (one presumes; Erickson never identifies any of the historical figures here, assuming our familiarity with the likes of David Bowie, Robert F Kennedy, and Iggy Pop) resets the American moral compass by humming a familiar tune, “a song the country could sing in common”. Zan and his wife have been swayed by the melody of a new America, but the euphoria of 2008 has given way to the hangover of 2009. At the same time, Zan is deeply unsettled by his preternaturally astute Ethiopian adopted daughter Sheba, whose presence, like Obama’s, is simultaneously the fulfilment of Jefferson and Hemings’ tortured romance, and a prod to his liberal guilt.
This is decidedly a Great Recession novel, complete with attached overdue bills and notices of foreclosure. Zan, his wife Viv, and his children flee Los Angeles for London, where Zan is scheduled to deliver a lecture, and collect a big fee, in the hopes of holding on to their home for another month.