Changing visions of the American dream

June 30, 1993|By Scott Timberg | Scott Timberg,Contributing Writer

So rarely does Thomas Pynchon, America's leading recluse and literary legend, come out of hiding that his blurb on the back of this book -- "as daring, crazy and passionate as any writing since the Declaration of Independence" -- has piqued the attention of watchers of cutting-edge contemporary fiction. Often compared to Vladimir Nabokov and Don DeLillo, and to Mr. Pynchon himself, Mr. Erickson is also a distinctly Los Angeles novelist, due to his grounding in Angeleno literary tradition (Nathaniel West, Raymond Chandler, Mr. Pynchon's "Crying of Lot 49,") and his disorienting, dislocated sense of space.

There is also a distinctly cinematic quality to Mr. Erickson's novels -- he's currently film critic for the L.A. Weekly -- and echoes of Henry Miller, Franz Kafka and William Faulkner's revolution of structure. Mr. Erickson is aiming for the fences with this one.

"Arc d'X" begins in the late 18th century, with Thomas Jefferson at his wife's deathbed. Jefferson soon travels to Paris as the French Revolution surges and invites his daughter and a 14-year-old slave, Sally Hemings, to join him. He rapes Sally and makes her his mistress, and she gives up her freedom for the love she wishes she didn't feel for him.

Those interested in historical accuracy or local color will be disappointed. Mr. Erickson is not after literal realism but metaphor, myth, an allegory of America -- a land in which the dream of freedom and equality lives side by side with the reality of violence and racial exploitation: "It was the nature of American freedom that he was only free to take his pleasure in something he possessed, in the same way it would ultimately be the nature of America to define itself in terms of what was owned." Like Mr. Pynchon, Mr. Erickson writes of America as a utopia undone, a dream betrayed by its dreamers.

The novel soon moves to a strangely theocratic Los Angeles, where all of America's darkest impulses are realized in a dystopia equal parts George Orwell and Chandler. Detectives lose themselves in neighborhoods called Desire and Redemption, a petty clerk steals a collection of volumes called the Unexpurgated Volumes of Unconscious History and rewrites page by page, and the authorities scrawl graffiti on the city's walls that gradually fades "like changing tea leaves."

Mr. Erickson writes: "By ordinance, defacement was designed into the basic urban blueprint; architects built it into their work. In this way Primacy confronted chaos, disorder and revolution by pre-empting the results of their vandalism, devaluing if not utterly obscuring the occasional scribble of outlaws."

Then to Berlin, the archetypal 20th century city, where a small group of guerrillas rebuilds the shattered Wall -- "to resurrect the promise that freedom held only when it was denied." There a scientist discovers a missing day at the end of the millennium, and neo-Nazis and zoo animals roam the streets. As Mr. Erickson, who makes a brief appearance in his own novel, travels through the city, "memory became more and more disengaged from the past, like a door that floated from room to room in a house."

Mr. Erickson is a virtuoso of prose. His language is charged, evocative, arcane. Reality and dream alternately eclipse each other, and the book is filled with suggestive, illusive imagery. He may be aiming, like the original surrealists and French symbolist poets, to speak the language of the unconscious.

He explores the clash of time and memory, love and conscience, the conflict between the pursuit of happiness and history's denial of the heart. It is to Mr. Erickson's credit that he manages to keep his novel accessible and charged with tension even as he launches on these high-blown excursions.

But the exhilarating prose, beguiling imagery, and labyrinthine plot twists turn to simple confusion near the book's middle. The perspective flips one too many times to maintain any sort of coherence or feeling of connection to its characters.

At times, Mr. Erickson displays all the flaws of his influences -- theme and historical speculation develop at the expense of character and story, lending the writing a cold, abstract tone, or the narrative line gets lost in the pyrotechnic flash of language and metaphor. And Mr. Erickson is so dead earnest that readers may find themselves needing some of the levity and humor that make Mr. Pynchon's and Kurt Vonnegut's dark visions of America palatable. (Mr. Erickson has said he thinks his novels are funny.)

Books this ambitious are rarely easy. This is a cryptic, dazzling novel likely to evoke an enormous variety of responses. Mr. Erickson may indeed be, as many writers and critics have claimed, among our most gifted novelists. At times he demonstrates the talents of a mythmaker or symbolist poet. But excessive complexity keeps "Arc d'X" -- despite its genius, dazzling prose style, breathtaking imagination -- from being fully realized.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Arc d'X"

Author: Steve Erickson

Publisher: Poseidon Press

Length, price: 299 pages, $20.

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