Futuristic 'Ecstatic' cloaks its thin plot with shapeless doom

February 13, 2005|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

Our Ecstatic Days: A Novel,

by Steve Erickson. Simon & Schuster. 336 pages. $24.

As a hole deep at the heart of Los Angeles suddenly fills with water, a gigantic lake named "Lake Zero" floods the city from Sunset to Hancock Park. Water sloshes through the doorways in Century City. "God's just one more Predator out there," says Kristin / Lulu Blu, the figure who opens this futuristic fantasy.

An "Age of Chaos" was upon us, novelist Steve Erickson suggests, from the moment dissidents faced down the Red Army's tanks at Tiananmen Square. It was completed with 9 / 11. In Our Ecstatic Days, which stretches to 2089, shelling erupts over "Baghdadville," a Los Angeles ghetto. Albuquerque has been "occupied." Politics is reduced to mindless killing while fulfilling sexuality is available only through sadomasochistic ritual.

Our Ecstatic Days partakes of a doomsday culture, like the science fiction stories that followed the dropping of the atomic bombs in 1945, and which moved from catastrophe and terror to apocalyptic fantasy. Erickson's Doomsday scenario is laced with intimations of political disaster. The "war ship" sailing into Los Angeles bay (piloted by whom, we don't know); the "guards at the Northwest-Mendocino border"; the "siege of Monterey"; an "insurgency" in 2017 -- none of these are developed.

Nor, since fate determines destiny, are there recognizable characters in Our Ecstatic Days. Purpose and convictions become meaningless in the face of inevitable war, murder and mayhem. Despite Erickson's disclaimer, "one ends an Age of Reckoning ... the other begins an Age of Chaos," the novel reads as if a single line connects the courage of "Wang," who faced down those tanks in Beijing, with the 9 / 11 disaster.

In the absence of story, Erickson is reduced to the didactic. "Pretending to understand is conceit, presumption, hubris that calls itself insight," he writes. "History," says Wang, "happens for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with why we think it happens."

Amid all this social disintegration is an anecdotal center, Kristin's loss of her 3-year-old child. Illustrating Erickson's theme that a mother's need to protect her child from harm is the one "truth" in an otherwise incomprehensible universe, Kristin dives into the center of the boiling lake in a misguided attempt to offer her son Kirk (short for Kierkegaard) a safe future. When she surfaces, the child is gone. "The loss of one's child" is the "unendurable Loss," Erickson states piously, "it's the loss that breaks your heart and it never mends ... it's the one thing for which a benevolent God never has a persuasive answer."

What remain are sentimental attempts at the mythic, and half-hearted mumbo-jumbo about cults (the "Order of the Red") elevated to importance by a besieged, uncomprehending populace. The language is abstract. "I have to go to war with the womb of the century that would reclaim him," Kristin says. Wang is "ecstatic in his terror."

Chaos is our fate, Erickson insists. Order is a phantasm, dead in the wake of 9 / 11. As a doomsday book, Our Ecstatic Days joins the homilies of the Middle Ages, pleadings of the helpless. Erecting an unexamined 9 / 11 as an icon, it abandons the reader to passive acquiescence, and to a premature despair that the world can be either understood or redeemed.

Joan Mellen teaches fiction workshops in the graduate program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia.

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