By David Leo Rice
Shadowbahn, Steve Erickson’s 10th novel, opens with the impossible happening in America: the Twin Towers appear in the heart of the Badlands in South Dakota and Jesse Presley, Elvis’s stillborn twin, wakes up on the 93rd floor of the southern one. Much of the “United States of Disunion,” as the nation is known here, flocks in to bear witness, only to fall into intense disagreement about what has happened and what it means.
Long obsessed with the the fault lines running through the American soul, Erickson has now given us the first key novel of the Trump Era. Written before the election but published after, Shadowbahn is hyper-aware of the ways in which America has not only been split into rival factions, but into mutually exclusive realities. If the old wisdom was that “it’s impossible to be in two places at once,” in 2017 it has become impossible to be in one place at once. All places in Trump’s America, which represents both the End Times and the supposed return of a great mythic past, are frighteningly multiple.
After an opening scene in which a trucker whose truck bears the bumper sticker “SAVE AMERICA FROM ITSELF” discovers the “American Stonehenge” in the Badlands, Shadowbahn only gets stranger as it goes along. Jesse Presley works up the nerve to jump out of the South Tower and finds himself flying into a revised 20th century where JFK lost the Democratic nomination to Adlai Stevenson and the Beatles never took off. Making his way as a cantankerous music critic, Presley meets Andy Warhol and falls into a bizarro version of the Factory scene, commenting on the decline of America from within the novel just as Erickson comments from without. Meanwhile, a brother and sister (one born in California, the other in Ethiopia) drive across near-future America via a series of lost highways and secret tunnels, discussing their fraught relationship with their writer father (a clear Erickson stand-in, carried over from 2012’s These Dreams of You) en route to visit their mother in Michigan. By the time they reach the Badlands and see the Towers for themselves, numerous realities have been born and died and reemerged transfigured, and the map has gotten ever more skewed without quite ceasing to be navigable.
In bringing all these strands together without forcing them to cohere, Shadowbahn marks a culmination of both Erickson’s apocalypticism and his vision of history as a porous entity, full of glitches, wormholes, and “Rupture zones.” Straddling the Millennium, the terms of his ongoing project are most clearly defined by 1989’s Tours of the Black Clock, which charts a simultaneous history in which Hitler far outlives the 1940s, eventually coming to America. That novel—which lent its name to the glorious and now sadly defunct literary journal Black Clock, yet another casualty of 2016—develops the notion of hidden events running parallel to, and occasionally intersecting with, those we’re aware of. The black clock itself is the embodiment of this idea: it’s the “dark back of time” (to borrow a phrase from Javier Marías), ticking with unseen minutes and hours behind those we perceive passing.
Like the black clock, the shadowbahn renders subjective experience objective, making Erickson’s psychic landscape disturbingly physical. Cutting “through the heart of the country from one end to the other with impunity,” it connects disparate times and places the way a jittery radio dial splices together stations.
On the one hand, it’s a dangerous strand of wishful thinking to imagine a simultaneous America in which Donald Trump is not our president, or one in which he turns out to be merely a blowhard and not a tyrant; on the other hand, the election represents a possibly unfixable rift in the fabric of our national consciousness, so that the present we now occupy is both unimaginable and hyperreal—so in-your-face it’s impossible to see.
Not Quite a Surrealist
By charting this process, Erickson’s work bears resemblance to that of sci-fi visionaries like Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard, and William Gibson, but he differs from them in that he has a poet’s soul, not a paranoiac’s. Though he makes use of the language and imagery of sci-fi, his simultaneous histories excavate buried layers of how our reality actually is, not alternate paths it could have taken or could one day take.
This is not to say that Erickson’s work isn’t heady, just that its primary theme is heartbreak, not cracks in the matrix. He believes too strongly in the promise of what America could be to give in fully to highbrow cynicism. In this sense, he’s a patriotic writer, one committed to an American promise that’s been broken over and over again without yet ceasing to resonate.
Just as Erickson isn’t exactly a sci-fi writer, he’s not quite a surrealist either. Perhaps in the European surrealism of the early 20th century—Buñuel, Dalí, Magritte—there was a sense that the external world had become too real, and thus that departing from it (or rising above it, in the literal sense of the term sur-real) was a necessary and plausible response. But now, almost a century after Un Chien Andalou, the events around us and their incessant representation online are too bizarre and too ubiquitous to satirize or depart from: everything, in one way or another, is part of the same post-truth morass. If this is the logic that 21st century fascism will exploit, then Erickson’s determination to plunge all the way into the real, deeper than is comfortable, rather than departing from it or offering any reassuring vision of its ultimate unity, has never been more necessary.
Shadowbahn is self-consciously a symptom of the situation it reflects: the style itself (composed of lists, snippets of dialogue, newspaper clippings, and free-floating paragraphs) is as disjointed and hard to navigate as the lost roads its characters drive down. In this regard, Erickson’s authorial logic has a strange resonance with Trump’s: the shared understanding that our American language is one of constant revision and self-contradiction, and that the grotesque distance between the American Dream and its reality only makes that Dream grow stronger. Needless to say, this language holds great potential for both good and evil.
Living in the End Times
Jesse Presley dates America’s lifespan as running from 1776 to 2001, and yet he still exists in America; indeed he exists for the first time long twenty years after the Towers fell. This means that he’s living in an afterlife, along with everyone else in the novel.
Whether one chooses 2001 or 2016 as the year of America’s death, there’s no denying that we’re all sharing that afterlife now. The apocalypse may have come, but here we still are. In this sense, the book’s value lies in its exploration of the Times aspect of the End Times. The End, if and when it truly comes, will neither require nor allow for literature (”when you’re dead, you’re dead,” as they say), but the Times do require interpretation and consideration, more so than ever because their rules are unwritten.
Since life goes on, growing stranger but not yet unlivable, a book like Shadowbahn serves as a bulwark against numbness and the dangerous belief that the only response to incomprehensibility is inaction. Much to the contrary, Erickson argues that even when reality has splintered, it still contains right and wrong and the two remain distinguishable, in art and in life, until enough people stop believing they are.
Animating these End Times, as in much of Erickson’s work, music is the one source of renewal. Perhaps because it’s an ephemeral, ever-evolving entity, deriving its power from groove and rhythm, not from rhetoric and ideology, music, especially the blues, which was born out of oppression and worked to overcome it, is the one sanctum in which the American Dream can’t be killed. Music streams from the Towers “like the northern lights”—a natural phenomenon that verges on the supernatural—and everyone who flocks to the Badlands hears different songs, from a sheriff nostalgic for the tunes of her youth to an older man hearing Brian Eno for the first time. This too echoes the current multiplicity of news and social media feeds we all curate, plugging into whichever version of reality we find most satisfying or most exciting, and yet, beneath this disjunct, the power of music itself remains singular.
Late in the novel Erickson writes, “At the previous century’s root was a blues sung at the moment when America defiled its own great idea, which was the moment that idea was born.” Throughout Presley’s and the siblings’ long strange trips, blues, rockabilly, and spirituals like “Shenandoah” (which recurs numerous times throughout the book, sometimes with the word “Shadowbahn” set to the same tune) express both yearning for what America could be and outrage at what it’s become.
Further, with many of the novel’s sections organized as annotations to playlists of classic and forgotten songs, and an absent father (the “Supreme Sequencer ensconced on a mountaintop”) communicating with his children through his mp3 collection, Shadowbahn posits music as our only means of straining to hear the voice of God in the new American desert. Maybe, in one simultaneous history, the current moment will revert us not to some whitewashed version of the 1950s, but all the way back to an age of primal wandering among weird monoliths and along unmarked highways, praying for salvation wherever it may be found. And perhaps out of this, a new America, however disfigured and unruly, will begin to grow, one in which we listen not to the punishing voices of the Old Testament patriarchs but to that of Elvis and the blues and whatever musical forms are still to come.
The possibility of such a regeneration is the only hope Shadowbahn leaves us with. This is a hope for American life going on, and also a hope for Erickson’s continued literary project, which has by now fully processed the psychic fallout of the 20th century and begun in earnest on the 21st, a time when it seems that “wealth and power is the only American idea left.”
Until now, all of Erickson’s novels have been self-referential, a giant interconnected body of work developing alongside the history we all share, deviating from it but always returning to some recognizable baseline of communal fact. Now that history is unraveling, splitting into ever narrower and less internally consistent versions, perhaps a similar unraveling will occur in Erickson’s future work. There’s certainly no American author better suited to embrace the assault on reality we’re now witnessing, and the ways in which history has been jump-started again, after the lull of the Obama years. No longer are we listening to an album we all know; the soundtrack of 2017 is a stranger’s mp3 player set on Shuffle. Given that there’s no longer any stable ground to stand on, the job of serious contemporary fiction is to reflect this instability, not to deny it.
At the very end of the novel, the truck with the “SAVE AMERICA FROM ITSELF” bumper sticker reappears, this time in a ditch beside the highway, its driver having fallen asleep at the wheel. The siblings, after some debate, decide to rescue him. In beginning to consider how such an act of rescue might still be possible on the national scale, one could do far worse than consulting Shadowbahn for inspiration.