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This Binary Moment: Novelist Steve Erickson on Our Cold Civil War

by Jim Knipfel
September 10th, 2018
“Repel the forces of darkness now and sort out utopia later.”

As we crawl toward the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, award-winning novelist Steve Erickson, a writer long obsessed with both America and the idea of “America,” is none too happy, though none too surprised, with the way things have transpired.

In his most recent novel, Shadowbahn, the World Trade Center reappears in the heart of a nation divided, both ideologically and geographically. Upon its release in 2017, it was cited time and again as the first true novel of the Trump Era.

Let’s just say the current situation is one Erickson saw coming a long time ago. Over the course of ten novels—including Days Between Stations, Our Ecstatic Days and The Sea Came in at Midnight—Erickson’s wild and far reaching imagination has proven unexpectedly prescient, envisioning a world beset by all manner of social and environmental catastrophes. Few, however, are as horrifying or dangerous as the current administration.

Shortly before the premiere of an hour-long BBC radio adaptation of Shadowbahn, I spoke with Erickson, now a Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Riverside, about the present ugliness, and any number of other things. 

—Jim Knipfel

THE BELIEVER: I would never call you a political novelist, though as with Mr. Pynchon politics always seems to be lurking around the subtext. But you’ve also written a good deal of overtly political non-fiction over the years—1997’s American Nomad, and Leap Year, about the 1988 presidential campaign. Like me, you were raised a political conservative until events in the country and the world—in your case the Civil Rights movement—prompted you to reevaluate things. And now, well, take a look around. Do you think the lessons of history have any meaning anymore, if they ever did?

STEVE ERICKSON: That’s a more precise way of asking whether truth itself has meaning anymore.

BLVR: Looking at some of your political writing two decades back, you clearly had a deep understanding of the trajectories of history and politics, of where we were headed if we weren’t careful.

SE: This current president is only an end result of something that’s been going on thirty years, or maybe 230. He’s Forbidden Planet’s id monster born of our collective unconsciousness, rampaging the country at night killing democracy. It’s always been part of America’s mission statement to cut itself loose from history, but that means a century and a half after the fact, millions of white Americans still won’t admit the Civil War was about slavery.

BLVR: You’ve called that “the American version of Holocaust denial.”

SE: It’s the most profound sort of treason.

BLVR: Almost twenty-five years ago, you published an essay in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine [“American Weimar,” January 8, 1995] about the real and tangible threats facing democracy down the line.

SE: “America wearies of democracy.”

BLVR: You cited an increasing and seemingly insurmountable chasm between the Right and Left, and a general atmosphere of rage.

SE: This latest authoritarian impulse has been around forever. Its authors have just gotten more brazen. One of Reagan’s cabinet officers [Secretary of the Interior James Watt] famously said, “I never use the words Democrat and Republicans—it’s liberals and Americans,” so the Right drew a line long ago and has regarded the rest of us as the enemy ever since, and we’re only now realizing they were correct all along. We are the enemy, and it’s probably time we stop doing that old progressive thing of, you know, trying to get along. It’s a cold civil war, not over differences of opinion or even differences of values but differences of truth. There’s no reconciling an America that elected the first African-American president with an America that never accepted he was either American or president and replaced him with a successor endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. There’s no bringing a country together when only one side cares about bringing the country together. Better to accept that we’re the enemies the Right always claimed, the enemies of a mean and oppressive America that I never believed in even when I was a fourteen-year-old conservative and that I’m guessing you never did either.

BLVR: There’s a line in Shadowbahn where an old jazz musician instructs a teenage girl to “embrace the confusion.” I realize the context is different, but I think that’s what a lot of people are doing nowadays, feeling impotent to do anything else in response to a nation gone mad.

SE: Acknowledging that novelists are given to melodrama, I believe this November is one last chance to repudiate not a president or a party but a version of ourselves.

BLVR: In a piece you wrote for McSweeney’s this past spring [“Not Him But Us,” May 25], you argued that, at its most fundamental, the obvious answer is voting not for protest candidates but “every Democrat in sight.”

SE: It’s not the glamorous option, I’ll give you that. But practically speaking, no investigation or impeachment is going to save us. The only ones who can save us are us, and the only candidate who can effectively displace a Republican in November is a Democrat. The only way to obliterate Trumpism is to vote for every single Democrat of any stripe, and if someone asks what’s the difference between a conservative Democrat and a Republican, my answer is math. The more members of Congress with little Ds after their names, the better chance Adam Schiff is head of the House Intelligence Committee instead of Devin Nunes.

BLVR: But do you think a legislature full of Democrats can remedy a tidal shift in what constitutes business as usual in America? Put a slightly different way, can a political party reign in a monster embodied not only by the president but half of the country that feels he’s given them the all-clear?

SE: It’s a great question. It’s the big-picture question. For the moment, however, we have to focus on the small picture. I’m not a registered Democrat and I hold no brief for the Democratic Party, and if you tell me the Democratic Party is corporate and compromised, I answer what the hell else is new? But in this binary moment the choice is extremely clear if as imperfect as it’s always been. Democracy is at the wall. We don’t have the luxury of protest votes, third parties, vanity gestures, quixotic pursuits, Bernie-snits, pyromaniacal Sarandonism or the self-flattering of one’s political purity. If you’re still miffed because Debbie Wasserman Schultz was mean to Bernie two years ago, you seriously need to get the fuck over it. It’s time to grow up and get focused. It’s time to stop abdicating the word patriot like we have for the last half century because we’ve been too cool for school and slightly embarrassed by it. We need to take back Americanism while there’s still time to define it on our terms. Embracing confusion is one thing, succumbing to moral bankruptcy is another. There are ways in which this actually is the least confusing historical moment of our lives. Like the last civil war, this civil war won’t be done until one America politically annihilates the other. Repel the forces of darkness now and sort out utopia later.

BLVR: I think another problem is that the other side has a lot more guns and doesn’t seem hesitant to use them.

SE: That’s when the country starts coming apart not just philosophically but geographically. Someone should write a novel.

 

The above is an excerpt from the feature-length interview scheduled to appear in the February/March issue of The Believer.

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