A most odd and challenging romance of risk, dream, and women unfolds in this story about a mother and her son. As soon as I have said this about Steve Erickson’s new novel Our Ecstatic Days, I am in trouble. The huge scope of the book and the shifting, palimpsest-like ground on which these imagined events take place call into question the story itself and its intricate and elusive characters.
Chapter headings ostensibly help the reader track the time frame: it extends from Tiananmen Square, Beijing, Spring 1989 (ending the twentieth century, we’re told) and 9/11 (opening the twenty-first), all the way up to 2089. A century, in short. But there is much more to Erickson’s plan than a map of revolution and catastrophe. Readers of his earlier novels will be familiar with the unsettling force of images driving his lyrical, on-the-brink narratives toward dark fable and communal unconsciousness. In Leap Year, about a 1980s political campaign, he invokes Jefferson’s slave mistress Sally Hemings to mediate the mixed racial premise of this country. In Days Between Stations, a future hallucinates arid landscapes, dry Venetian canal beds, Los Angeles sandstorms.
Our Ecstatic Days takes a deeper plunge. In the middle of L.A. there rises a huge lake that threatens a normally “droughtridden” city with, curiously, an influx of imagination and memory. Haunted by submerged and inwardly canalled buildings, plied by small boats, watched by a subdued population along its shores, the lake is the richest of Erickson’s visions to date. One night a single mother, Kristin, and her little boy, Kirk (short for Kierkegaard), venture out in a gondola and pause in the middle. Suddenly she vanishes into the lake. When she returns to the boat, she is apparently horrified to find Kirk gone.
The reader needs to know why she left him, because the Why may help us understand How things happen in Erickson’s instinctive, ceremonial world. Kristin leaves Kirk in order to plumb the lake and counteract a danger that threatens her son; her rapturous love for her son is “the ritual no mother can win.” Still “hearing his heart” as she sinks into the lake, Kristin loses him but finds herself—through our old archetype Water as Rebirth. She descends to the bottom of the lake (perhaps further still) through a “birth canal” which passes into an alternative lake.
Having lost “bits of everyone I’ve ever been,” Kristin emerges from the lake as an alter self, Lulu Blu, dominatrix oracle whose sadomasochistic disciplines satisfy men’s terrible need to be free of the power they wield on women and the world—or so we are told in quietly lurid scenes more wry than surprising, yet central for Erickson’s theme of the exploitation of women. Across the haunted lake, these clients are ferried to Lulu’s Chateau; a young boatman seems to be the lost boy Kirk, some years older now. (In this poignant alternative reality, there doesn’t seem to be a need to answer the question about his abandonment.) Also in the Chateau, rumored to house a community of women, lives Lulu’s assistant, Brontë, a young woman who we learn is Kirk’s shadow twin (detected on Kristin’s sonogram years ago) but withheld for later birth.
In this sunken city, fluent as consciousness, buildings dying of sorrow are treated by a doctor. Time is unmoored and unfolds upon shifting identities. This American surrealism has ambiguous implications for the themes of women in Erickson’s “history.” Sometimes blurred and strangely gentler, Our Ecstatic Days may recall the surrealist movement’s dismissal
of family rules and stability, maybe even more its elevation of woman as mystery, and of love as an abyss of motion, terror, ecstasy. In some poems of Paul Eluard a cult of the individualist male dissolves in the presence of the supremacy and experience of woman, “her eyes always open… Her dreams in full daylight… make me… speak without having anything to say.” Yet even D. H. Lawrence would question such mysteries as deflecting us from actual predicaments.
Kirk is a child fathered, we learn in the backstory (but may recall from its full version in Erickson’s 1999 novel The Sea Came In At Midnight ), when Kristin, a willing sex-slave, was taken in off the street by a man obsessed with the cataloging of apocalypse. Mass murder, nuclear-reactor meltdowns, moments of “nihilistic derangement,” even the very suicide cult (male-engineered) that Kristin escaped just before all the women and children walked off a California cliff. He records disasters on a calendar that fills a room, and he proclaims an Age of Chaos. Next to our developed body of Chaos theory, Erickson’s Chaos seems more a buzz theme, macro and murky.The real strength of his book lies elsewhere.
When Lulu and Brontë leave the lake and wind up at a solitary hotel in the Utah desert served by a phantom train, it’s not apocalypse or “occupied Albuquerque” or endless anti-insurgencies that hold my mind. It’s these women surviving and a pregnant Indian whose unwanted baby girl resurfaces in this orphaned future.
“Point-missers,” Kristin observes of those who—in Erickson’s extended family of metamorphoses—don’t get the question, even if the question is an abandoned child’s cry, translating to “What is missing?” Abandoned by her mother at age three,Kristin couldn’t dream until, as we learn confusingly, she miscarried Kirk. But she had Kirk, didn’t she? this reader stubbornly asks. Sometimes in Erickson’s tale what’s visionary and what’s not can mix, and the real and the unreal in this unreal world are increasingly hard to parse. Kristin gave birth to Kirk, so the miscarriage must have been “unreal” after all—though I checked three passages to be sure, doubting also if the fetus could have survived that unheard-of partial miscarriage, which Kristin puddles up into her hand and rubs over her face and breasts.
The surrealists were seldom clear about how exactly dream imagination frees the multiple self for action. Kristin in the lake thought,“a passage without time, that might take a minute or a hundred years depending on the one being born through it… a passage from my own unique chaos to my own unique god….” Perhaps the experience of this novel occupies not a century but a minute of timelessly exploding anxiety while Kirk’s toy monkey is rescued from the water, and mother and child are reunited after a brief boating mishap.
Reading this book I felt swayed by its invention, feeling, and humor and its darkly marginal transients, but occasionally confounded by its prodigal scope. Yet Erickson’s dream history—with its esoteric hints of clairvoyance or Hindu asceticism—is never abandoned as a mere surreal illusion to wake up from. It is absorbed, like his transcendental feminism, as a primary imagining we must somehow find through thought and desire, as we locate fugitive correspondences among our worlds and along the stations of our journey.