Are You My Mother? is a classic picture story for kids, but also an adult story of asking questions about identity, origins, the storyteller her/himself. It is like the story of the troubled and delightful bastard child America itself, as can be seen all too easily in the birth of a perfectly nice little English baby last week, a child who will be held to the enormous lie of privilege until, we hope, that odious distinction is removed from the list of weak dreams and easy fall-backs of tribalism and bad-faith (yes, religion, of course) which engages and entrances so many for whom we struggle to offer more, more, more. The P.D. Eastman kid book offers all kinds of interrogations involving place, expectation, ecology, responsibility, weird miscegenation and cross-species tomfoolery, making its beautiful points about the limits of imagination and the need to consider who is doing the imagining. “You are a SNORT!” Ditto Steve Erickson's newest novel, These Dreams of You (like the song lyrics), a dream-scenic dialog with the past, present and future which wears its heart on its long sleeve, charming the reader into a worldview-challenging perspective which confronts mystery, lies, the unmediated possibilities of dreaming well, and of dreaming badly, too.
For a smarter, longer review of the novel, out last year, read Pawel Frelik in the excellent Los Angeles Review of Books. It's titled “Harrowing Realism,” and not only explains, assesses this novel, but introduces (reintroduces) one of our region's most celebrated novelists while offering, I suspect correctly that These Dreams is one of Erickson's best (of many) books. Best of all, it affirms, weirdly, the experience of Yours Bibly, who somehow picked up a copy of President Barack Obama's memoir at exactly the same time as the Erickson, whose work I have meant to read, been encouraged by my smart wife to read, should have read before now. Other synchronicities include the GOP's 39th (!) attempt to overturn “Obamacare” and, at last, some discussion of the real politics of Obama's youth in Indonesia. And if that weren't enough (it never is), the release of what seems an amazing, brave, perhaps Ericksonian documentary called “The Act of Killing,” in which, if I understand it, the filmmakers go to Indonesia to solicit the proud stories of the mass murderers of a million people linked (or not) to the Communist party and others guilty by association. You might recall “The Year of Living Dangerously” and its telling of the 1965 coup (with US involvement aplenty) in shadow puppets, with the perhaps overly familiar back story of two sexy non-Indonesians as our guide-participants, and Linda Hunt as, well, I won't give anything away here. An important film by director Peter Weir, I plan to watch it again (probably for the tenth time).
All of which is to say, long-windedly, that Heyday (formerly Heyday Books) compelled me to
read the new Erickson after I could not stop reading the excerpt which appears in that publishers terrific New California Writing 2012 anthology, which readers of this blog know all about because I go on and on about it. And because the short chapter-paragraphs, quickly shifting focus, speed and shorthand evocation of, well, almost everything, also compels. We are introduced by Erickson early to the hegemony of the imagination killers, mostly in an all-too-realistic dispatch from middle class struggle, failure, desperation, anxiety. Our man Zan, a novelist and tiny community radio disc jockey (imagine that!) imagines, hilariously, that the bank and collection agency and finance pimps are cursing him on the phone cuz he owes them lots and lots of dough. Well, yes, because in real life they sort of are! He and his wife, son and adopted Ethiopian daughter rechristened, perfectly, “Sheba” (like the queen and the gourmet cat food) are broke, maybe about to lose their house, struggling with the collapse of both their careers, you know. His unfinished latest book is dormant, he is having weird dreams, and his wife's one-time asshole boyfriend has invited him to give a talk in London about the death of the novel. He has to accept, because he needs the money and the humiliation, and his wife decides to mess with a rotten thing by going on a mother-hunt for Sheba's (Zema's) birth mama. About a quarter of the way in you see that all of this must collapse, into and out of itself, exuberantly, with memory and dream and the grasping hand of what-if interfering in what could have been, had Erickson wanted it, a realistic novel. You know for sure that things have changed (great Dylan song) when you read a line as this one, on page 99:
Around her, she feels the monsoon of the storm above and the Nile-saturated ground below yearn for each other; the woman and the driver pass inviolate stone corners still smelling of the mustard gas with which Mussolini's army massacred a million Ethiopians seventy years ago.
I am not a scientist, and maybe sulfur mustard still reeks after nearly eight decades. Not the point. The point is that little line, introduced to mess with the chronology not of the story but of, yes, the past. Sweet. Truncation, crack-uptitude, all of it adds up, but only after the reader embraces the constantly changing premise, which is to say that movement, change, time, even when it is happening in one place, is also happening elsewhere in Erickson's construction. This is just plain fun, on top of everything else.
Which is why I am unshy this Sunday morning about explaining the too-perfect pairing of this novel with the president's now pretty old and much-read autobiography, especially in light of recent reports, analysis, discussion about, thankfully, not whether he is an American or where he was born, but what was happening around him and to him when he was the kid in the small photograph above (remarkably, pleasingly like the one taken of me at Reeves Avenue Elementary in Downey, California at about the same time). And, yes, how what people know, think they know, how they see it, makes them (and us) what they are. And what about another photo, about the same time, when his stepfather was doing whatever he was doing while Indonesians were being killed. And what his mother, the seemingly heroic, interesting, stubborn Ann Dunham was up to. It would not surprise me to be confirmed in the recent suspicions, allegations argued that she worked for the CIA. Why not? But, friends, was she also somehow a double agent, indoctrinating her Muslim-loving “Socialist” anti-Christian follower of Jeremiah Wright into, well, what exactly? The vigorous “defender” of the United States' national security through dropping bombs and droning faraway strangers? Yes, yes, yes, you can have it both ways. When the school photo was taken of me, same haircut, same big teeth, same charming smile, my own parents were working for the defense industry and voting for Nixon and supporting the US invasion, carpet bombing, near-genocide in Southeast Asia. Just sayin', as they say on Fox News. Can Obama try to bring some kind of liberal reforms to this country – modest health care, race relations – and still oversee the surveillance and military and monetary-industrial state?
The place of the dream in fiction is to provide a way of complicating our lives in ways we are not brave enough to do. See above! Is that an apple stuck in your back? Are you time traveling? I'm recalling two novels to which I have not yet seen anybody favorably compare These Dreams: Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Cherry and, yes, Virginia Woolf's Orlando. Reading Erickson put me in that same place (many places, at once) in a flight of fancy and crash-landingness not often so easily and entertainingly offered.
“Though to the outer waking world Sheba's dream is only a few seconds, in her sleep she understand it's a long voyage.”
I hate the phrase “spoiler alert.” That's from the final, long, ecstatic and, yes, harrowingly
idealistic conclusion of the novel. Skipping to the end of These Dreams of You can only, unless you are an emotionally weak or intellectually crippled reader, actually MAKE YOU want to read the previous 308 pages. What is this dream (see idealism, above) to which Erickson introduces us, wants us perhaps to share? How is it that the president learns valuable lessons from his Indonesian stepfather, a man who likely saw and/or did some pretty nasty things? Finally, the images and voices here do no less than assemble the dreams and anti-dreams of our nation. I was sincerely moved by the president's statement of the painful obvious about the cruel and obviously wrong trial of Trayvon's murderer, a vigilante. I am sincerely disappointed, angered by his failure to do more to challenge the system which makes it totally likely that another murder will result. When I heard his remarks, I had just read the following line, written in 1995, when he was a different person, our nation was a different nation, but so much was the same: “One of them could be me.” The title of his memoir is, importantly, dreams “from” his father, not “of.” It is the particular genius of Erickson's novel that the novelists' dreams (both E. and his protagonist) are of other people, not only their own. The empathy and possibility and assertion of the vivid birthright of Americans to vicariousness is the satisfying and affirming and near-experiential, nearly real-time dream of Steve Erickson.
These Dreams of You, Steve Erickson, Europa Editions, 309 pgs., $ 16.00
Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, Barack Obama, Three Rivers Press, 457 pgs., $ 16.95
“The Act of Killing,” director Joshua Oppenheimer. In release this week at the NuArt in Los Angeles, August 2 at Edwards University Town 6 Theater in Irvine.
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.