It would be wise, I think, to keep these introductory comments brief. Steve Erickson’s innovative, eloquent, and downright visionary fiction has been inspiring other storytellers* for over 30 years. His last several novels, starting with 2005’s Our Ecstatic Days, have been especially noteworthy, and it should come as no surprise that his latest, Shadowbahn, is one of the best-reviewed books of 2017.
“A book like Shadowbahn serves as a bulwark against numbness and the dangerous belief that the only response to incomprehensibility is inaction,” writes David Leo Rice in The Believer. In Granta, Jonathan Lethem describes the novel as “jaw-dropping” and singles out its “radical audacity,” “intensely personal self-reckoning,” and “lucid-dreaming prose.” And The New York Times‘ Fiona Maazel calls it “sad… droll… gorgeous… compassionate, weird, unpredictable, jaunty,” and “alarmingly prescient.” In short, Shadowbahn is one of those rare books that truly demands to be read.
Perhaps all that’s left to say is that I was fortunate enough to study with Steve while pursuing my MFA in Writing at the California Institute of the Arts and that my good fortune extended for several years afterward, as I continued to work with him on the staff of the literary journal Black Clock. Talking with Steve about his artistic practice these past few months represents a kind of homecoming for me. I’m glad to be able to crack open the door to that experience here. Now, reader, I’ll stand aside; this threshold is yours to cross.
“When the Twin Towers suddenly reappear in the Dakota Badlands two decades after their fall, they broadcast music to the tens of thousands that gather, including siblings Parker and Zema from L.A. On the ninety-third floor of the South Tower, Jesse Presley — the stillborn twin of the most famous singer who ever lived — suddenly awakes. Over the hours and days and years to come, he is driven mad by a voice in his head that sounds like his but isn’t, and by the memory of a country where he survived in his brother’s place.”
1) Shadowbahn would seem to be an extension or a continuation of — if not a sequel to — your last novel, These Dreams of You. At least, this book holds open a space in which central characters from These Dreams of You might yet act. What about these characters compelled you to continue writing through (and alongside) Parker and Zema?
As you probably know, having done it yourself, writing a novel can be an evolutionary process. Some novelists plot out everything before they begin writing, but in my case I’ll start with a story that then sometimes develops along unexpected lines. I didn’t foresee this new novel as any sequel to the last, and in my original conception Parker and Zema played a smaller part. But the characters, a dozen years older than we last saw them in the previous book, asserted themselves. They staked a bigger claim to the book, and after you’ve written enough books and enough characters you learn to pay attention to that. I think ultimately the bigger connection between the two novels — inevitably, in retrospect — is America. Thematically this novel picked up where the last off, with a growing unease that something about the country was coming apart philosophically.
2) Although it was composed before Trump’s political ascendance, Shadowbahn may be the first novel to confront, in an explicit sense, the new norms (or normalizations) of Trump’s America. To that extent, it feels like a reckoning with the notion that the American experiment is over, has been over, and that the manner of its conclusion augurs something beyond catastrophe. Which is to say: some set of conditions that, while ruinous, fall far short of the high eschatological drama we expect from the calamitous. In your role as novelist, how would you describe your relationship to History-with-a-capital-H?
The Marxist view is that everything’s a product of history, everything’s a result of historical forces as surely as two chemical compounds produce a third. My view is the other way around: that history is a product of everything else. History doesn’t make for the irrationalities of existence, the irrationalities make for history. So the novels are less about human lives in a historical context as they are about history in the context of the story I’m telling about my characters. We all live in historical times, but in terms of this country in particular, the decade and a half between 9/11 and the last election is the most existentially crucial and dangerous of our lifetime — you may have to go back to the 1850s and 1860s for anything comparable. When I wrote the second page of Shadowbahn — where a truck driver has on his rear fender a bumper sticker that reads “Save America From Itself” — it was the first week of 2014, and less a matter of prophecy than paying attention, because what happened this last November has been coming awhile. Let’s not let ourselves off the hook by supposing Donald Trump is something that happened to America. Rather, America happened to America, and Trump is the result. Unless you’re a novelist who’s completely disengaged, I don’t know how you any longer avoid the subject of America. Stendhal said something to the effect that politics in fiction is like a gunshot in church — rude but unavoidable.
3) This is one of my favorite passages in Shadowbahn: “In the thirteen years since Zema came to America, she has never had any idea that having no idea who she is and having no idea where she belongs makes her more American than anyone.” What was once Edenic (or at least pastoral) about America — that sense of limitless possibility — has curdled into something else: at worst a sense of profound terror, and at best the internalizing of a failure that is anything but individual. How much are the characters in Shadowbahn “condemned to be free?” Or are they merely condemned?
Almost definitionally this is a nomadic country. All our ideas about “freedom” and “independence” are bound up in a kind of psychic if not literal nomadism. The guy who writes the nation’s founding declaratory document about life, liberty and, most subversively, the pursuit of happiness — note the aggression inherent in the word “pursuit” — becomes our third president and the most important thing he does is buy up a mass of wild-ass real estate from the French and send a couple of explorers westward however far it was that Far went. But along with the nomadism is a duality that’s been there from the beginning — Free America and Slave America — and that American duality itself has a dual nature, a division between dialectic order and conflicted disorder. When they decided in the early 1960s to build the world’s tallest building in America’s biggest city, what did they do? They built two, twins. So you have 300-plus million people in the country with little sense of history, who have two competing ideas of what the past is, who regard the past as either a place to live and never leave or as a place to flee and never think about again, but in either case not as something that informs the present or the future. It’s a country of constant identity crisis, a country that names itself after its dreams and then clings to that branding as a way of trying to remember who it is. If the country is condemned as you say, then it has condemned itself. You’re not going to easily reconcile a country that elected the first African American president with a country that voted for the first president in modern times to be openly and avidly endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.
4) Perhaps because the book itself is saturated with détourned familiarities, while reading Shadowbahn I felt I was given more occasion than usual to reflect upon other (if not exactly comparable) narratives. Poe’s A. Gordon Pym being one. But I also found myself coming back, again and again, to those “disaster movies” so characteristic of American cinema in the 1970s. I think there are complicated reasons for why this last echo called loudly to me, but I won’t pursue those repercussions at length here beyond noting that, like a good disaster movie, Shadowbahn impressed me as simultaneously suspenseful and inexorable. Regardless, all these echoes inspired me to reappraise what I’ve long believed to be an overlooked aspect of your writing: its power to move the reader. I mean that your books are eventful in a rather intimate sense. I think of how Our Ecstatic Days is constantly being driven forward by sorrow, or the various tragedies inflicted upon Banning Jainlight in Tours of the Black Clock. Assuming you feel one, how do you cope with the emotional toll that comes with having to live with your novels, both in their making and once they’ve been “finished?”
Well, this may be as profound a question as I’ve been asked about the work, and it’s hard for me to answer without sounding vague. It requires me to somehow contrast my intentions as a writer with perceptions of the work by readers, and I don’t know that I can or even should speak to the way those two things might be at odds. Our Ecstatic Days was the most emotional book I’ve written, it was the book where I pushed myself the farthest both emotionally and creatively, until the two fused. Years ago there was a point writing Tours of the Black Clock when I had to walk away from the book for a length of time, my story had become so intense for me. The writing of these novels is sometimes traumatic in the most precise sense of the word, followed by a kind of post-traumatic stress. And as time goes by and the books go by, I would say this becomes more difficult rather than less.
5) John Hawkes once famously stated that, as a novelist, he felt he had to dispense with “plot, character, setting and theme” in order to focus on what was of chief concern to him: “totality of vision or structure.” Shadowbahn is transparently, concretely a text. The book’s pages have been designed and laid out in such a way that the reader is required to give some consideration to their constructedness. Why these short entries, many no longer than one or two paragraphs? Are the headings on each page chapter titles, or something else? Is this somehow a metrical novel? However, contra Hawkes, those accustomed and hypothetically accessible elements of fiction (“plot, character, setting and theme”) matter very much in your work. What does “totality of vision or structure” mean to you? In a general sense, how do you perceive form and content meaningfully interacting in your own oeuvre?
Someone recently used the word “immersive” to describe this new book and my work in general, and I was surprised it hadn’t occurred to me before because it’s such a good characterization of my intentions. I think that, earlier on, I was sometimes called a postmodernist because it was simply the handiest word at the moment for people who didn’t have a better one, and if I resist the term it’s because postmodernism calls attention to its own artifice, which is the opposite of the immersion that my work aspires to. So even if now and then I wander into some quasi-discreet semiotexte, it’s no less for the purpose of creating something immersive — the typographic landscape functions as no less immersive as do story and character and everything else. I hate to sound so conventional, but character still drives stories, whether those stories have the more straightforward linearity of something like Zeroville or something more fractured like Shadowbahn, and the functions of story and character still dictate the form. In the case of Shadowbahn, that form didn’t manifest itself until I had written half the book, at which point, for reasons I’m not sure bear articulating, some kind of Calvino-crossed-with-the-White Album schematic asserted itself.
6) Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Oval. They were a mid-90s German “band” most known for making truly digital pop music. Members Markus Popp, Sebastian Oschatz and Frank Metzler would physically alter and otherwise glitch-out prerecorded compact discs, sample them and then assemble the results. Who or what figures most prominently on your current playlist, and why?
Music took over the novel in a way I didn’t anticipate. It’s hijacked more than one or two of my novels. The music choices were initially intuitive — I didn’t know the Towers were going to start singing “Shenandoah” until I got to that part of the story, and then suddenly all kinds of music started coming out. Later, in revisions, I tried to seize back the book from the music, deleting about a quarter of the music entries and cutting those that remained to about half their original length. These were the last major changes I made to the novel at a point when I had a fuller perspective on what I wanted the novel to be — then I gave more conscious consideration to which entries to keep and why. I became struck by the paradox that America’s most fully joyful contribution to the world, the one thing America has given to the world that everyone loves unabashedly and without qualification, is music, and that this music was born from the most incontestably evil thing about America, which was slavery. You can make a pretty good argument that in the Western World, anyway, the popular music of the Twentieth Century was invented by African Americans — list the twelve or fifteen or twenty greatest musical artists of the Twentieth Century between Berlin and L.A. and the vast majority are going to be Americans, and the vast majority of those are going to be black. The white American exceptions you can count on one hand: Sinatra, Presley, Dylan. So ultimately I made musical choices that told a story about America, allowing that sometimes that meant songs by Europeans like Bowie or the Beatles, who have been called “honorary Americans” down through the years by… I can’t remember who now. Trilling or Fiedler, I think, or Greil Marcus.
7) The song “Oh Shenandoah” haunts Shadowbahn. But “Oh Shenandoah,” as the novel is painfully aware, is not a stable or singular entity. The more the song disappears, the more it resonates. The song is everywhere and nowhere, an unacknowledged, unfathomable presence that, like instinct, vibrates within and couples contingency to consequence. And so there are as many versions of “Oh Shenandoah” as there are Americas (all Americas, like the presets on a car stereo, being alternate realities). What version of this song do you first remember hearing, and what effect did it have on you?
The first time I remember hearing “Shenandoah” may have been in an early ‘60s Cinerama movie called How the West Was Won, one of those cast-of-thousands epics that studios were trying to fight off TV with. I was a kid and can’t say for sure. “Shenandoah” has always been around, in the way you say, and in terms of this novel its American ever-presence is the point of it. As Marcus noted to me and as you’ve noted, it’s a song that’s everywhere — you hear it in the music of Warren Zevon, Randy Newman, Tom Waits. Dylan has recorded it, Springsteen has recorded it, it’s been recorded by everyone from Paul Robeson to Judy Garland. The version I heard in my head when I was writing the book is a relatively recent one, by Dave Alvin, who used to be in L.A. punk bands The Blasters and X.
8) Do you consider your dreams a kind of autobiography, or, for you, is dreaming more a form of research?
9) Shadowbahn is a book of strange resurrections. The World Trade Center Towers reappear in the South Dakota Badlands. Jesse Presley usurps his twin brother’s place in the American unconscious, and, instead of transforming the world via his singing, warps his guilt and envy until his existential condition itself becomes a form of demagoguery. Is the counter-factual the new post-apocalyptic? What advice would you give the younger generation of literary artists who hope to “save America from itself”?
This is a country where tens of millions of white people still don’t want to admit, 150 years after the fact, that the Civil War was about slavery. That’s the American version of Holocaust denial, and I admit this new hostility to fact gives me pause about what I do. The idea behind the sort of fiction I write has always been that there’s an emotional truth bigger than fact that lies in dream, imagination and the unconscious — the idea has been that reality is what we make it, that we can reimagine reality and that fact can confine or even exist at odds with some truth that’s “bigger” than fact. The problem these days, however, is that America has become a nation of surrealists. We now have what Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker calls an “à la carte” approach to reality, where and when fact is subject to whatever revisions make it more palatable. In a country where the powers that be have declared war on truth, writers who sojourn into the imagination without a moral compass or a sense of the real risk rendering themselves irrelevant, not to even mention irresponsible. If you’re a novelist these days and you have any awareness of what’s going on around you, if you have any capacity left for smashing your own delusions, then you’re bound to try and make sense of your self-indulgence. I don’t know if frolicking on the playground of the imagination cuts it anymore.
Steve Erickson is the author of nine other novels (including Zeroville, Our Ecstatic Days, and These Dreams of You) and two nonfiction books that have been published in ten languages. His work has appeared in numerous periodicals, such as Esquire, Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, American Prospect, and Los Angeles, for which he writes regularly about film, music, and television. Erickson is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, and the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award. Currently, he teaches at the University of California, Riverside.