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Depth Perception

Reviewed by Bill Sheehan
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page BW06


By Steve Erickson. Simon & Schuster. 317 pp. $24

Readers entering the labyrinth of Our Ecstatic Days, Steve Erickson's first novel in six years, are advised to check conventional notions of reality at the door. Erickson's fiction, the best of which includes Arc D'X, Tours of the Black Clock and Rubicon Beach, has always been elusive and dreamlike, and this new book, a delirious portrait of post-millennial America, is his most extreme narrative experiment to date.

Our Ecstatic Days is a sequel of sorts to The Sea Came in at Midnight (1999), which opens with a scene in which 1,999 women and children throw themselves from a cliff into the sea below, a ritual sacrifice designed to placate the dark gods of the millennium. The intended 2000th victim, Kristin Blumenthal, escapes at the last minute and makes her way to Los Angeles, where she becomes the paid consort of a deranged "apocalyptologist" recently deserted by his pregnant wife. Kristin, who also becomes pregnant, is the central figure in an intricate web of relationships that spans the entire novel, which becomes a haunting meditation on the chaotic nature of modern history and on those forces that help keep chaos at bay.

As the new book begins, Kristin has just given birth to a son named Kierkegaard Blumenthal, aka Kirk Blu. (Kirk's anticipated twin, a "female shadow" whom Kristin planned to call Brontë, fails to appear, having literally vanished within her mother's womb.) Parenthood transforms Kristin from a dangerously reckless spirit into a woman who is "paralyzed" by maternal love and convinced that the universe has hostile designs on her son. Her fears assume a tangible form when a mysterious lake begins welling up from the center of Los Angeles, rising and spreading until the city becomes an archipelago of partially submerged islands. Convinced by a combination of intuition and dreams that the waters are coming for her child, she rows to a spot above the lake's source and dives in, determined to confront the forces threatening her son. When she returns to the surface just moments later, Kirk has disappeared.

From this point forward, things get even stranger. The chaos symbolized by the miraculous lake spreads across the world, and the rules governing quotidian reality break down. Formerly inanimate buildings begin to sicken and die. "Melody snakes" -- snakes made entirely of music -- infest the city. A grown-up version of the unborn Brontë emerges, fully formed but devoid of memories, from the water. The color blue disappears completely from the world. Against a backdrop of political upheaval and hallucinatory visions, Kristin mourns -- and searches for -- her son, while the interwoven tales of a varied cast of characters unfold around her. As the novel ranges backward and forward across 90 years of apocalyptic history, Erickson offers a dizzying, cumulatively affecting portrait of the "Age of Chaos," and of a nation transfigured by terror, longing and loss.

Erickson's narrative strategies are peculiarly suited to the fractured realities he describes. Points of view shift without warning from one paragraph to the next. Unfamiliar characters appear out of nowhere, abruptly dominating the story. Typographical experiments -- not all of which seem absolutely necessary -- litter the text. At one point, Erickson launches a single immense sentence that runs, one line per page, across the entire second half of the book, insinuating itself into the surrounding text.

The results of this restless manipulation of form and content are frequently inspired, and just as frequently confusing and exhausting. Erickson never gives an inch, never lets the reader relax into an unimpeded narrative flow. Reflexive (and doubtless oversimplified) comparisons to writers such as Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, William Gaddis and Donald Barthelme are probably inevitable, and it may well be that Erickson's ideal readership is the one prepared by -- and sympathetic to -- the aims of these particular novelists. But he and his latest novel are clearly sui generis. No literary category thus far devised -- fantasy, surrealism, science fiction, magical realism -- adequately describes this sprawling, idiosyncratic book.

Our Ecstatic Days is an extravagant, outsized accomplishment filled with extravagant, outsized flaws, which include a persistent weakness for gaudy, overheated metaphors ("Every honeymoon twilight, across the house's threshold the lake is carried by its lesbian groom the moon, with a bridal train of small dead animals . . . ") that undermine the narrative. But for all its convolutions and stylistic excesses -- and for all the demands it makes on the reader's patience -- it is the work of a serious writer with a singular, deeply personal vision. By the end, this messy, ambitious novel pulls itself together, illuminating a society in which chaos almost -- but never quite -- wins, in which primal human connections, particularly the connection between parents and children, keep us going in the face of catastrophic loss. Our Ecstatic Days is a baroque, visionary novel rooted in fundamental truths, and is well worth the considerable effort it requires. •

Bill Sheehan is the author of "At the Foot of the Story Tree," a critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, and editor of the recent anthology "Night Visions 11."

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