I’ve been a fan if Steve Erickson since I first came across Days Between Stations not long after it was published (I even managed to get a review of it into the Times Literary Supplement). I’ve written about him several times since then, both extensive essays and relatively shorter reviews. This was a review that first appeared in Vector 191, January-February 1997.
Typically, Steve Erickson’s novels deal with characters awaking from the American Dream, and finding a people so ununited that their world is, literally, disrupted. In Amnesiascope, for instance, Los Angeles is now isolated from the rest of America, ringed by fires and broken into a series of distinct time zones so that one street may be separated from its neighbour by a matter of minutes. Thus, symbolically, we are told that nothing unifies America, that its people can never cohere, that Erickson’s central character must discover his own morality in a land where every man is an island.
Erickson’s recent books have had a strange degree of overlap. Arc d’X was a fiction whose starting point was contained in his ‘non-fiction’ Leap Year, and in Amnesiascope the narrator is ‘Steve Erickson’ though it is not altogether clear if this is the same ‘Steve Erickson’ who was an American novelist murdered in Berlin towards the end of Arc d’X. Even more difficult to work out is how much this ‘Steve Erickson’ overlaps with the Steve Erickson who wrote the book, for here, as if he is closing a circle, Erickson contains echoes of all his previous books. But echoes that twist and distort every notion we carried with us out of those works.
Erickson’s LA is a landscape of the imagination, a wilderness as torn and decayed as the sand-swept streets of Days Between Stations or the musical underground rivers of Rubicon Beach. Here, as well as the fragmentation of time, there are streets that disappear or lead to places they are not supposed to go. Maps have always been important in Erickson’s novels, but they are works of fiction, you cannot truly map the real world because the real world is solipsistic, a moral landscape shaped anew by each of us. So this distorted cityscape is a Ballardian reflection of the narrator’s own inner self, but as much as the setting distances us from what we might term collective reality the events that are foregrounded upon it appear to be as close to a roman a clef as Erickson has ever written. Here, for instance, we discover that Lauren and Sally, the ill-treated heroines of Days Between Stations and Arc d’X respectively, are both ill-treated former girlfriends of ‘Steve Erickson’. And this ‘Steve Erickson’ – like his creator, a some-time film reviewer for an alternative newspaper – writes a review of a film that doesn’t exist, made by Adolphe Sarre, the silent film director who featured in Days Between Stations. Then, he overhears people talking about the film he invented as if they have seen it: his fiction acquires solidity, and one begins to wonder how much the author is lending the solidity of his real life the insubstantiality of fiction.
As the title suggests, this is a novel about memory. The amnesiascope itself is a sculpture created by one of the narrator’s girlfriends, a dish intended to project forgetfulness. But the more the narrator himself seeks forgetting, he finds his past intruding more and more to shape his world. Or rather, the moral choices he made or failed to make; for during the course of the novel he finds himself forced to make a series of moral decisions that recall his past. His paper’s editorial freedom is under threat from its owner, should he stand by his principles and resign? He rescues a teenage prostitute from a flood – another way in which the landscape is distorted – and finds her taking over his life in a dilapidated apartment building. He becomes involved in writing a curious semi-pornographic film (Banning Jainlight in Tours of the Black Clock was also a pornographer) but the quest for a leading lady takes him into a threatening moral twilight which ends in suicide. And everywhere remembering and forgetting form the twin poles of this moral globe.
Amnesiascope is an uncomfortable comedy, but as always there is a mythic power underlying Erickson’s shattering vision and sometimes awkward prose which makes this a forceful and involving book. Yet at the same time the sense of closure is so strong, the confessional mode (emphasised by the only first-person narrator in any of Erickson’s fiction) so convincing, that the whole book has an air of finality. It is as if, in his novels, Erickson has mined his own life so completely that the pits have fallen in and the working become exposed to the light. One wonders what else is left to be extracted for any future novels.