I was born in America. It was somewhere inland. At the junction of two dirt roads about 300 yards from my house was a black telephone in a yellow booth; sometimes walking by you could hear it ringing. Sometimes walking by you’d answer, but no one ever spoke; there’d either be the buzz of disconnection or no sound at all. By the time I was 18 I thought I had outgrown the sound of telephone calls that weren’t for me.
—from Rubicon Beach by Steve Erickson
There has been no middle ground with the reception of Steve Erickson’s Days Between Stations and Rubicon Beach. The usual silence that greets an unestablished writer has been broken by a faction of readers who regard him as one of the most brilliant of contemporary American novelists.
Erickson, a Los Angeles native, treats his city not as a Cloud Cuckoo Land, not as a sunny, upwind version of New York City but as, in his surreal vision, the meta-town toward which the culture is marching.
The critics struggle to categorize his work. The truth may be that Steve Erickson, delivering prose with the force of the assault on Pearl Harbor, cannot be labeled at this time. His influences may be impossible to decipher. His work may require a category all its own.
At Charmers Market in Venice, California, Steve Erickson spoke about his fiction.
James Mx Lane You’ve mentioned that you’re not real happy with some of the labels that reviewers have been throwing at you . . . that you are writing in the Pynchon vein, or the Márquez, or the Serling.
Steve Erickson I think that no writer is ever enthusiastic about being compared to other writers, but it’s a natural process that reviewers go through, both for themselves and for their readers. So it’s not that I’m unhappy about it. I just think that any writer shies away from it and probably those writers are genuinely surprised by it. When I think of writers who have had an impact on me, I come up with people that never get named. Faulkner, Henry Miller, the Brontës, Stendahl, Paul Bowles, Philip K. Dick, Raymond Chandler. I would have to include in that group Márquez, who is one writer that has been cited, and you’ve probably got to include in that group Pynchon, simply because Pynchon is a little like Joyce. His influence is so pervasive these days that you can’t help but be influenced by him.
MX Raymond Chandler. Let me get back to him. He’s often cited as a novelist of Los Angeles, a place you focus on intensely. Do you consider Los Angeles your territory? Is that a product of your living here, or is that something you try to work with consciously?
SE The novel that I’m thinking about next, as it is forming in my mind, will have nothing to do with Los Angeles at all. I’m from Los Angeles, I’ve spent enough time away from it that I think I have a vague, intuitive sense of what it is. Which is probably as concrete a sense as one can get of Los Angeles. It’s very much a city that exists in people’s heads. It’s so geographically amorphous. Certainly with Rubicon Beach the intention was to write a novel which was in a strong sense about Los Angeles as an extension of America. I’ve got to add that Los Angeles is presented in most literature as an aberration. My view was of a Los Angeles that was America taken to its furthest, and at the same time most logical and perverse extreme.
MX The point was raised that Rubicon Beach was weak as political satire, or as a political novel.
SE I think I know what Paul Auster meant in the Times when he said that he found the political subtext . . . I think he said “vague and unpersuasive,” and I want to be careful that this doesn’t come across as an objection to that opinion, which is a valid one. In my own mind, it was never calculated; it was never contrived in a way that Auster may have felt. I had this political subtext in mind from the start: it was an important part of the book. Whether I should have brought it out more directly is another question. I think I manifested it as much as I intended to. Or would have wanted to.
MX You have been referred to as “a novelist for the 1980s.” Do you consider yourself as such?
SE I guess I’m turning out to be a novelist of the ’80s. I tried to be a novelist of the ’70s. This may be a time that responds to something I’m doing. I’m a guy who grew up on movies and rock ’n’ roll and books, and all of these things had an equal impact on me. Fusion has to take place in terms of the alchemy of your own creativity, and your own head, and to use a grand term, your own vision. And maybe that’s what’s happened [in the ’80s]. It’s the result of a lot of people growing up with all these influences and finding that those influences have consciously produced something that has not been seen before.
MX Your work has been described as cinematic.
SE I got my BA in Cinema. It would probably be disingenuous of me to deny the influence. I have to say that . . .
MX Are you inclined to deny it?
SE Yeah. Well, again I would say that I’m not unhappy about it because I can see why people feel that way. My own reaction is that the work is visual, but not necessarily cinematic, and that there’s a distinction to be made between the two. There are a lot of ways in both these books that the internal drama, the drama that’s going on inside of these people, is finding some kind of external representation. Michael Ventura I think made a really valid distinction when he reviewed both of these books for the [LA] Weekly, when he said that both these books don’t take place in the camera’s eye, but in the mind’s eye. There’s a difference in that the audience, or the reader, brings to the visual sense of the book a lot of his own visual sense. I think that if these books somehow got translated into a celluloid representation they would be a lot more literal than the final effect of the books when they’re read. I guess I feel that books may capture a cinematic sense, but I’m not sure if they are really cinematic in terms of their form, or even in terms of the visual language.
MX Your writing tends to be intensely focused. Are you a very structured writer?
SE No, I let it incubate in my head for a long time. I kind of wait until I build up a good head of psychic scenes before I start writing. And in both of these books I did remarkably little rewriting, and also I wrote them in basically chronological order. I did write patches and go back, but especially Rubicon Beach there were two short, short sections in the middle of the book that I ended up reversing, and except for that I wrote it page one to page 300 sequentially.
MX With Rubicon Beach, were you trying to write a 300 page novel that has to be read as a single moment in time?
SE I think that’s the ideal. I’d like to write big books that masquerade as little books. As opposed to a lot of books that are little books masquerading as big books.
MX Name a book in that context.
SE No, I’ve gotten into trouble on this in the past. I know I presume a lot of readers. I’m not trying to come up with revolutionary forms. In fact, I’m very conscious of trying to write a book that’s going to sweep the reader along, that’s going to pull the reader along, that’s going to make the reader exchange his reality for the book’s. Because I think that’s the ultimate triumph of art. The audience wants to exchange his or her reality for the reality of the artist’s, and the measure of a good book is how long that exchange goes on, how long after a reader leaves the book does he take that bit of reality with him. I would like to write very readable books. I’m not looking to lay Finnegan’s Wake on the reader.
MX Do you feel that Days Between Stations, your first novel, was successful in those terms?
SE It was a successful first novel in that it got good reviews, and in that it got picked up by a popular and currently prestigious paperback line [Vintage Contemporaries]. It didn’t sell worth shit.
MX Rubicon Beach was your second novel. You sustain a very intensive mood throughout it. Is this something that, in the planning stages, you say “this is what I want throughout, or . . . ?”
SE You know, these books sort of present themselves. They’re there and they say to you: Write me. In Rubicon Beach I chose to write in a more direct prose than in Days Between Stations. And in shorter segments. I knew that the book was thematically and conceptually “out there,” and there are going to be readers who go “what is this book doing, and where is this book taking me?” And I wanted to seduce the reader. I wanted to make it easy for the reader to be pulled in.
MX Yet, in Rubicon Beach, characters pop up whom nobody can exactly place; events are replayed over and over again, never exactly as before; people seem to forget why they’ve arrived at the places they find themselves in. Is the lack of stability, or memory, something that disturbs you?
SE I think this is a time that demands that everything have an immediate value. That bothers me. I hope it bothers most thinking people. The attention span is short. Things have to prove themselves now, and next year it’s “what have you done lately?” We live in a “what have you done lately?” culture. And yet I guess to a certain extent, having acknowledged that and distrusting that, I also find myself tactically recognizing that and working with it. Going back to what you said about the entire book striving to have the power of a single moment, as though it could be read in a single moment: that’s a reinforcement, I think, of the immediacy principle that seems to beat work.
MX Even more so in Los Angeles.
SE Definitely. Especially here because we’re so fucking passive. I live in a section of town which is old Los Angeles. That means that the buildings were built in the 1930s. There is no past. History is a blank slate. The up side of that is that you can basically write on the slate what you choose. The downside is that you better damn well know who you are here, because if you don’t you’ll end up one of the crazy people wandering Hollywood Boulevard, or you’ll wind up somebody sitting in a hot tub in Pacific Palisades. All the people who come here, and I made the point in Rubicon Beach, who come here hating the city and what it stands for: four months later they confirm every stereotype you’ve ever seen or heard about Los Angeles, because they came here looking for Los Angeles to tell them who they were.
MX Is this something you’re going to pick up in your next book?
SE I don’t know. I think I stated that as directly as I want to state it for awhile. The whole middle section of Rubicon Beach, where the poet becomes a screenwriter, is about that.
MX Is America “back and Standing Tall Again?”
SE No, I think America’s gone. It’s gone. It’s not the same place. I say that as someone who was raised by his parents as a conservative Republican, who still thinks that the original idea of America is pretty mind-boggling; in the sense of a place where there are times that the will of the state must subvert its will to the will of a single citizen. There are certain inalienable rights that 220 million Americans voting tomorrow couldn’t vote away from you. That I think is still a pretty amazing idea, but that America’s gone. I think the new America is hostile to the idea that there are certain things about individual rights that are so valued that they take precedence over the will of the state. I think that we have a President and an Attorney General who talk about freedom and getting the government off people’s backs, but they wouldn’t think twice about trying to tell you what you can read, whether the CIA can read your mail, or listen to your telephone, or what kind of lifestyle you should adhere to. I don’t think the government would think twice about that. I think that Ronald Reagan and Ed Meese are hostile to the basic principles of the Bill of Rights.
MX That may not make it into the interview. You’ll get on one of those lists.
SE I don’t care about that. That you can put in, and I’d just as soon you did. My concern about this interview, and we never touched on this, is that I’m not especially enamored with what passes today for current American fiction, and I’ve made that fairly plain in interviews, and it tends to come off as though I’m saying that I’m the one person who can write something good, which is ridiculous and not what I’m saying at all. What I’m most critical of . . . my agent is going to kill me . . .
MX We can strike this.
SE Well, no . . . you can say this . . . as long as I don’t get into specific names. What is most bothersome is that American fiction today seems to have accepted its own inconsequentiality. And I would only hasten to add that that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some good people writing some good things. I think Don DeLillo, Louise Erdrich, William Kennedy, Rob Lowenson, Henry Bean: those people are writing good books, and more people I’m not thinking of. And a lot of people working in genre fiction. I think that over the last 30 years a lot of genre fiction has been some of the most interesting and disturbing American fiction. Jim Thompson. Do you know Jim Thompson?
MX No, I don’t.
SE He’s going through a renaissance right now. He was a hard-boiled writer of the 1950s. Books with titles like The Killer Inside Me and Savage Night and Wild Town. I think he’s being rediscovered as a major American writer. Of course, the French had to make the discovery first. But America’s finding out about him. His books have just been reissued by a small press called Black Lizard Press. If Celine had been an American pulp writer, he would’ve been Jim Thompson. Philip K. Dick is an important American writer, but he’s so out-there, so off-the-wall that even the Science Fiction community took awhile to accept him. Now he’s lionized because he’s dead. Guys like Márquez and Milan Kundera and V. S. Naipaul . . . if there are giants these days, these guys are the closest thing to it. Probably because they’re just far enough beyond the boundary of the technological world that they haven’t been rendered numb by it.
MX Escaping the numbness. Is that part of being a writer? An alienated youth?
SE I kind of think and hope that a new generation of Americans is shaking the numbness off. We didn’t live through the trauma of the bomb. The bomb was something that was there from the day that we were born. And I think that that’s where the numbness came from. The trauma.
Both of these books are books about people trying to shake themselves out of a numbness. They’re slapping themselves silly trying to get the blood going again.
MX Is that why you write? To get the blood going again?