ALTA ASKS

Talking with Steve Erickson

Steve Erickson’s fiction explores “chaos as it impacts—and is impacted by—identity, memory, obsession.”
Steve Erickson’s fiction explores “chaos as it impacts—and is impacted by—identity, memory, obsession.”
The author of 2017’s Shadowbahn says that “right now history is outpacing the imagination” and “writing definitely needs to get bigger.”

Steve Erickson’s Shadowbahn opens with a spectacle. The Twin Towers appear in the Dakota Badlands two decades after everyone saw them fall. The towers are complete down to the smallest detail and empty save for one man, Jesse Garon Presley, Elvis’s stillborn twin brother. Jesse, now an adult, wakes up inside the empty space, haunted by the songs of his twin, who didn’t survive. While Jesse comes to terms with his existence inside, tourists outside the towers gather and try to make sense of this “American Stonehenge.” The buildings play a steady stream of music that every listener hears differently. 

Steve Erickson joins Alta Asks Live on Wednesday, September 23 at 12:30 p.m. PDT. REGISTER

Meanwhile, a brother and sister drive toward the towers on “a secret highway called the ‘shadowbahn’ that cuts through the heart of the country from one end to the other with impunity,” listening to their father’s eclectic playlists and collecting American songs in their wake. Erickson’s work conjures images of duality: siblings, light and shadow, broadcasters and receivers, luck and misfortune, union and disunion. Alternate history and known timelines blend and echo each other euphonically in this road-trip, reality-trip collage of logic, song, and American identity. Shadowbahn explains how “voices out of the night are company” and how we play music in order to live.

Erickson discussed his novel Shadowbahn with Alta recently via email.

EXCERPT:

More than the buildings…it’s the randomness that people find disconcerting. Attempts are made to study the patterns of the buildings and music among individuals first, then larger groups. Attempts are made to break down sightings and hearings and vanishings and silencings demographically among genetic and ethnic and socioeconomic and national and continental constituencies, to feed computer systems with corresponding data that will divine (if that’s a word) patterns among the to-ing and fro-ing of skyscrapers and soundtracks. It’s a century that disputes and hates the death of patterns, that disavows and loathes a vacuum of digitalogic, as though Someone is putting on a cosmic demonstration of the limits of the rational. 

What central question does your work ask?
I’ll answer this way, by saying that virtually all my fiction in some way speaks to chaos. Personal chaos, historical chaos, chaos environmental and cosmic. Chaos as it impacts—and is impacted by—identity, memory, obsession.

What, in other disciplines, inspires you to create?
Music and movies. Artists taking chances who are willing to come up short in the process. Artists challenging the established vocabulary and rewriting it. I remember the first time I saw Vertigo. I remember the first time I saw 2001, and Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc. Once Upon a Time in the West in London’s Leicester Square, the same summer day I read To the Lighthouse in Hyde Park and saw the Clash that night in Brixton. I remember the first time I heard Ray Charles, and Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde back-to-back. Somewhere along the line Bowie’s Low and Heroes kicked in for me as a single work, and I’m not sure I’ve listened to anything more in the last three decades. (The only thing wrong with Heroes is the quotation marks around the title—a failure of nerve on Bowie’s part, so I never include them.) I remember the Amsterdam record shop I was in where I first heard Patti Smith: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” It’s all been work I don’t always know what to make of at first but then stays with me years if not, as in those cases, the rest of my life.

Do you listen to anything as you write?
Rarely. If I do, it almost always will be something semi-ambient. Definitely nothing with words or even a defined melody. Mid-to-late Miles Davis maybe. Aphex Twin, Brian Eno. 

What obsessions, coincidences, or connections made it into this book?
The too-obvious obsession is music. More and more music kept entering the narrative, and I spent most of the last six to eight months of revisions taking a lot of it back out—I probably cut the amount of music in the book by a quarter, maybe a third, because I never meant for it to be a novel about music. I meant for it to be a novel about America and the music was a soundtrack. As far as coincidences, I finished the first draft of this novel about a fractured, Trumpian America the same month in the summer of 2015 that Trump announced his presidential candidacy. The novel was published the first month of his presidency.

What kind of writing do you think will come out of this moment in history?
Right now history is outpacing the imagination. Or it’s outpacing mine, anyway. And any imagination that isn’t informed by this moment runs the risk of being too irrelevant to bother with, unless what the reader is looking for is pure escapism. Writing definitely needs to get bigger. Twenty-year-olds writing their memoirs about personal neuroses and childhood traumas and sexual idiosyncrasies isn’t going to cut it. Solipsism isn’t going to cut it. We’re living in a potentially proto-totalitarian time. Trumpism created Trump, not the other way around. It preceded him, and it will still be around when he’s gone. We are our own Enemy, and we need a literature that addresses that, an Orwell to chronicle this cold civil war that’s not over differences of opinion or even values but differences of truth. There’s no reconciling an America that elected the first African American president with an America that replaced him with a successor endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. 

What’s on your to-be-read list?
Right now I’m sort of in the middle of a bunch of books, which is no way to read any of them. Finishing Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet and Edward Achorn’s Every Drop of Blood, about Lincoln’s second inauguration, and dabbling in a book about William Burroughs’s influence on rock and roll. I’d like to read Begin Again, a book about James Baldwin by a professor at Princeton named Eddie S. Glaude Jr.—we white people need to get our shit together if it’s not already too late. Would like to finally catch up on more Ōe, Lispector, Modiano, Musil, Javier Marías, Silvina Ocampo, Sebald’s Austerlitz, a long-lost ’50s novel called My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes, who also wrote films for Rossellini, De Sica, and Nicholas Ray. I don’t read enough. Nobody reads enough.

Give us the elevator pitch for Shadowbahn.
How long is the elevator ride? Is it 101 floors or just to the second floor? One day in the not-too-distant future, the Twin Towers suddenly reappear in the Dakota Badlands. They become an American Stonehenge, drawing millions of people from thousands of miles across an America that’s literally divided in two and is crossed by a secret highway called the shadowbahn. A white brother and his Black sister drive through the landscape on the way to see their mother, abducting as they go all the country’s music. Inside one of the towers lives the stillborn twin of the most famous singer who ever lived, and over the days to come he’s driven mad by a voice in his head that sounds like his but isn’t, and by the memory of an America where he survived in his brother’s place. It should be a miniseries, not a movie. That should get us to at least floor 93. Show me a producer who won’t jump for that, right?

Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic based in Elk Grove, California. She most recently interviewed Sara Borjas for Alta Asks.

SHADOWBAHN
  • By Steve Erickson
  • Blue Rider Press, 320 pages, $16

 

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