These Dreams of You
“As in Zeroville, Mr. Erickson’s previous novel, These Dreams of You is told in short kinetic bursts, some no longer than a paragraph, and moves at a propulsive pace. As readers rush headlong toward its climax, they may feel as if they have emerged from something like a fever dream, as torrents of ideas and images wash over them (read this in as few sittings as possible for maximum effect). . . . These Dreams of You is a big novel of big ideas, emotionally capacious and desperately relevant. It deserves to be read.”
“Here are we, one magical moment
Such is the stuff from where dreams are woven.”
On a Tuesday evening in November 2008, Alexander “Zan” Nordhoc sits in a rocking chair with his adopted Ethiopian daughter Sheba, watching his country elect its first black president. On the television, thousands of people celebrate in the same Chicago park where 40 years before thousands of people rioted.
In Los Angeles, Zan’s wife Viv and 12-year-old son Parker exalt in jubilation. Sheba, the family’s adopted four year old “who talks like she’s 20,” is the family’s lone supporter of the losing candidate. Good liberal that he is, Zan wonders if a middle-aged white man has the right to hold his head in his hands and cry—thinking he probably doesn’t—but doing it anyway.
This is how Steve Erickson’s magnificent novel These Dreams of You opens, with a tableaux as all-American now as it was unthinkable not long ago: a family proud of what their country has achieved, reveling in the racial progress it has made.
But the spectacle is a temporary respite for the Nordhocs, who are mired in a financial quagmire that predates the national recession (“or before the rest of the country knew theirs had begun, too”): their house faces foreclosure, Viv’s career as a photographer has stalled after she became a victim of plagiarism, and Zan has been unemployed since his contract as a university professor was suspended. He spends his afternoons as a deejay for a pirate radio station his wife can only hear in 30-second increments, and only if she’s in range.
As Sheba gets older, she begins to ask questions about why her skin is darker than anyone else’s in her class—Viv knows the day is soon coming when her daughter will ask where she came from, and Viv needs to know more about Sheba’s birth mother: Why did she put her daughter up for adoption? Where is she now? But information is hard to find from Los Angeles. When Zan is offered the chance to lecture in London, Viv flies alone to Ethiopia on a fact-finding mission.
That just scratches the surface of this audacious novel, but readers should be left to discover where the story goes from here on their own. It’s enough to say that the mystery of Sheba’s mother is about to spiral out into parallel narratives spanning three continents and four decades, blurring reality as it appropriates historical figures as well as a character from Zan’s long-unfinished novel.
As in Zeroville, Mr. Erickson’s previous novel, These Dreams of You is told in short kinetic bursts, some no longer than a paragraph, and moves at a propulsive pace. As readers rush headlong toward its climax, they may feel as if they have emerged from something like a fever dream, as torrents of ideas and images wash over them (read this in as few sittings as possible for maximum effect).
Just as cinema drove the action of Zeroville, music joyously informs every page of These Dreams of You. Allusions abound, from the Van Morrison reference in the title, to the character of Sheba, who is said to emit an audible hum (usually playing the same David Bowie song on repeat) like a human radio, connecting her with the characters from other time periods. Given the story’s circular nature, with one era blending unannounced into the next, music becomes common link.
While it might seem like These Dreams of You is a cerebral exercise, a brainteaser the reader has to work out, its greatest achievement is how urgent it feels. It is defiantly a book for our time, sweeping in scope but just as effective in tapping into smaller-scale fears that many Americans in 2012 will relate to: the ineffable sense that something that bound us together is being lost to time. At one point Zan becomes separated from everyone in his family, a sequence that is as emotionally bruising as anything in recent fiction. “I know I did something wrong,” he despairs, “but I don’t know what.”
The lecture Zan is hired to give concerns “the Novel as a Literary Form Facing Obsolescence in the 21st Century,” and this book could well be asking the same question about America: Is America an idea whose time has passed? Mr. Erickson addresses it head on:
“The one thing Zan knows for sure is that, should the song of his country finally fade and be silent, it will never quite be possible again to believe in it. . . . Should the silencing of the song come to pass, not only will Zan be complicit in the loss of his own faith, he will be complicit for having had faith in the first place. But without such faith, the country—this country in particular—is nothing.
“This is the occupational hazard of being of my country,” he continues, “with a people still fighting over who they are because when nothing else is held in common but the idea then if the idea isn’t held in common there’s nothing left except the mystical name of the place that evokes something different for each person but which each person allows himself or herself to believe is the same thing evoked for every other person.”
Over his first eight novels, Mr. Erickson earned a reputation for writing innovative, structurally daring surrealist fiction. But These Dreams of You feels like a culmination, written by a novelist in full command of his voice and his message. It’s no small feat, considering all the balls he’s juggling, and whether everything ties together in an ironclad way ultimately doesn’t matter.
These Dreams of You is a big novel of big ideas, emotionally capacious and desperately relevant. It deserves to be read.