Erickson, Steve 1950–
Erickson, Steve 1950–
PERSONAL: Born Stephen Michael Erickson, April 20, 1950, in Santa Monica, CA; son of Milton Ivan (a printer and photographer) and Joanna (a theater director; maiden name, DeGraff) Erickson. Education: University of California—Los Angeles, B.A., 1972, M.A., 1973.
ADDRESSES: Home—Topanga, CA. Office—c/o Black Clock, CalArts, 24700 McBean Parkway, Valencia, CA 91355.
CAREER: Freelance editor and writer in London, England, Paris, France, Rome and Venice, Italy, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and Los Angeles, CA, 1973–86; arts and film editor, Los Angeles Weekly, 1989–93; film critic, Los Angeles Magazine; editor, Book Forum; California Institute for the Arts, MFA writing faculty member, Valencia, CA; editor, Black Clock, California Institute of the Arts, 2004–.
Days between Stations, Poseidon (New York, NY), 1985.
Rubicon Beach, Poseidon (New York, NY), 1986.
Tours of the Black Clock, Poseidon (New York, NY), 1989.
Leap Year (nonfiction), Poseidon (New York, NY), 1989.
Arc d'X, Poseidon (New York, NY), 1993.
Amnesiascope, Holt (New York, NY), 1996.
American Nomad (nonfiction), Holt (New York, NY), 1997.
The Sea Came in at Midnight, Bard (New York, NY), 1999.
Our Ecstatic Days, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2005.
Author of column "Guerrilla Pop" and contributing editor for Los Angeles Reader, 1982–85; film columnist for California Magazine. Contributor to Esquire, Los Angeles Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Chicago Reader, Free Paper (Washington, DC), East Bay Express (Berkeley, CA), L.A. Weekly, PSA Magazine, New York Times Sunday Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Village Voice; film columnist, Los Angeles Magazine. Contributor of essays to Web sites, including Book Forum, Conjunctions, Salon, and Salon (Media Circus). Contributor of entry "L.A.'s Top 100" to Best Music Writing 2002, edited by R.J. Smith, Da Capo Press (Cambridge, MA), 2001.
SIDELIGHTS: Readers of Steve Erickson's novels frequently find themselves lost in time. Like a disjointed dream sequence, historical characters appear in the present as prisoners of an enduring fate while those born in the here and now can find themselves just as suddenly displaced to a past they never knew they had. Erickson's work stretches the limit of the novel form in its attempt to incorporate the qualities of other media, such as film and art.
According to Complete Review, Steve Erickson "writes on the edge of science fiction: his novels tend to feature slightly altered (un)realities, dystopias that are closer to us than we care to imagine…. He sets his scenes fairly well, using his post-apocalyptic visions effectively while rarely losing himself in the details of his imagined worlds. And he has some decent stories to tell." In an interview with Rob Trucks for Blue Moon Review, Erickson stated of his work, "It's not fantasy, it's not surrealism, it's not magical realism, it's not mainstream, it's not avant-garde, it's not conventional and it's not necessarily hip. It just doesn't lend itself to a niche."
Many of Erickson's novels take place in Los Angeles, which, according to Complete Review, the author has "gotten bogged down in … destroy[ing] and recreat[ing] it in almost every book." Erickson said of this city, in his interview with Trucks, "My relationship with Los Angeles is touch and go. I didn't set out to write about it so much. It just naturally lent itself to what I was doing."
In the author's first novel, Days between Stations, futuristic lovers Lauren and Michel travel the post-apocalyptic world in search of the latter's pre-amnesic identity. A reel of silent film recorded by his Parisian grandfather is the only clue Michel possesses of his past; his bleak European journey, in which he finds Paris plunged into primeval darkness, reveals little about his past or his current situation. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Frederika Randall observed, "There is a healthy dose of cinematic surrealism in … Erickson's moody first novel," its narrative unfolding "with the magical ease of a movie that floats back and forth in space and time." Los Angles Times critic Carolyn See also noted that Days between Stations "demands concentration and a very close reading [as] characters change names at the drop of a hat … incidents repeat themselves, [and] … diction shifts."
See further stated that Erickson's interest in "the essential duality of things, image versus reality, past versus present, dreams versus wakening," is plotted logically, but that the book defies a "symbolic exegesis or a plot summary." Deeming the book a serious, risk-taking endeavor, See predicted a distinguished future for the author.
Discussing Erickson's second novel, Rubicon Beach, in the New York Times Book Review, Paul Auster observed that the author has again "shunned the strictures of realistic fiction." Describing the work as "part science fiction, part surrealist love story, [and] part political fable," Auster noted that its three distinct parts often intersect and ultimately converge. "Characters vanish from one world and reappear in another … names and identities slide" and "imagery is far more important … than plot." Noting the "Jungian tonality" of the book's events, Auster suggested that Rubicon Beach "is in some sense intended as a warning to those who lack the courage to cross the Rubicon of their imaginations." While the reviewer acknowledged "moments when [Erickson's] energies outstrip his ideas," Auster nonetheless judged the work a success. "One does not think twice about following him down the labyrinthine paths of his bizarre and striking tale." The critic praised the author's prose as well, concluding that Erickson "is a young writer to be watched."
Tours of the Black Clock, Erickson's third novel, blends future with past and history with fantasy. The plot concerns Banning Jainlight, who becomes Adolf Hitler's pornographer. Erickson "effectively creates a brooding, self-enclosed world of driven sensuality," remarked Tom Clark in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, adding that the novelist's "effort to engage history on a cosmic scale … is affected negatively by a serious case of overreaching." Kathy Acker, however, praised Erickson in her New York Times Book Review article, saying that the novel "is more than a story: it becomes a meditation on evil, on 'the most evil man in the world.' Since the narrator of this meditation is himself a murderer, hardly free of the taint of evil, the absolute quality of evil is being questioned." Acker pronounced the novel "a gorgeous argument against a culture of absolutes and for a way of life based on questioning."
In Arc d'X, Erickson expounds on a favorite theme: the lost ideals and dreams of America. The book takes place during Thomas Jefferson's diplomatic sojourn in Paris, though it is Jefferson's slave and reputed lover, Sally Hemings, who is the focus of attention. In Paris, Sally is a free woman, but love proves more important to her than freedom, and she accompanies Jefferson back to America and remains his slave.
The plot shifts from eighteenth-century France to an apocalyptic city ravaged by religious extremists, then again to Berlin in 1999 where Jefferson reappears to kill the novelist, who is a character in his own work of fiction. "Characters, objects, and events jump across time and space," commented Walt Bode of the Voice Literary Supplement. While Bode found some of Erickson's writing confusing, he added that "there is luminous and sensual prose about bodies, the weather and revolution; there are breathtaking leaps of the imagination, but too often obliqueness seems to be the goal." For Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, Arc d'X has "moments of genuine brilliance," including "haunting descriptions of pre-Revolutionary Paris and post-unification Berlin and imaginative depictions of a futuristic city-state perched precariously between ruin and redemption."
In his interview with Erickson for HotWired, John Alderman called the author's sixth novel, Amnesiascope, "bleakly funny," particularly in its "nightmarish" depiction of a futuristic Los Angeles. Amnesiascope "seems to describe not just an architecture of the imagination but an urban sprawl of the imagination," Alderman commented. While the book is clearly a work of science fiction, it is also a semi-autobiographical account that contains scenes that Alderman noted "are embarrassing to read" because they are so intensely personal.
The protagonist of Amnesiascope is, as Erickson once was, a film critic for an alternative local newspaper, a position that leaves the former novelist artistically and financially dissatisfied. S, as the character is called, roams a divided Los Angeles, encircled by rings of fire to separate it from the rest of the country, to visit the city's underside of prostitution, drugs, and strip joints. Alvin Lu of the San Francisco Bay Guardian found the book "dazzling" and "mind-blowing," but mentioned what he considers a recurrent fault of the author's work: "at times his articulation is impatient, unwilling to work out the details; ultimately the brilliance becomes blinding." In his interview with Trucks, Erickson, himself, noted this shortcoming in his work. "My greatest flaw [as a novelist]," Erickson remarked, "is I'm really not as careful an observer as I should be and my books wind up being a little too imagined when they ought to be better observed. I expect that's because I've spent a whole lifetime living inside my own head and I'm more comfortable there. I'm more fascinated with what's in my own head than I am with the world around me. There are a lot of bad things that journalism does to one's writing but one of the good things it does is force you out of your own head and to record the world around you in ways that I wish I was better at than I am."
Kakutani of the New York Times complained that Amnesiascope's series of "peculiar events" never become a coherent story. These events are S and his girlfriend's plans to kidnap a stripper, a review of an imagined movie that somehow everyone in Los Angeles thinks is real, and S's efforts to track down the woman of his dreams after spotting her on a billboard. Kakutani wrote that these events "feel like the sort of drug-induced riffs college students like to spin out for one another late at night." Despite this criticism, Kakutani observed that Amnesiascope reveals "passages far more emotionally intimate—and in some cases, far more engaging—than anything he has written before."
In the category of nonfiction, Erickson has produced two books recounting his experiences covering two presidential elections. But, as G. Michael O'Toole warned in his West Coast Review of Books article, no one should expect from Erickson "your standard 'Making-of-the-President'-type fare." The first of these works, Leap Year, finds the author on the road with the 1988 campaign. "He was in Atlanta for the Democratic convention, but mainly bagged the event by television in his hotel room," noted Los Angeles Times Book Review writer Charles Bowden. "He was in New Orleans for the Republican Convention, but split before it began in order to take in the music and bars of Austin, TX…. He was periodically hounded by Sen. Albert Gore and his wife Tipper—they kept showing up either wasted or demented as Erickson hallucinated his way across the landscape of the United States."
The author, Bowden continued, uses the election and the candidates "as props in his discussion of what's gone wrong with this country. And his novelist's feel for the language is a relief from either the dead newspaper prose or poli-sci jargon that lurks in election books." In devoting an entire article to Erickson's works, Village Voice writer Greg Tate singled out Leap Year as the author's "most melancholic work, a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for the '90s."
An unexpected character in Leap Year materializes in the ghost of Sally Hemings—the same historical figure who also appeared in the novel Arc d'X. Hemings' voice, according to Tate, "is symbolic of all those locked out of Jefferson's vision of democracy by his ofay will to power." Hemings is portrayed searching for Jefferson and locating him during the election year 1988, living in a Hopi Reservation.
Journalist and critic David Yepsen, for one, found elements of Leap Year rough going; as he told Washington Post Book World, what with the ghost of Hemings and the author's side trips "the book gets so confused … [that] the political junkie looking for some counterculture insights will find [Leap Year] to be too much work." Still, Yepsen acknowledged, Erickson "makes some worthwhile points about all the rot of the 1988 campaign that aren't often made by those of us who covered it."
With American Nomad, Erickson covered the 1996 Oval Office race; this time he was on assignment for Rolling Stone magazine. "For a while [Erickson carried] off the pretense of being a more or less normal campaign correspondent," remarked New York Times Book Review contributor Barbara Ehrenbach. But he was subsequently fired by publisher Jann Wenner for what was perceived as increasingly bizarre dispatches.
No matter, as Ehrenbach continued in her New York Times Book Review piece. In American Nomad the author retains "his eagle eye for the ambient madness, rage and yearning of the Presidential election season. He understands the cheap redemption white America sought in Colin Powell and how, when another high-profile African-American was acquitted of murder, white America decided to blow off redemption and stick with resentment and guilt."
At his best, the critic added, Erickson "functions like some high-tech psycho-medical sensing devise inserted into the ravaged soul of American politics." Less impressed was Washington Post Book World's Jonathan Yardley, who deemed American Nomad a book "over-loaded with sweeping, cosmic generalizations almost none of which is capable of holding more than a couple ounces of water." While he cited the author for areas of "clear, straight thinking," Yardley also pointed to passages like "America had [become] a country of nomads, who wandered the hallways of the American soul not sure if they were in a funhouse or a cancer ward" as evidence that Erickson "simply cannot resist the formulation of glib oversimplifications that quickly reach the level of reductio ad absurdum."
To a Kirkus Review critic, on the other hand, American Nomad "operates brilliantly as both a political chronicle and a zany memoir." And in Ehrenbach's view, Erickson "establishes one thing in this beautiful, crazed and weirdly patriotic book: [in firing Erickson] Jann Wenner made a big mistake."
Publishing much in print and electronically, Erickson has written numerous essays on politics, as well as culture and film, for such periodicals as New York Times Sunday Magazine, Village Voice, Esquire, Los Angeles Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, and Chicago Reader, and the Web sites Book Forum, Conjunctions, Salon, and Salon (Media Circus). He also contributed to a music review, "L.A.'s Top 100," for Best Music Writing 2002. In a review for Rock Critics, by Scott Woods, Erickson classified his work as "one hundred soundtracks for a city that has always liked to think of itself as utopia or one hundred utopias." Woods categorized the work as a "great reference piece."
In addition to teaching writing at the California Institute for the Arts, Erickson also edits their semi-annual literary magazine, Black Clock. The first issue of the journal featured the works of such notable writers as David Foster Wallace, Bruce Bauman, Nicholas Royle, Heidi Julavits, and Rick Mood, or "enough heavyweights to collapse newsstand shelves," according to Matthew C. Duersten, in a review for Los Angeles Weekly. Duersten classified Erickson as "arguably one of the most definitive L.A. writers of the last twenty years." David Kipen, in the San Francisco Chronicle, provided additional accolades for Erickson's literary journal. "Black Clock vaults into the upper echelon of literary magazines," Kipen stated. "[It] contains what may be the single greatest author interview I've ever read … a sit-down between the unclassifiable author of the novel Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany, and Black Clock editor Steve Erickson…. Somehow they manage to say something new about science fiction, Hemingway and God knows what all else, and nothing old or predictable about anything."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 64, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, March 5, 1989.
Boston Globe, December 30, 1988.
HotWired, April 18-20, 1997.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1997, p. 434.
Los Angeles Herald Examiner, August 20, 1985.
Los Angeles Times, May 20, 1985; September 8, 1986.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 29, 1989; October 15, 1989, pp. 3-7.
Los Angeles Weekly, May 17, 1985; August 29, 1986; January 13, 1989, December 26, 2003–January 1, 2004; February 13-19, 2004.
New Statesman & Society, April 8, 1994, p. 40.
New York Times, January 7, 1989; April 6, 1993, p. C17; June 11, 1996, p. B2.
New York Times Book Review, May 12, 1985; September 21, 1986; March 5, 1989; May 2, 1993, p. 9; June 6, 1993, p. 37; June 8, 1997, p. 6.
New York Times Sunday Magazine, July 30, 2000; March 30, 2003.
Philadelphia Inquirer, August 8, 1985; October 26, 1986.
Publishers Weekly, March 22, 1993, p. 59; March 25, 1996, p. 60.
San Francisco Bay Guardian, May 29, 1996.
San Francisco Chronicle, March 19, 1989.
Village Voice, October 7, 1986; April 3, 1990, p. 75.
Voice Literary Supplement, May, 1993, p. 5.
Wall Street Journal, March 13, 1989.
Washington Post Book World, October 8, 1989; May 9, 1993, p. 4; May 4, 1997.
West Coast Review of Books, November-December, 1989, p. 41.
Austin Chronicle Online, http://www.austinchronicle.com/ (July 26, 2004), Michael Ventura, "Letters at 3AM."
Blue Moon Web site, http://www.thebluemoon.com/ (1998), Rob Trucks, "A Conversation with Steve Erickson."
BookForum.com, http://www.bookforum.com/ (July 26, 2004), Steve Erickson, "California Scheming: The Noir Novels of James M. Cain."
Complete Review, http://www.complete-review.com/ (July 26, 2004).
Los Angeles Weekly Online, http://www.laweekly.com/ (March 19-25, 2004), Matthew C. Duersten, "Tour de Force of the Black Clock."
Rock Critics, http://www.rockcritics.com/ (July 26, 2004), Scott Woods, review of "We Are Worthy."
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (July 26, 2004).
San Francisco Chronicle Online, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/ (May 16, 2004), David Kipen, review of Black Clock.
Village Voice Online, http://www.villagevoice.com/ (January 15-11, 2000), Steve Erickson, "World's Fare: Distributing the Wealth."