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Tucson Weekly Sea Change

Step Past The Millennial Drivel And Into The Thoughtful Meaninglessness Of Steve Erickson's Latest Work Of Fiction.

By Randall Holdridge

JUNE 1, 1999: 

The Sea Came In At Midnight, by Steve Erickson (Bard). Cloth, $23.

IN THE AFTERMATH of the massacre at Colorado's Columbine High School, the persistent question is, "Why?" Phrased thus, the replies are familiar, and come back in predictable political (gun control), sociological (media violence) and psychological terms (family and peer relations). That such bromides are debated seriously suggests that what we want is an answer to the question, rather than to have the question answered. Not being among the dead, and secure in the irrational confidence of statistical probability, the titillated rubbernecker finds ordinary curiosity satisfied, and drives on.

Asked more insistently, in possession of a comprehensive listing of all the world's erupting carbuncles of inexplicable, pervasive chaos, mightn't the better question be: "What is missing from the world?"

That is the puzzler asked, and answered after a fashion, in Steve Erickson's sixth novel, The Sea Came In At Midnight. Erickson continues among our most imaginative and innovative novelists, heir to Kafka and Borges, and co-practitioner with Pynchon, DeLillo, Gaddis and Denis Johnson of what has come to be thought of as postmodern fiction. The Sea Came In At Midnight is Erickson's millennial novel, although it adheres to the exploration of themes, historical moments, and locations that have occupied his previous novels, including Tours of the Black Clock, Rubicon Beach and Arc d'X.

Kristin, the 17-year-old protagonist, has been nominated as the last of 2,000 women and children to be obediently shepherded by cultists off a Northern California cliff into the sea at the stroke of midnight on the last day of 1999. She opts out, as the first sign of her alternately compliant and assertive good sense. Kristin is the teller, subject and mystical center of The Sea Came In At Midnight, but the book is a maze of unintended consequences, and a plot summary is entirely beside the point. Suffice it to say, she begins her orphan's journey literally in search of a dream, and in the not quite happy ending, she finds it.

Although some will find Erickson's book unconventional, it entertains on many levels. Startling incidents abound in numerous emotional registers. The comic and the appalling jostle together, as do the impersonal and the intimate, the historically and culturally familiar with the absolutely fantastic. Events recall the headlines, pop trends and fads of the last 30 years, when "cheap irony would come to be considered an artistic vision." The location crisscrosses the planet. Although the characters are representative of types and movements, they are still recognizable as people one has known, and they excite real reactions, ranging from compassion to loathing.

However, at the risk of scaring readers away, it's only fair to say that The Sea Came In At Midnight is preoccupied with the problems raised by chaos theory, and it appears to be Erickson's goal to steer existentialist readers away from Sartre and toward Kirkegaard. What is proposed, lacking faith, is "faith in the idea of faith." The philosophical issues are not dry or obtuse, and linked as they are to characters and action, they come as enlightening revelations of complex ideas. It's not likely to be available in a form more accessible than this.

For instance, at the center of the book is the Occupant, a sort of late-baby-boom/early-Gen-X Everyman. He has spent 20 years drawing on the walls of his house in the L.A. suburbs a giant, blue Apocalyptic Calendar, dating from the moment when the world ceased to contain meaning. His Apocalyptic Calendar begins historically in the Spring of 1968, when "Sartre said something silly" and the students of the Sorbonne swarmed into Paris streets to join workers in a mutually abandoned confrontation with black-helmeted gendarmes. The Days of Rage began, "and no one wanted to calm down, the spectacular disintegration of everything was too exhilarating, and everyone got excited just to be exhilarated." More personally, the Occupant's mother is swept away in the rioting crowd, and he never sees his parents again.

His Apocalyptic Calendar is a timeline of decisions and events since then to which the question "Why?" can provide no meaningful answer. His list includes a vast record of assassinations, terrorist attacks, hostage takings, plane crashes, genocides, and commonplace cruelties and despair. It cites also, from April 23, 1985, "the utterly arbitrary decision by America's greatest soft-drink company to immediately discontinue the single most successful product in the history of modern commerce, in order to produce in its place a bad imitation of its obviously inferior competitor."

The construction of the entirely random Apocalyptic Calendar has taken over the Occupant's life. A child of chaos, a practitioner of chaos theory, his kinky relationship with Kristin--is it coincidental or fated?--forces him to accept that even a highly refined abstract concept of meaninglessness is still meaningless. "There explodes in his heart a bomb of love where only chaos used to be."

His realization comes too late. Just as Kristin would not march off a cliff to justify the arbitrary meaning envisioned by millennial cultists, nor will she abandon her quest for a dream to any ephemeral rationalization. Her flight from the Occupant has a disconcerting quality of very dark slapstick, and it takes her to Tokyo and a surreal climax in which the ghost of Stanley Kubrick could feel right at home. She discovers at least a plausible answer to the big question, "What is missing from the world?"

Unlike many other American postmodern novelists, Erickson has the discipline to keep his fictions to a manageable length. At a time when the numbing blizzard of millennial drivel is piling up, The Sea Came In At Midnight is a welcome escape into real thoughtfulness.

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