Our Ecstatic Days
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005
Simon & Schuster
US Hardcover First Edition
Publication Date: 02-09-2005
317 Pages; $24.00
Date Reviewed: 03-06-05
Parenthood unleashes a sort of madness in the parent. Helplessly, like it or not, you realize that it cuts two ways. On one hand, it offers the possibility of boundless, literally eternal joy. But of course, it also offers the opportunity of bottomless terror. It's the kind of emotional reaction that shades the entire world, that washes across one's experience of life like an ocean, like a screen between the parent and the rest of reality. Describing the tortured, hallucinatory terrain of a parent in an original fashion is tough job. We've all seen the movies and read the books. But you've not read a book that approaches 'Our Ecstatic Days' for a gut-level, remixed perception of the terrors and wonders of parenthood. Steve Erickson follows the language, follows the characters, follows the emotions in the multi-minded, asynchronous charge of a talent that effortlessly redefines borders. He remixes small-scale emotions while he slices and dices the flapping canvas of Los Angeles at the edge of this millennium and the next.
'Our Ecstatic Days' follows up on the story of Kristin from Erickson's previous novel, 'The Sea Came In At Midnight'. The child conceived in the previous novel is born in this one, but don't expect a lot of serial continuity. In fact, 'Our Ecstatic Days' stands both perfectly on its own, and yet it also requires that the reader have recently read 'The Sea Came In At Midnight'. This may seem contradictory, but if you're uncomfortable holding contradictory opinions, then prepare for a lot of discomfort when reading Erickson. The bottom line is that nothing can properly prepare you for reading this book except a full life and a decent facility with the English language.
In the days shortly after the turn of the century, Kristen struggles to survive in a Los Angeles that is slowly drowning. A lake has formed near the center of the city, surged up from nowhere. Kristin inhabits a landscape of half-drowned buildings with her son Kierkegaard. She also inhabits a similar landscape on the other side of the hole from which the lake surged. Or perhaps it's not quite her. It could be her mother, or could it be Lulu Blue? She only knows, we only know, that her son is alive and therefore in danger. Unless, of course, he's just another room in the memory hotel.
Erickson runs wild in this novel, and readers are best advised to run with him. Trying to pin down the novel as a series of events that take place in specific locales in a specific order will dilute the effect that Erickson so confidently creates with a wall, a rush, a torrent of language and scenes and characters. Though some of the locations are remote, perhaps in parallel universes, or in the far future, the novel is only science fictional in the way it plays with literary conventions. Erickson puts narrative, plot and even characters in a time machine, and shuttles them from one reality to the next with entertaining and often humorous prose. Give in to Erickson's invention, surrender to this often wacky logic and you're going to experience the literary equivalent of looping, sampling and girl-group rock and roll.
The voices in 'Our Ecstatic Days' are primarily those of women, from Kristin, to Lulu Blue, from innocents to S&M bondage queens. Erickson pulls this off with a lot of enthusiasm and vigor. These are high-energy women, and the energy is contagious. Of course, these are also women consorting with men who have glass lenses embedded in their hands from the Tiananmen Square massacre. Erickson's ability to weave the real and the unreal, to merge the landscapes of Los Angeles with the landscapes of his imagination offers him the perfect backdrop for these larger-than-life figures.
Erickson's playful science fiction sensibility is borne out not in high-tech inventions, but rather in literary inventions. Readers will find a restrained use of prose poetry, odd margins that flow the text across the page, and a sentence that launches on page 83 and finally comes to rest on page 315. Since Erickson typeset the entire novel himself in his word processor, we're seeing a uniquely formed novel. Nothing is accidental here, but on the other hand, the reader doesn't have to spend a lot of time unlocking Erickson's architecture. The sense of humor and the sense of literary adventure make this infectiously good reading.
While the title here is 'Our Ecstatic Days', 'The Third Law' might have been equally appropriate. Newton's Third Law declares that' "For every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction." Erickson lets Newton's Third Law run rampant here, for doubles, opposites, and not-quite mirror worlds feature strongly. His sense of coincidence verges on, but never crosses to, the supernatural. Though he deploys genre tropes effortlessly, Erickson's work never reads like genre fiction.
'Our Ecstatic Days' might cover some significant and deep territory, but it treads lightly on a surface of wild-eyed invention. Erickson might have seen the summits of wonder and the depths of terror on his journey into parenthood, but his report back from them is fraught with joy and irreverence. If the title 'Our Ecstatic Days' is a clue to anything, it's a clue to Erickson's obvious joy in creating the novel. It's the kind of joy that a reader can ride down the wormhole and back out again. Everything is different, and everything is the same.