Reviewed by Zachary Severt
I might have met Steve Erickson in 2010, had things been different. I was sub-leasing an apartment in Brooklyn, and the guy handing it over—who was about to fly to Europe with his band, to tour—suggested a book from his shelves. He saw me reading Pynchon, I think, or maybe I told him I’d studied film in college, or both. Zeroville was the story of a “cineautistic” man named Vikar, bald head emblazoned with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun, who comes to Hollywood on the eve of the Manson murders to make a career in the movies. Perfect for a film student, though I didn’t read it then.
I wonder what would have become of me, had I discovered Steve Erickson, the author of that book, at 23, not 29; through Zeroville, not Shadowbahn. It might have helped me to access that apartment’s small riches, otherwise obscured by a charming eclecticism. A hand-drawn MTA map—lop-sided, lumpy, yet inspired—thumb-tacked above an über-drawered, under-investigated desk, an impressive cassette tape collection, thoughtfully curated water glass gallery, glazed clay-sculpted skateboard I broke then threw away then forcefully forgot, wishing my willed amnesia would alter history, prove that the skateboard never was. Every item was a portal I neglected, a window through which I might have glimpsed whole networks of obscure data—filmographies, discographies, bibliographies—thus illuminating the interlocking legacies of art and history, chronologies of cultural appropriation and the macroaggressions of an oppressive state.
Of course I’m reaching, but then again so is Erickson. That’s his game.
Shadowbahn, his tenth and latest novel, is a road trip through personal and national history glimpsed from a literal time machine—a silver Camry nicknamed Supersonik without a c—piloted by a white brother and black sister along a “shadow-highway” accessed the instant one falls asleep at the wheel. The year is 2021 and the nation is newly haunted. The World Trade Center Towers have just reappeared in South Dakota.
“If the evil of the attacks on that September morning could be set aside, and of course it could not,” says the book’s mysterious narrator, “nothing better presented America with the opportunity to reimagine itself. This was an opportunity at once botched and fulfilled with, on the one hand, a war of worse faith than anything the country has done in a hundred years, and by the election on the other hand of a man the color of African orphans—all followed by hope’s collapse.”
The re-imagining that never was becomes Erickson’s project, and as with all historical revision each change sends a tidal wave through time. Trade Elvis Presley for his stillborn twin brother Jesse, and what’s the impact on American music? Suppose John F. Kennedy misses the zeitgeist, loses the election and dodges the bullet: does America still become the nation that sees those Towers razed?
Being as I am a stranger to the genre of speculative fiction, some of this game playing makes me tired and unengaged. (What are the stakes?) Yet in the end, dream logic looks good on our national nightmare. Erickson’s scary America is so perplexing as to nearly resemble our own.
Dispatching his characters across a nation at war with itself over the idea of itself, Erickson’s tapestry is vast but thinly woven. Emotion bleeds in only as roughly sketched characters take on the hues of national hauntings. But Shadowbahn is a dance of ideas. It’s shadow puppetry on a cinema screen that’s been dreamed. As such, its pleasures are rhythmic. The narrative moves at breakneck speed thanks to a formal invention: nearly every page is its own chapter, and comprised of two floating paragraphs. One of the book’s many twinnings. And though it sometimes swerves into territories that take some contriving to reach, the weird stuff seeks and finds satisfying ends, and the narrative survives the journey mostly intact. Like that hand-rendered MTA map in that shotgun flat from my memory: despite some wobble and discursion it’ll get you where you’re going.
To say any more would ruin not the plot but the experience, because the book, like a song, induces a trance, then drops you on the side of a shadow-highway, changed. Finally, it’s an act of wish making, an act of hope. A wake-up call to those Americans who -like their country- have fallen asleep at the wheel.