Don't Toy With Me
Our Ecstatic DaysSteve Erickson
(Simon and Schuster · hardcover · $24)
Steve Erickson is the kind of writer whose reputation proceeds him. Most literary people have heard of him. Most know that he's widely considered one of the most inventive contemporary American writers around. Very few people, though, even among those who pride themselves on paying close attention to new fiction, seem to have actually read his novels.
Until Our Ecstatic Days, Erickson's latest literary puzzle, I was one of those who had never made the plunge. Now that I've navigated through this strange novel, I'm glad I've taken a sip from this writer's fountain of words, but I can honestly say I didn't make it through unscathed. I've got a few bruises to show for my considerable efforts.
Let me put this lightly: Our Ecstatic Days is not easy. There are rewards for persevering, but there will definitely be moments during this reading experience when you feel as if that's exactly what you're doing—persevering.
Here's the basic story, such as it is. The year is 2004. A young mother named Kristin is trying to raise her son, Kirk, in Los Angeles when a hole appears in the center of the city and water begins seeping up from the ground. Soon, a lake begins to form, swallowing up neighborhood after neighborhood.
At first, of course, people are extremely freaked out by this. Governmental authorities send scientists and scuba divers to investigate the problem. They find nothing. There's a hole. Water is coming up. The water is forming a lake. Beyond that, no one can make sense of the situation.
Eventually, the expanding lake becomes a municipal fixture. People take to boating from place to place. In Kristin's case, her apartment building eventually becomes shoreline property, which is kind of luxurious given how cheap her rent is. When the lake begins swallowing the building entirely, the situation becomes decidedly less luxurious.
Kristin is a weird bird. Her son is even weirder. Both seem to have strange clairvoyant powers, and Kristin seems to be under the impression that Kirk is some kind of futuristic messiah.
For a variety of reasons, she eventually becomes convinced that the mysterious body of water is coming to take Kirk away from her. This leads her to dive underwater in an attempt to enter the lake's birth canal and stop it at its source. In the process, she ends up losing her son anyway.
Yep, strange stuff. And it only gets stranger.
From here, Erickson skips forward to 2009 then 2017 then 2028, waltzing through a 21st century that doesn't bear any possible resemblance to the century yet to come. We meet up again with Kristin who has now been transformed into Lulu Blu, a dominatrix and mystic who somehow holds the keys to the future of civilization. We learn that Lulu/Kristin has a connection to a Chinese man named Wang who long ago became a hero on Tiananmen Square.
Our Ecstatic Days is a peculiar piece of work. At its dramatic heart is Kristin's relationship to her weird little boy. The novel is a visionary explosion, though, with tentacles dipped into everything from science fiction to kinky sex to politics.
The novel is experimental in several different ways, some of which are effective, some of which aren't. Some of Erickson's stranger innovations are typographical. One that I thought did work well begins on page 83 when a single line of italicized text begins streaking through the remainder of the book, a long umbilical cord of verbiage expressing Kristin's private thoughts on her life.
This sentence cuts through the main narrative text from this point to almost the very last page. We readers have three choices at this point. We can either read the sentence all the way to the end, then double back and read the main text. Or we can read the main text to the end then double back and read the strand. Or we can try our heads at the difficult task of reading both roughly at the same time.
I tried the third option for a couple pages, but it made me dizzy. I eventually went with option one.
This kind of experiment isn't exactly kind to readers, of course, but unlike other highfalutin typographical tricks in the book, this one actually does tie into the book's main themes: motherhood, the birthing process and the responsibility we feel for those we love. As an added bonus, the way the two paths merge at the end of the book is really very clever.
In general, this novel is for people who enjoy intricate head games. I happen to be one of those people, but every once in a while I did find myself wishing Erickson would stick to a straight story and quit toying around with me.