February 2005

Elizabeth Kiem


Our Ecstatic Days by Steve Erickson

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry … you’ll bleed. The novels of Steve Erickson, notorious scribe of the post-apocalypse, have been aptly termed provocative, phantasmagorical, luminous, and even nocturnal. Our Ecstatic Days endows him with another unbalking descriptor -- pheromonal.

I can’t speak for the guy reader, but ladies -- pick the time of the month before settling down with this netherworld tale… it’s gonna mess with your cycle.

A story of maternal anxiety, emotional miscarriage and fertility perverted, Our Ecstatic Days gives fair warning. As a prologue the narrator laments, “menstrual waves crash against the inner beach of my belly.”

Kristen is a mother whose love for her son is more than she can physically bear. This may have something to do with the child’s loveless conception (readers of The Sea Came in at Midnight will recall the shadowy “Occupant” who makes young Kristen his sex slave); or it may be that Kristen compounds the beauty and tyranny of three-year old Kirk (short for Kierkegaard) with the existential needs of his unborn twin who disappeared in utero; nor does Kirk’s birth, coinciding with the moment when Los Angeles springs the leak that will eventually swallow the entire city, make it any easier on his mom, who may have given birth to her own son’s doom.

After the waters break -- in Kristen’s mind, body and all over La Cinega Boulevard -- she watches helplessly, wracked by anxious cramps of lucidity. It occurs to her that the only way to control her fears is to confront the inexorable Lake itself. And so she dives into the Lake’s vortex, leaving her son floating defenseless in a small boat above her. This bewildering act of motherly love takes place in year three of a 33-year-long epic of female power and powerlessness played out on a fluid stage of time, place and parallel existences.

Bereft now of both her children, Kristen reemerges from her plunge (during which her “uterus explodes in a tantrum of blood”) as Lulu Blu, the dominatrix of the lake-locked Chateau X. Taking a page from her life history before baby Kirk, Lulu Blu learns to sell men a proxy of sex. Where once she subsisted as a “memory-girl” in the theatres of Tokyo’s underworld, she now thrives as an oracle whose visions, cuffs and whips are particularly appreciated by one of the oddest choices of historical fiction to grace these surreal pages: He is the ambivalent commander of an undefined insurgency, embroiled in a vague guerilla campaign code-named Tribulation II. He is also the anonymous Chinese everyman who once stood resolutely before a convoy of tanks in Tiananmen Square.

The children, of course, reemerge: Kirk as a ubiquitous ferry-man plying the waves of the Lake, his twin Brontë as an S&M prodigy. Lulu Blu begins to wane, her life force played out, even as she turns her loss to decryption, her fertility into marine biology, and her offspring into partners in crime.

The most haunting feature of Erickson’s newest future is its isolation. Even in the third decade of the new millennium, entangled souls remain unable to connect. Los Angeles is an aquatic city, yet its citizens make do with foot bridges and paddle-boats, as unimpressed with technological advances as the city is “unimpressed with time.” From the woods, anti-occupation messages are broadcast not with seismic radio or hi-frequency pulsars, but with a boom box. In a desperate run from the inexorable floods, Brontë and Lulu find themselves trapped in a Nevada cow-town, where they wait several months for a train that never comes. This is a future defined less by high-technology and cultural adaptation than by resignation and acceptance.

Erickson flings his notions of a plot across the pages, often in untraditional formatting that may or may not represent a typographic adaptation of the menstrual smears which Lulu Blu is so adept at reading. At about the point where Kristen takes her plunge, a single stream of conscious emerges and continues across the subsequent pages, literally cutting through the fantastic fog. This line, like the signature of a heart-beat on a hospital monitor, is the tempo of the unfolding story. In the end, it is joined with the disparate narrators and subplots, literally and figuratively.

The union is a bit like immaculate conception. Which, in this novel, is even creepier than usual.

Our Ecstatic Days by Steve Erickson
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 074326472X
336 Pages