It was only a day or two into the worst of the Southern California fires, and novelist Steve Erickson had just packed the car up so his family could flee their Topanga Canyon house.
They ended up staying put, watching from home the flames that could have been raging from a page of one of his novels. In Erickson’s L.A., an unexplained sandstorm, the sudden emergence of an enormous lake in the center of the city and other unannounced breaches of time and space occur almost casually.
The surrealism of his novels is all the more powerful for its occasional overlap with the reality of life here. “L.A. has always lent itself to that, to the sense that it’s not an altogether natural place to live,” said Erickson, 57, recalling the fires at a clamorous eatery at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, where he wrote and set parts of “Zeroville,” his latest novel. “That at any moment nature, or chaos, will turn on you.”
With seven previous novels, written over more than 20 years, Erickson has established a reputation as a daring, lyrical writer with a strong following among other novelists and a distinctive brand of cultural taste: West Coast, genre-bending and earnestly experimental. He also expresses some of that taste through running the quietly influential journal Black Clock, published at the California Institute of the Arts. Yet he is still in some ways unjustifiably obscure.
Writer Thomas Pynchon, who’s hardly promiscuous with praise, helped launch Erickson in the 1980s by crediting him with “that rare and luminous gift for reporting back from the nocturnal side of reality.”
Kit Rachlis, who once hired the novelist as arts editor at the LA Weekly and again as film critic for Los Angeles magazine, said Erickson’s great strength is “to distort, twist and reconfigure history,” a quality he attributes to the writer’s upbringing in an ever-changing L.A.
Erickson has also been dismissed as abstruse and portentous: The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani once described one of his narrators as sounding “like a teenager who has read too much Rimbaud.”
But among his supporters, a consensus has emerged that his quintessentially Los Angeles sensibility is as good a theory as any to explain his near-anonymity back East.
“Zeroville,” which comes out this week, is his first to be published on a small press. (It’s with Europa Editions, founded as the English-language adjunct to a Roman avant-garde house, and headed in the U.S. by publishing veteran Kent Carroll.)
“The big publishers in New York no longer know how to publish literary fiction,” Erickson said. “I compare it to the big studios: They’re publishing blockbusters, and once in a while they bring out their prestige Oscar books, like Richard Powers.”
Erickson, whose faded jeans, fair Scandinavian skin and wavy gray hair make him look like a surfer who’s gone slightly to seed, doesn’t let his frustration break his mellow reticence.
“They really didn’t know what to make of me then,” he said, with just the hint of his childhood stutter, of his earliest days as a writer. “And they don’t know what to make of me now.”
Erickson grew up in then-rural Granada Hills, in a house later knocked down to make room for the Simi Valley Freeway. The constant transformations he saw around him led him to “my sense of reality, such as it is.”
His early years, which sound bohemian in retrospect, were at times difficult to live through: A decade in tiny flats in MacArthur Park and pre-gentrified Hollywood, stretches in Paris and Italy, five novels no publishers would touch, writing and editing for local alternative weeklies, a stint behind the counter at Golden Apple even after his debut novel, “Days Between Stations,” appeared to rave reviews.
“Friends were starting to look at me a little funny . . . advising me it might be time to move on.”
He began it, he said, as a love story. “But when a sandstorm blew across the story, I thought for a second, ‘I can’t do this.’ But then I thought, ‘Why not?’ ”
In the book, written after the disaster novels of J.G. Ballard but before widespread talk of global warming, the canals of Venice, Italy, dry up, and Paris enters a small ice age.
He was working in a genre of his own, one he likens to a North American magical realism. “I felt like Faulkner, Pynchon, Philip K. Dick and Garcia Marquez were not that distant cousins -- they were kind of related.”
And after a period that brought his strongest reviews (for 1999’s “The Sea Came in at Midnight”) and his lowest profile, he quickly became more visible: He landed a job at CalArts in 2000, took the job at Los Angeles magazine in 2001, and began editing Black Clock, named for his novel “Tours of the Black Clock,” in 2004.
The journal has helped to remedy some of Erickson’s obscurity, said Bruce Bauman, his CalArts colleague and a Black Clock senior editor. “Writers in their coffee shops in Brooklyn are looking at the magazine,” he said. It hasn’t hurt, he added, that Erickson’s reputation among other writers has brought to Black Clock the work of East Coast heavy hitters like Don DeLillo and Rick Moody.
His recent activities may have brought him more attention, but they’ve also, combined with the two kids he’s raising with his wife, Lori Precious, brought him to what he calls “a point of exhaustion.”
“Zeroville” is in some ways a departure for Erickson, in that Los Angeles is not visibly ravaged or distorted. Like most of his books, though, it creates a memorable and distinct portrait of the city.
The novel tells the story of an idiot savant named Vikar, who has recently arrived from a six-day bus trip. Though we don’t exactly get into his tattooed head -- he has the images of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor from “A Place in the Sun” on his bald pate -- we see L.A. mostly through his film-obsessed eyes.
L.A. is no newish, Day-Glo city, nor is it a vale of despair: It’s layered, haunted with the ghosts of actors and directors. “I believe that cinema was here from the beginning of the world,” a quote from Josef von Sternberg, appears as an epigram.
And indeed, the novel, which takes place from 1969 until about 1982, elapses during the last period of film culture that can still be called mythical, during the breakdown of the studio system and the emergence of America’s maverick generation.
“It’s not a Hollywood novel,” Erickson said. “Those tend to be about how movies get made. I wanted to write about how movies have become part of the modern nervous system, the dream language we all converse in from time to time.”
The novel in some ways reads like a film itself.
“I wanted to follow the narrative laws of a movie: To be linear, always in the present tense, the story told though dialogue and action and movie references. Short jump cuts from scene to scene, the Godardian numbers, that really move along, that add the pop energy.”
Because we never see his inner world, a quality Vikar shares with a lot of Erickson characters, he remains, in his author’s words, an enigma.
Like all of Erickson’s books, “Zeroville” is neither fish nor fowl. Though it mostly lacks the science-fiction and fantasy elements he’s known for, it creates its own odd kind of hybrid, its very dialogue suffused with movie criticism and film theory. At times, it verges on the comical: A crook who robs Vikar’s house engages him in a long conversation about John Ford’s “My Darling Clementine.” Erickson helped anticipate a mongrel movement now called “slipstream,” which also includes Haruki Murakami and Kelly Link, and that contains elements of horror and fantasy. It’s made him a kind of godfather to young writers, but it has not translated into sales. The well-reviewed “Our Ecstatic Days” has sold fewer than 2,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan, since its release in February ’05.
Believing in himself
Even at his most impressive, Erickson the writer can be deeply frustrating. In what could have been his breakthrough novel -- and some admirers are still waiting for one, like a messiah who never arrives -- 1993’s “Arc d’X,” the time shifts at least one time too many.
Sometimes they’re too clever by half: A distracting message runs through the middle of the pages of “Our Ecstatic Days.” His opaque characters can make it hard to connect with his novels’ emotional life.
Still, as Rachlis puts it, Erickson has been defined by his integrity, “believing his own voice and vision, at whatever cost.”
The cost, so far, has been a reputation that resembles rock band the Velvet Underground: Acclaim among one’s peers and spotty reception elsewhere.
“It could drive me crazy if I let it,” Erickson said. “I think you have to believe that eventually the work will out. It will make its case for you.”