Monday, March 5, 2012

Josh Reviews These Dreams of You by Steve Erickson

I had just finished The Elegance of the Hedgehog when I saw Steve Erickson’s Zeroville on the shelf at Barnes and Noble. I took a chance on the novel, on the Europa logo alone. It has been a few years, but I remember enjoying Zeroville except for the fact that my knowledge of early cinema and Hollywood stars was slightly less than up to par. With that as background, I approached “These Dreams of You” cautiously, hoping that the author gave me a few more recognizable signposts and that he managed to tackle issues of race and identity without the schmaltz so often associated with such issues by white authors.

For fans of James McBride’s The Color of Water, These Dreams of You will be a welcome read. I thoroughly enjoyed this truly surprising novel, from its story to its message, its characters all the way to the author’s unique writing style. Erickson’s work as a film critic for the LA Times must carry through to his novelistic endeavors—there are not chapters so much as vignettes of varying length. Some are a paragraph and some are much longer. One might think that this could create a lack of focus for the reader or issues with the pacing. One would be wrong. Like in Zeroville, Erickson weaves actual history into his novels. Bobby Kennedy and David Bowie figure heavily into this story. One might think that would come across as gimmicky. One would be wrong.

Admittedly, there were sections I read through with what I am sure was a mildly perplexed look on my face. The best way to describe it would be to say that when the plot took a turn I didn’t see it was the kind of frustrating that made me want to read on, not to put the book down. By the end, I was impressed with Erickson’s ability to merge his narratives and shift away from plot and towards philosophy. More important were his moving thoughts on the state of racial identity, conflict and the very core of our country. In a manner I have rarely seen among white men discussing race, Erickson quietly questions what any of us can do to erase or balance the scales against decades and centuries of abuse and discrimination without coming across as pious, pandering or hopeless.

“This is the problem, he reasons, with presidents who can’t be as big as the reasons they embody. A body can only hold reasons so big. Should the silencing of the song come to pass, not only will Zan be complicit in the loss of his own faith, he will be complicit for having faith in the first place. But without such faith, the country—this country in particular—is nothing. This is the occupational hazard of being my country, the way one’s identity manifests in its soil and psychitecture an idea, with a people still fighting over who they are because when nothing else is held in common but the idea then if the idea isn’t held in coming there’s nothing left except the mystical name of the place that evokes something different for each person but which each person allows himself or herself to believe is the thing evoked for every other person.” –p. 264

I won’t spoil the plot in detail for anyone, suffice to say that a family of 4 with an adopted Ethiopian daughter undertakes a journey to find the girl’s biological mother that literally changes their lives forever. The climate of our country’s politics and beliefs almost warrant this book being required reading for all adults with a desire to engage more honestly and more fully with their neighbors and their nation. If it does not make you think, you might not be in tune.