Sunday, August 09, 2009

Whenever I read the novels of Steve Erickson, I'm struck by a feeling of "guilty pleasure," thought to be outmoded by those with my general tastes. The books are acclaimed, blurbed by various writers held in high esteem, but there's still something embarrassing and corny about it. Luckily, the books are books, read intimately, by one person at a time, because if I were to read them with someone looking over my shoulder, or in something like a movie theater, I could not enjoy them for the constant cringing.

First, there are the sex scenes, or the way sex is discussed in general, in this half-pretentious manner. Words like "sensuality" and "eroticism" are used- It's not offensive or crass, but reads like a backrub from someone using scented oils, which to my mind is worse. He frequently writes these scenes from the perspective of female characters, and I feel a sort of displaced embarrassment for him, writing these things, which don't read as glaringly false in terms of ringing untrue so much as it feels, necessarily, like a pretense. When he writes the scenes from a male perspective, there's just this sort of goofiness at work. Maybe any writer lingering on such scenes is running these risks, and taking these chances, but he does it a lot (one book features a pornographer as a main character, another a dominatrix), and by making sex such a presence cheesiness lingers. In an interview where Erickson listed favorite authors, Henry Miller was mentioned, and maybe it's that influence of something I find really stupid shining through.

There's also this comfort-food aspect to the talk of film and music, as in Jonathan Lethem's writing: Yes, the writer is talking about these common signifiers that I, and many others, recognize and know about. His last book, Zeroville, is about movies and is filled with descriptions of scenes and figures not always named. I read these sections with a certain pleasure. Erickson is also a film critic, and I enjoy reading criticism, and when I find it in a novel I feel like I am being indulged, pandered to.

It's all very pleasant and comforting to think about- so are the sex scenes- but it's not really the central pleasure of why I read the books: There are magazines that place stories of people fucking pages away from record reviews and I don't read them because it's not going to culminate in something moving and transcendent. It's a collection of elements pleasurable in small doses, placed on top of each other and turned into something you don't really want. Nerds are great, but imagine the sort of person that dresses up in costume hitting on you while in costume. Even if they are attractive, my response would be "I'm sorry, I'm not that corny, I don't enjoy this. This is awful, actually, why is this happening? My brain is short-circuiting."

But there is the possibility that this is Erickson's desired effect, the brain short-circuiting. The plots are these apocalyptic dream-imagery things, moved forward by free-association and dream logic. Sort of like a David Lynch film, but it needs a different sort of immediacy, being a book. And so it's written in this revealing tone, to move you into their space, like you're naked with the author's finger touching your asshole, and he's staring into your eye. Moving into weird territory, rewarding at the end of it, and until then it's just heightened sensation.

The books are kind of great, actually, and there's no way to excise the flaws and have them work as well. I recommend them to all who are corny and retarded and embarrassing. That's most people, at least occasionally: either making bad jokes or laughing too loud or wearing unflattering facial hair or hats. What I view as "flaws" in Erickson's writing are really just mannerisms, a part of a personality that shouldn't obscure his intellect and skill.

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