The one-sentence summary for Arc d’X is as follows: It’s the book that would have been made if David Lynch did the plotting and Thomas Pynchon did the writing (but in a suppressed, uncomedic way, like Paul Auster). These are all artists I like and respect, so this should tell you something about Erickson’s book.
While reading Arc d’X I was reminded about something that DFW said about David Lynch’s movies in his essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head.” Regarding what the critics thought of Lynch’s movies, DFW said
They’ve noted the preponderance of fetishes and fixations in Lynch’s work, his characters’ lack of conventional introspection, his sexualization of everything . . .
they’ve noted how, despite its heaviness, the Freudian stuff tends to give Lynch’s movies an enormous psychological power; and yet they don’t seem to make the obvious point that these very heavy Freudian riffs are powerful instead of ridiculous because . . . they’re deployed in an old-fashioned, pre-postmodern way, i.e. nakedly, sincerely, without postmodernism’s abstraction or irony.
In effect, what he meant is that in someone else’s hands these symbols would be so utterly obvious, so utterly hackneyed, that they would be only worth playing as comedy. But Lynch carries them off with such sincerity and such gravity that we take them seriously because we’re pulled in to what he’s doing and we just go with it.
Ditto for Steven Erickson’s Arc d’X. There are symbols in this book that are so dripping with meaning that even the hackiest hack wouldn’t touch them. There’s a piece of the Berlin Wall with the words “pursuit of happiness” graffitied on it that is passed off from character to character and regarded with the highest importance. If that’s not a symbol I don’t know what is. If I found this in another book I would be laughing my ass off, but what Erickson is doing is so interesting and so original that I’m forced to just go with it.
You can say the same thing about the man’s writing, which, in places, is terrible. For instance “So Etcher had found his light, having been fired by love to defy God and seize history.” (155) As overwrought goes, this is fairly overwrought.
But it’s also pretty interesting. What you don’t know (unless you’ve read Arc d’X) is that this quote is actually very literal. Etcher’s light is a window that he has had put into his office, from which he has defied the church (God) that rules the totalitarian society he lives in by stealing its one and only repository of books (history). He does all this for the love of one woman, who just happens to be Sally Hemings, the slave mistress of Thomas Jefferson (yes, he’s in the book as well), who one day finds herself in this totalitarian world after having stabbed to death (metaphorically) the man who is both her lover and captor.
This is how Erickson treats everyone and everything in his book–as symbols to play with and manipulate. Let me put it like this: If Erickson’s symbols were, collectively, a piano, it would be near-ruined by the tenacity and vigor with which Erickson plays them. He does so both brazenly and brilliantly. His characters are 2-dimensional cutouts that he projects his thoughts and ideas onto, and, likewise, his symbols are obvious and only slightly more manipulated than his characters. Whether or not you like this book is likely to be conditioned on whether or not you see such manipulation as ridiculous or thoughtful.
What can’t be denied, however, is that Erickson is playing with some major ideas and doing so in a very interesting way (it’s debatable whether it would have worked better as philosophy or fiction). Here’s a basic summary of the book’s first fifth. We’re in colonial Virginia during the American Revolution (no effort is made to portray any of this in historical detail, we’re just here because we need to be for thematic reasons). Thomas Jefferson’s wife has just died and since he’s extremely anguished he goes to Paris to grieve (which as it happens is about to be undergoing a revolution of its own). Sally Hemings has been brought with him, and on the night that the French revolution breaks Thomas rushes into Sally’s quarters and using a piece of cloth Sally ripped from the curtain in the room in which Thomas’s wife died (see how the symbolism works?) ties Sally’s hands to the bedpost and takes her forcibly.
So begins a great love affair. Thomas confronts something evil about himself that he hates but can’t deny (or get enough of) and Sally discovers that her deepest love is also her deepest slavery. In France blacks are free, so Sally is free to leave Thomas at any time, but she can’t bear to free herself from her love, and so as a compromise she sleeps with a knife under her pillow and often holds it up against the sleeping Thomas’s neck. Eventually Thomas needs to return to America and Sally has a choice–live free in France without her love or return to America a slave. She opts for the latter. Things happen, Thomas is elected president (1800, an important date), and suddenly Sally feels that she has “lost” him. She goes on a highly metaphorical quest to “find” him again, traveling farther West (another symbol) than anyone before her has and eventually when she is strung out and beyond hope she goes to sleep to wake up in a hotel next to a dead man and clutching a knife (we’re in modern, or future, times now). Two detectives discover her and she discovers that she has assumed a new role as the wife of a black artist in a totalitarian church-run society. She also couldn’t have killed the man in bed next to her, but she needs to believe she did because it means she will have fulfilled her dream of stabbing Thomas to death and freeing herself.
Needless to say, this is 60 pages of a 300 page book and things only get more complex and convoluted as we proceed. On one level, this is very interesting stuff. Erickson is grappling with what it means to be free and in love (or, to pursue happiness) in the West’s foremost democracy and how these rights our society has been founded on are in tension both with each other and with the technological, postmodern world that we all live in.
This is incredibly heavy, dense material and Erickson is commended for taking it on, but the problem is with all the symbols and unanswered questions we are dealing with, we reach a saturation point after which the book just feels tedious and we’re hopelessly adrift. We know that something of great importance is being said, but we’ve been turned around and had the landscape has changed under our feet so many times that we’re completely confused and we’re not sure a map could ever even be made.
This can be very enjoyable, as in the best of David Lynch’s movies. You know you’re lost and that there’s about 100 ways of interpreting it, but it’s still enjoyable because the drama of the situation has not been lost and you’re enjoying the movie as a story, albeit a highly postmodern disconnected one. This is where Arc d’X fails. It doesn’t have that human element, those human characters that you invest yourself in and can follow even when the plot gets hopelessly muddled. By way of example I’ll point to Thomas Pynchon’s V., which is an incredibly muddled book, but which has a couple of key characters (Stencil, Profane) whose quests we, as readers, become invested in. Even when we know we’ll never make sense out of all Pynchon is saying, we can follow those two characters like landmarks, or a full moon, and more or less orient ourselves. Similarly, in Lynch’s best movies we can still identify enough with the main characters that we haven’t lost our sense of place in the movie and we remain interested through till the very end, after which we being to feverishly try to figure out exactly what it is we have just seen.
This is all to say that I liked Arc d’X. I liked it far more than most of the books I’ve read this year, and, since reading it, I feel like I’ve read something important, something that I will have to examine more closely and go back through a few times. The book has produced a strong response (1300 words so far, dashed off in one extended impulse) and few books I read do that. I’m going to read more Erickson, and I’m going to try and read about Erickson’s books, because I think the more I know, the more interesting this will all become. This guy has struck a nerve and he’s gotten me excited and he’s made me re-think what I know about literature, love, and history.
At the very least, Erickson has engaged our world in a way that accurately reflects its complexity and has attempted to consider, after over 200 years, what exactly it is that the West has amounted to. He’s carrying on an important tradition and he is one of a very few authors that I think really deserves the term Pynchonesque. If you’re at all interested in cutting-edge fiction or reading someone who’s trying to evolve the form into new territory, then struggle through this book.
I’ll close with something that Erickson wrote about Lynch’s movie Fire Walk With Me (quoted in the DFW essay mentioned above).
The movie is finally not so interested in the titillation of that depracity as [in] her tormernt, depicted in a performance by Sheryl Lee so vixenish and demonic it’s hard to know whether it’s terrible or a tour de force. Her fit of the giggles over the body of a man whose head has just been blown off might be an act of innocence or damnation or both.
I think this gets at what Erickson is writing about. He’s interested in understanding the tormet that we live though, trying to bring together two magnets that only want to push each other away. He’s interested in how we live both the innocence and damnation at once, and the torment that comes from knowing we can only have one or the other, but being unable to decide to pursue just one.
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