Steve Erickson is that kind of writer you hate. You hate him because he’s so damn gifted that after reading him you begin to question your own foray into this thing we call “literature.” Ultimately, that “hate” turns into a groundswell of admiration and you suddenly realize that a writer as gifted as Erickson will be aspirational, someone to learn from, whose work is something to aspire to. This is the feeling I got while reading and after finishing his brilliant novel “These Dreams of You.” This deeply complex, emotionally, psychologically and historically driven novel will suck you right in from the very first words. This, in my humble opinion, is a very important work and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it was one of the best novels to have come out over the past decade.
Erickson takes some narrative risks here and it works brilliantly. Not a typical “beginning-middle-end” structure but more of a mosaic, where the story swirls and twists and turns in on itself. The story is about a southern California family: Zan, a “failed” writer turned pirate radio DJ, his wife Viv, a successful photographer, their son Parker (named for Jazz great Charlie Parker) and their adopted Ethiopian daughter, they call Sheba. We are introduced to them on the night of a major historical event: the election of the first ever African-American president. It is this event that begins to shadow the events that eventually unfold in the rest of the story. With their house in foreclosure and in desperate need of money, Zan is offered the opportunity to travel to London to give a lecture on the “Novel as a Literary Form Facing Obsolescence in the Twenty First Century.” Having not written a novel in fourteen years, he sees no reason why he should accept it but the offer is good and they desperately need the money to help stave off losing their home. It is later revealed that the professor presenting the offer is a former lover of his wife. His wife Viv prods him to accept and he does and the whole family heads off to London. Meanwhile, Viv, realizing that their adopted daughter may one day want to know about her birth mother, had hired a detective to track her down in Ethiopia. She decides that she needs to go herself and heads off to Africa, leaving Zan and the two children alone in London.
One afternoon while having lunch in a pub, Zan notices a young black woman watching them through the window from across the street. Sheba instantly feels a connection to this woman. They leave the pub and head back to the hotel. Arrangements are needed to watch the kids while Zan is off giving his lecture. A few days later, that very African woman shows up at their hotel, offering her services as a nanny. It is at this point in the novel where things become surreal and the plot begins to move about in its mosaic form.
The story takes a left turn, going back 40 years to the “Swinging London” era where events take place that eventually shape the future and the “present” story begun at the beginning of the novel. It gets complex here and to reveal who the characters are and how they begin to shape future events takes away the fun so I won’t do it here. This is something that must be experienced for oneself. Not only do these events shape the future but also ask some thought provoking questions about identity - both of the individual characters and of America as a nation and an idea. They raise questions about what it means to be an “American” and what it means to be a “family” and what it means to have a “home”, and of course race relations and the country coming to grips with itself now that it had elected its first black president.
The complexity of the story is such that I cannot possibly do it justice in a short blog post and the only thing I can do is highly recommend this beautifully written novel and the superb and enlightening story it tells. It works best on an emotional level and if you are not deeply moved after reading this novel, then you are not human. Simple as that. I can’t recommend this novel highly enough. Put simply, it is a work of art and it reminds one what it means to be a human being in the modern world, with all its questions, delusions, mysteries and unsettling moments. Read this book. I guarantee you it will be one that will stick with you for years to come.