Tag: Rubicon Beach

Tours of the Black Clock by Steve Erickson – A cult classic, and superb fiction

Unjust though it is, Erickson has to date gained only a small – but deeply devoted – readership, despite achieving impressive reviews on both sides of the pond.

Unfortunately, Neither Erickson nor Tours of the Black Clock have ever been marketed or promoted properly, or with any real understanding, of how amazing and original a novelist he is.

Tours of the Black Clock is his third novel, and should have been the key to his literary stardom; his ‘breakout’ fiction that should have, but didn’t, take him to new and more popular heights, following his marvellous Rubicon Beach and equally wonderful Days Between Stations.

Sadly, this has not been the case and his novels since, while still gaining some excellent reviews, have led him to a readership that is tiny by comparison to many other more popular contemporary literary novelists, such as Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and Paul Auster. Tours compares favourably with any of the best of these authors and, frankly, his prose is much more intimate, graceful and moving. (FYI, a new paperback edition is quite expensive, but you can purchase it by clicking on the book cover to your left; however, if you want to buy a low-cost secondhand copy, then look no further than Bookfinder. That link is set already to search for the title and reflects results in US$ for delivery in the US; you can easily revise the search to adjust location and currency when you have allowed the site to process the initial click through.)

For Tours at least, there is no doubt that Erickson merited more serious attention as well as celebration, besides popularity. His fiction has a stark, poetic and haunting brilliance, reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez at his best (Love in the Time of Cholera, The Autumn of the Patriarch) and Toni Morrison (at her most intense and richly poetic; i.e., with her novels, Beloved and The Bluest Eye). It is a fantastic, fantastical work that cannot — should not — be ignored and is a wonderful alternate 20th century history that ranks with Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and easily surpasses Robert Harris’ Fatherland (Harris is great at plotting and pace, like Jeffrey Archer, but matches Archer for literary style as well; or, if that sounds rude, then how about as literary and moving as a boiled potato?).

The novel begins with Banning Jainlight, who is found dead in a boarding room, along with Dania, the obsession of his life, and Marc, their son — the offspring of surreality and magical realism. Dania’s and Marc’s presence acts as a sort of catalyst, enabling Banning to narrate his story and, by doing so, reveals the myriad and complex memories that connect them and shape their histories.

Banning’s life is experienced in a non-linear way; chronology and space become multi-dimensional as one memory merges with another. At the same time, his thoughts often assume a physicality, shaping the history of Dania’s life, and extending and weaving the web of characters and stories through the process of his imagination.

Without his at first realising, Banning becomes a writer of erotic, strange stories for Adolf Hitler’s consumption during WW2; stories which – unbeknownst to Banning – fuel Hitler’s megalomaniacal passions. History overturns itself, becoming a nightmarish Wonderland, and the world becomes bleak and decidedly Orwellian in this alternative reality.

The last several lines ending this tour de force are a match for (and an homage to) James Joyce’s ending in his most famous short story, The Dead (the link takes you to the complete story online), from his collection, Dubliners, when the main character Gabriel watches the snow fall. Here’s Joyce’s, which I hope you find as moving as I did and continue to do (I never tire of re-reading the story, simply to anticipate reading this last paragraph; one of the greatest conclusions among short storytelling):

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

And I’ll just quote Erickson’s last line only— admittedly not just as a teaser, but first as proof that he does echo the sound and rhythm of Joyce’s ending:

Through the warm fog of his last breath, he watched the memories of a hundred ghosts drift skyward to finally and vainly burst.

The entire last paragraph of Erickson’s ending is brilliantly, beautifully written and moving; though you’ll just have to read it for yourself to be sure.

This is truly mesmeric modern fiction at its best. It portrays an overwhelming knot of obsessions of voyeurism, erotic desire, of the licentious nature of power unchecked, as well as the pain and anguish that make up the absurd time (black clock) that ticked away on the face of the 20th century. It is world-class literature.