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February 3, 2012

Book Notes - Steve Erickson - "These Dreams of You"

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, and many others.

Steve Erickson's new novel These Dreams of You impressively weaves themes of family, politics, race, and identity into a riveting story that spans 50 years.

New York Journal of Books wrote of the book:

"Magnificent. These Dreams of You is a big novel of big ideas — emotionally capacious and desperately relevant. As readers rush headlong toward its climax, they may feel as if they have emerged from something like a fever dream, as torrents of ideas and images wash over them (read in as few sittings as possible for maximum effect)."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Steve Erickson's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, These Dreams of You:

But years later, on a night in early November, when the wind comes in like a swarm, Alexander Nordhoc sits in the rocking chair—that he borrowed but never gave back—where his wife used to breast-feed their son.

It's eight o'clock where he is, in one of the canyons on the edge of Los Angeles. It's ten o'clock in Chicago, and thousands of people sweep across the TV screen and the same park where, forty years ago, police and protesters rioted at the scene of a great national political convention, and Nordhoc's country questioned all its possibilities.

Alexander's four-year-old daughter Sheba, adopted nineteen months before from an orphanage in Ethiopia, sits on his lap. Sheba is the color of the man on the television, in whose form the country now has imagined its most unfathomable possibility. Alexander, who goes by Zan, is the color of everyone else in the family, including his wife Viv and his son Parker, whose twelfth birthday happens to also be on this day. With the announcement of the man's election, bedlam consumes the living room: "He won!" Parker explodes, leaping from the couch over a low white formica table that's in the shape of a cloud. "He won! he won! he won!" he keeps shouting, and Viv cheers too. "Zan," Parker stops, baffled by his father's stupefaction, "he won." He says, "Aren't you happy?"

On the television is the image of an anonymous young black woman who, in the grass of the park, has fallen to her knees and holds her face in her hands. Do I have the right, Zan wonders, as a middle-aged white man, to hold my face in my hands? and then thinks, No. And holds his face in his hands anyway, silently mortified that he might do something so trite as sob.

"A Change is Gonna Come," Sam Cooke

…just like the river, I've been running ever since

At the radio station the next day, from where Zan broadcasts a three-hour music show, he announces following the first set, "The Sam Cooke record—the greatest ever made—was for what happened last night. Forty-five years after the song was recorded…but then all the song says is that a change will come, not how fast, right?" It's a country that does things in lurches. Born in radicalism, then reluctant for years, decades, the better part of centuries, to do anything crazy, until it does the craziest thing of all. But it's also a country—inherent in its genes—capable of imagining what cannot be imagined and then, once it's imagined, doing it. A black Hawaiian with a swahili name? It's science fiction, Zan thinks, or at least the sort of history that puts novelists out of business. "By the time the song was released as a B-side," Zan goes on, "the singer was murdered in an L.A. motel under tawdry circumstances. But is it just me, or when he goes from that bridge into the final verse, does he redeem not only anything he ever did—including whatever it was that got him shot—but everything I ever did too?"

"Ethanopium," Dengue Fever

From the beginning Sheba has had an affinity for music. Because this is so much the stuff of racial cliché, Zan barely can tell people about the more earthbound aspects—the girl running for a piano like other kids to a scooter, warbling cheerfully in the yard of the orphanage back in Addis Ababa to the lightning in the sky—let alone that the girl's small body literally hums with song. Within a week of Sheba's arrival, the family notices it at the dinner table when everyone hears from her, barely audible, a distant music. "Sheba, we don't sing at the table," Viv gently tries to admonish her, until one day the mother is driving in Hollywood with Sheba in the backseat and picks up Zan's broadcast from the canyon that usually she can't get half a mile from the station. The girl transmits on Sheba frequency. Zan calls her Radio Ethiopia.

ADDIS ABABA 1966-1973
"Yekatit," Mulatu Astatke
"Astawesalèhu," Lemma Demissew
"Muziqua heywèté," Getatchew Mekurya

Unlike in the West where the dance begins in the feet and moves up the body, here in the city of the abyss the dance begins in the shoulders, the part of the body made for bearing a weight, shimmying as though to shake away the burden of human time. The music is less african than a bizarre blend of funk, swing, big band, cabaret, manzuma, armenian soul. It's a rhythm and blues from the future that's spiraled round time's sphere to come back up through its birth canal. Beginning seventy years ago under the rule of Mussolini and sung down through the communist Derg, the songs have become a code: "Wax and gold," the Ethiopians call it, when the golden message of liberation and revolution is hidden inside the wax of the outer lyric and melody. Through the century, the songs have been passed bearing the secret songs inside.

"This Life Makes Me Wonder," Delroy Wilson
"Birds," Neil Young

…shadow on the things you know

Back in the canyon, the canyon that he's not sure anymore he ever lived in, Zan would drive through pockets of sunlight that he recognized as the same sunlight from forty years before when he was eighteen. Driving into this light he would have the feeling that he seems to have—more and more as he gets older—of the past seeping into the present. It coincides with the hackneyed gloom of autumnal years, the astonished pall at the great approaching wind-down; it never occurred to him that life would get harder rather than easier. He wonders about the terms of his life insurance policy and how it might take care of his family if he could somehow will himself into an aneurysm. He reflects on the perversity of karma and how it could be that the family's luck could go so bad on the occasion of adopting an African orphan. Aren't you supposed to get points for that on the karmic scoreboard? He muses (if that possibly can be the word) on how his time is nearly over and yet his moment, whenever or whatever that ever was supposed to be, still hasn't come.

"You Don't Know Me," Ray Charles

And anyone can tell
You think you know me well

He came home one afternoon from school and on his parents' stereo played a record of country songs sung by a blind black man. This wasn't the sort of music that Zan had heard before, and though for decades afterward purists would declaim the aesthetic offense of a soul genius committing his voice to such white songs and white strings and white arrangements, to the twelve-year-old Zan the music's surrounding whiteness made the blackness of the voice all the more shocking. Decades later Zan understands that, as epiphanies about race go, this is pretty pathetic. But it rearranged the furniture in Zan's head, knocked out one or two of the walls, and Zan would know for the rest of his life that this was the most subversive record ever made, the white trojan horse that smuggled a blind black man into the gates of Zan's white city. Every afternoon, returning home from school, Zan snuck the record down to his own room and listened to it over and over, the volume low because it felt like something he should get in trouble for, like reading a forbidden book.

"These Dreams of You," Van Morrison

We played cards in the dark, and you lost and you lied

One afternoon forty years ago he went to the local college to see a small frail man running for president. This was when the valley at night was still a crater of caves, except the caves weren't in hills but in the night-air and you could drive in one and emerge somewhere else while the radio played and Ray Charles was shot down, but got up to do his best. Zan got close to where the candidate stood just as the event spilled beyond the bounds of control. The thing that was bigger than everyone, candidate and crowd alike, took over and the frenzy that this man incited in the crowd lifted Zan off his feet, catching him in the undertow. When it threatened to pull him down where he would be crushed, trampled or both, a young female black hand reached to Zan from the sky and he took it. He saw the young woman's face only half a minute, maybe less, long enough to register her eyes so gray as to be a glint short of silver.

LONDON 1965-1967
"Wild Thing," the Troggs
"Sunny Goodge Street," Donovan
"Over Under Sideways Down," the Yardbirds
"Waterloo Sunset," the Kinks

In dollhouse rooms with colored lights swinging…

Outside the pub is another song from one of the city's windows that are lit up like reverbed fireflies. Looming before them is the head of an incandescent African woman painted on the side of a seven-story building. She has crouching day-glo lions for eyes and her skull flames with bright violet dreadlocks that glimmer from the rain and appear to slither up the street like snakes. Below her gaze the remnants of the midnight legion cross the curbs wearing lace and silver trench coats, brilliant-red braided Hussar coats and Moroccan boots. Their wide Edwardian ties have images of fish so radiated with color that all the people in the street appear to be aquariums. Everyone in the world is young, suddenly, each road is a vortex, and in the wet nighttown gleam there drifts a Rolls Royce the color of a prism, the aurora borealis on wheels. A variation on Plato, the motto under the masthead of a newspaper handed out on the street reads, When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.

L.A. JUNE 1968:
"Strange Days" / "Moonlight Drive" / "The Crystal Ship," the Doors

Tell me where your freedom lies, the streets are fields that never die

The campaign is shambolic, a moving pandemonium. College students have chased the bus and train just to call to him the goodbyes that will be unbearable to remember only a few months later. He speaks to privileged and working-class alike of rats in the black tenements and the self-killing grounds of Indian reservations, delano daughters with hands stained by the vineyards on which they barely subsist and delta sons with bodies misshapen by hunger. This is prosperity, he bays at them, calculated as much by what's polluted, what's killed, what's secured and incarcerated, but never by a child's delight, a poem's spell, the immutable power of a kept promise. It's a prosperity that measures everything that means nothing and nothing that means everything. It tells all of us, he concludes to the crowds, everything about our country except why it's ours. He already looks like a phantom and seems to be disappearing before everyone's eyes, and when he speaks to crowds he shakes, rushing through speeches when he's not stumbling; then he gathers intensity, prying himself loose from the grip of whoever he was in the past, now in pursuit of something inside him and finally catching it, though he can't be sure that it hasn't caught him. The motorcade moves down the street and men twice his size, knees and hands bloodied, have to hold him around the waist so he's not pulled away by the crowd who would pick him clean of his cufflinks and tie and shoes and divide him up among them in pieces. Later, when Jasmine sees the man behind the .22-caliber gun, dark and small, no bigger than his target, twenty-four years old, half of them spent growing up in Palestine and the other half in Pasadena fifteen minutes away, she wonders what music is in his head when he perforates the target with the four shots from the gun. Don't assassins have music in their heads?

"Dirt Off Your Shoulder," Jay-Z

I'm the realest that run it

Death threats against the new president are up four hundred percent. Over the months that follow his assumption of office, first there are openly expressed hopes that he'll fail, then accusations that he's a radical, then questions whether he was born in the country and really is president at all. Then he's accused of hating white people. Then he's accused of fostering a presidency under which white people will be attacked and beaten. Then it's claimed he's setting up death tribunals that will condemn old people to termination. Then he's compared to fascist dictators, then people bring guns to events where he speaks, then a widely-read blogger calls for a military coup, then a minister in Arizona calls from the pulpit for the president's death. A popular website runs a poll asking respondents whether he should be assassinated. Following such a linear progression, what else could be next? Or, put another way, what possibly could not be next?

"Sister Midnight" / "Fall in Love With Me," Iggy Pop

You've got me reaching for the moon…
What can I do about my dreams?

Jasmine realizes the two singers haven't entirely shed their bad habits so much as downscaled, trading drugs for garden-variety alcoholism. For a while they're tourists, driving in the Black Forest and visiting the Brücke museum, striking poses out of expressionist paintings and snapping photographs with a little polaroid camera picked up in a pawn shop. Sometimes the picture seems to vanish between the click of the shutter and the exposure of the negative. The calendar allows for two days a week of prowling the clubs and bars and strip joints, then two days of calm and restitution at the flat, shaking off hangovers over coffee and books. The other three days are devoted to writing and recording at the studio, within sight of the wall and its armed East German snipers who are close enough to pick off one singer or the other and strike a singular blow against western decadence.

"Sound and Vision" / "Heroes" / "Always Crashing in the Same Car," David Bowie

Jasmine, I saw you peeping

Session musicians come and go through the cavernous studio, a converted movie-set from the silent era before the rise of the Reich where epic visions were filmed of sexy robots in Twenty-First Century Babels. She's never seen musical instruments that look like these. They appear more like time machines transporting the traveler from the execution of a song back to its inception or forward to its completion, bending the music from the end or beginning back into the middle, bending the music of years from now back to the music of years ago, to produce this music of breakdowns and blackouts about sons of the silent age and lovers in the Wall's shadow and electric-blue rooms that no one leaves. It's as though Jasmine could climb into a song and ride it back through the years to the kitchen of an old Hollywood hotel in time to prevent an assassination, or forward twenty years in time to prevent her own.

PARIS 1978
"Privilege," Patti Smith

I see it all before me, the days of love and torment, the nights of rock and roll

She means to have her daughter in London but gets as far as a flat in Montparnasse. A New Jersey punk poetess' record plays through the window of another apartment across the courtyard. No sooner has her daughter slipped into welcoming hands than the midwife holds her up astonished at the hum from her little body; already the baby transmits on Molly frequency. For six months she has her mother's gray eyes, before they turn brown.

Symphony No. 9, 4th movement, Ludwig von Beethoven

At the age of twelve she's there at the Wall's fall and like everyone who's grown up in Berlin feels the sense of liberation as a line down the center of the century is erased and replaced by a hole. Coming through the window of the flat where Molly lives with her mother, the music in the distance is so celebratory and defiant that it drowns out the girl's own. When she picks up a paperback and there cascades from its pages a folded newspaper clipping from more than two decades before, she stands in the middle of the flat scrutinizing the face of the man in the grainy newsprint photo: "Where did you get that?" says her mother, who turns to the music through the window and says, "He would have liked to be here now, to see this…and to hear it, though," Jasmine smiles, "he never knew much about music." The fallen Wall is the city's ghost limb, history an amputee that feels an appendage no longer there—but with the fall, something dark is unleashed along with the dream. Molly says to Jasmine, "Is he my father?"

"The Wind," PJ Harvey

She dreamt of children's voices…
But now she sits and moans
And listens to the wind blow

Viv's last night in the hotel, she is too distraught to sleep. Outside her window a storm blows, and lying on her bed in the dark she feels the room tremble around her, the floor tremble beneath her. As the wind picks up though the balcony doors, she realizes that the thunder coming up through the bed is percussive and mesmeric, and it's music; full of wrath and sorrow at everything, Viv hurls the sheets away from her, gets up. Beneath her brief lowcut nightie she pulls on some jeans and shoes and throws a wrap around her shoulders and heads downstairs to the lobby. When she reaches the hotel ballroom, enough of the eucalyptic wind from outside has found its way through some hidden breach to rustle the room's potted fronds and small dingy chandeliers turned down low. The ballroom's round tables have been pushed to the walls by the dancers with such abandon that the wind might have blown them there.

"Delta Rain Dream," Jon Hassell and Brian Eno

Molly despises the music that comes from her, she wants to turn herself off. In her flight from Berlin she leaves behind, with the nights whose stories they tell, the tezeta of her commerce, cries through the latticed balcony doors. Men pay for the moans as much as the flesh. They pay for the music, the songs that rise up through them as if they become tuning forks when they're inside her. Later it will seem there's no other place to which she could have gone but the wellspring of all chronicled memory, back to abyssinian purity, as though there's no guilt in such a place or at such a point. The only thing she knows for sure on finally arriving in Addis Ababa as a young woman at the dawn of what the western world calls the Twenty-First Century (but for which Ethiopia exhausted numbers long ago) is that the last thing she deserves, the thing she deserves least of all, is to be a mother. Living on the outskirts of the eucalyptopolis, nine years later she hears one night a distant male voice in a language that's not Amharic. Only after listening does she acknowledge to herself that the transmission comes from her body; she's picking up a radio broadcast from ten thousand miles away—…for what happened last night…but then all the song says is that a change will come, not how fast, right?—and months later in London, with Sheba asleep next to her in the dark, she still hears it, almost, or convinces herself she does, in the same way she almost has convinced herself she's not dying.

"Tezeta," Tesfa-Maryam Kidane

When Viv went to Addis Ababa the first time to get her new daughter from the orphanage, lying on the hotel bed and feeling the small girl next to her at night she heard the sax line of a song drift through the open window. It was a song that Viv heard everywhere in Ethiopia; later Zan would play it on his radio show. "Tezeta"—meaning memory, or nostalgia, or reminiscence or melancholy—was not quite a title as much as a musical species like the blues, and in this land where memory is a euphemism for the blues, this curling melody always sounded the same to Viv's ears, whether played on sax or piano: smoke that got in your ears rather than your eyes. When the girl lying on the bed next to the mother ran her finger along the outline of Viv's profile to make certain she was there, it felt to Viv like smoke itself. Now on her return to Addis to find Sheba's mother, when Viv stops in the labyrinth of the city she hears "Tezeta" rise mournfully in the distance like an answer. She has no idea what the answer is. The walls of the passages resonate with distant chants, the thunder of gathering storms, and Viv feels the past and future yearn for each other. Though she's almost certain that the song she hears isn't just in her head, now she hears things in the Ethiopian memory-blues that she never heard the first time. The song is ravenous for memory, and Viv hears in it everything that's happened to her and her family since that first time she came, the struggle of everything since Sheba came to live with them, the whispers between Viv and Zan in the night that somehow everything will be all right even as it becomes harder to understand how that can possibly be true. Lost here in the passageways Viv has a realization bordering on a small epiphany: It's the memory of how quiet Sheba was those first nights lying on the hotel bed beside Viv wreathed by "Tezeta," and how it wasn't until Sheba got back home that her own small body began to broadcast its music, as though a secret word was spoken that turned her up.

Steve Erickson and These Dreams of You links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Kirkus Reviews Review
New York Journal of Books review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review

Bookworm interview with the author
Lit Reactor interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

List of Online "Best Books of 2011" Lists
List of 2011 Year-End Online Music Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists