So what to make of Steve Erickson’s Shadowbahn. It’s already been described as the first post-Trump novel, which is a tad ironic given the President – not named – in Erickson’s near future (the book is set in 2021) is female and it’s under this female President (look, we know it’s Hillary) that America fractures into a “disunion”. Not even Erickson, for all the weirdness that occurs in Shadowbahn, could imagine a Trump Presidency. That said, he has no difficulty describing a broken America.
And that’s basically what this book about. The death of America – or at least the ideals and dreams that famously underpin the country. Erickson employs a multitude of metaphors to describe this. The Twin Towers reappear in South Dakota twenty years after they were destroyed. Music begins to vanish from radios, from CDs from people’s memories. On the 93rd floor of the newly minted Twin Towers, Jesse Presley – the still-born brother of Elvis – wakes up on a board table. And in an alternative history, JFK never gets the Presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention, losing it to Adlai Stevenson. Each ingredient, as disparate and strange as they are, all hit the same basic message. America is no longer the country, the dream, its people thought it was – assuming it ever stood for anything, assuming there was ever a consensus.
Initially, Erickson makes this point with burning hot prose and some wicked humour. The first third of the novel is terrific. Not just the appearance of the towers, but the reluctance of officials to take jurisdiction and responsibility. There’s this laugh out loud moment where the Attorney General forces a soon to be retired sheriff to enter the Towers.
“I believe,” says the attorney general, with the faintest trace of a smile that the sheriff would love to stick a gun in, “the whole wide world has come to the conclusion that you’re the perfect person for this job.”
“I believe the whole wide world has no idea whatsoever who I am,” she answers.
And I did love the sections set in an alternative history with JFK standing silent at the National Convention watching a political dynasty fade before his eyes.
But the book is also a nonsensical whirlwind of… I’m not sure what… featuring on the nose imagery such as the scorched grave of the twin-towers and a bewildering set-piece involving a Sonark (the audio equivalent of a lighthouse). If you’re obsessed with American music and particularly the work of Elvis – I’m not – there are passages here that are going to resonate like a well tuned something or other. Otherwise you either go along for the ride or give up. Because there’s very little actual story to hang your hat on and nothing even remotely linear about the plot. Yes, there are characters – Parker and Zema, a brother and sister who hold the only source of music that still exists in America – but they drop in and out of the novel on a whim. It’s a frustrating book. What it says about America, this idea that there never was a dream or set of ideals to aspire to, and even if there was it certainly died the day the Towers fell, is powerful – and yes very relevant in a political environment where Make America Great Again is the catch-phrase. But I’m not sure Erickson pulls it off. It feels like he’s struggling against the basic structure of a novel, at times happy to go back to a narrative, and other times ignoring what little story he’s created.
For all that though I admire Erickson’s ambition. To somehow sum up the rot at the heart of American in just over 60,000 words. If his acknowledgements are anything to go by this wasn’t an easy book to sell (not shocked at all) but I’m glad that a publisher took a punt with it. Because while this is a befuddling novel, one that goes on tangents galore, there’s something exciting about an author writing without any net. Maybe if I loved music more, or gave more of a crap for Elvis, this book might have been a greater success. As it is, it’s a failed but fascinating experiment.