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Fiction reviews


Steve Erikson - Tours of the Black Clock

17 May 1989

Tours of the Black Clock
Steve Erickson
Simon & Schuster

Published in The Australian

Critics are not really given to raving, but the praise which has been heaped on Steve Erickson's new book may well be classified as such:

An absolute vision, which moves fearlessly through time and across geographic boundaries...the only thing that can justify the author's arrogance is genius. Which, truly and fortunately, Erickson has." (Philadelphia Inquirer) "
If fabulous new novels were Daylight Saving Time, Tours of the Black Clock would be the twenty-first of June. When the sun finally sets on this mind-ripping performance, the stars are afraid to come out." (Tom Robbins)

I am compelled to note that having one's writing praised by Tom Robbins would be like receiving a diploma in tact from Russ Hinze. That aside, Robbins' comment is an example of a serious new American epidemic: "Metaphor Takeover" (MT). Metaphors are a well-known, and necessary, part of the language's immune system against tedium. With MT, however, the once-friendly metaphor multiplies until it consumes a whole sentence, rendering it meaningless.

Ominously, even this book's blurb is infected: "At the center of this novel is Banning Jainlight, a terrifying and intelligent brute who cuts a bold path from a Pennsylvania farm to Manhattan to the Europe of the 1930s, where he becomes Hitler's private pornographer... Erickson has crossed the intersections of passion and power, hunger and conscience, barbarism and humanity, and looked into a clock with no face, where only memory is the gravity of time, and all the numbers fall like rain."

Metaphors are indeed ambitious creatures. Give them their heads, and in seconds they'll reduce your blurb to gibberish. As for the book itself - I'm afraid its condition is terminal. The metaphors are so prolific and long that, by the time you get back to the facts, you're disoriented.

What are the facts? Well, the adolescent Banning Jainlight is treated badly by his parents, whom he one day decides to throw out a window and incinerate. As a means of resolving family conflict this may be cheaper than therapy - however it gets him into all kinds of trouble with the law. He works in New York as a porn-writer for a time, before detectives track him down, and he is forced to jump a tramp steamer for Europe.

There his lurid fantasies have excited the interest of his publisher's mysterious 'Client Z'. Indeed Client Z sees in Jainlight's heroine the literary embodiment of his niece and lover, whose death had caused him the greatest grief of his life - which was chock full of pogroms and continental wars at the dullest of times.

Personally, I think the idea of installing Hitler in works of fiction was finally exhausted after Raiders of the Lost Ark. As for the device of putting a little man (in this case Jainlight) at the pivot of history: it has been superbly exploited by Kurt Vonnegut, Salman Rushdie, Gunther Grass, et al. But Erickson is not within coo-ee of such talent. In fact if he'd read more of Vonnegut, and less of Tom Robbins, this book might have had a chance.

And as it happens, Jainlight throws away his opportunity to manipulate Hitler, and influence history: the story concentrates on his own life. More's the pity, for it's a pretty tawdry one. He fights, he engages in long boring self-recriminations, he runs from the Nazis, he gets hauled back. Most of all, however, he fornicates. Women pass through his bedroom like laundry.

But Steve Erickson is no misogynist. He well knows there is not just one type of woman, but three: blondes, brunettes and redheads. The simply irresistable narrator - a six-foot-four airhead who doesn't wash a lot - has little trouble attracting plenty of each. Indeed, rather than writing porno for the Prince of Darkness, Jainlight's talents would have been better applied to a German edition of How To Pick Up Girls. He'd have had trouble with the sequel, What To Do With Them When You Get Them, however: most of his women flee on motorbikes, or throw themselves out third-storey windows.
Your eyes skate over great slabs of descriptive dreck:

I look at the place on the sidewalk and and begin to smash myself against the stone of the hotel and strike at the sharp edges of the edifice with my wrists that I might open up some vein and pour the blood of my impure mongrel mother over the city that it will be fouled in some way that fouls him [Hitler] in turn, that fouls the humiliation he inflicted on this city by which he meant to glorify his squalid womanless youth and to make meaningless the way the city beckoned her away from him sixteen years ago.

The plot, which he occasionally returns to, is confused. Jainlight's motivation for titillating Hitler is never clear. Major characters disappear without trace or explanation. The abstractions, banalities and non-sequiturs are so numerous that to clean them up would take a pogrom of its own.

Abstractions ("We all serve at the pleasure of history") turn into banalities ("If he serves at the pleasure of history, history serves at the pleasure of us"). The dialogue is unconvincing. ("The party had just gotten thrashed in the elections," an SS Colonel tells us.) And those metaphors again - seldom have I seen worse: "The math of our evil is constrained by the math of our bodies." And similes: "She spatters abuse across the air like vandalism."

Remember all those people in the early seventies who came up to you and asked if you'd read Still Life With Woodpecker by the amazingly brilliant Tom Robbins? Well, if bad taste is genetically transferrable, their offspring will be coming up to you in the nineties, asking if you've read anything deriving from the shattering genius of Steve Erickson. Keep them away from the children.

A minor tragedy that has escaped notice in this century, where rainforests, six million Jews and half of European civilisation have perished, is the deterioration of the English language. Certainly the decline of clarity and eloquence cannot be equated with that of whole cultures, but it is probably the work of the same rough beast, and may therefore be worth resisting.

A murderously bad writer like Steve Erickson does no harm when he scrawls within the confines of his room, but when an international publisher such as Simon & Schuster picks him up, and promotes him as the greatest thing since the tin opener, a rap over the knuckles is in order. Rap!

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