The Sea Came in at Midnight by Steve Erickson (Avon Books, 1999)

reviewed by Richard Seltzer, seltzer@samizdat.com, www.samizdat.com


When you get to the end of this haunting dreamlike narrative, you are sorely tempted to go back to page one and read again, not from frustration and confusion, but for the pleasure -- certain that now you will be able to sort out more of the puzzles encountered along the way, be able to get a clearer grasp the intertwining coincidences and relationships.

This tale takes place in the near future, in a world that closely resembles our own. Like in Erickson's earlier novels, time is very important, and subject to unexpected shifts; but here the shifts are felt as changes in scene and perspective, rather than unpredictable distortions of reality in a world where the physics of time differs from our own, where there seem to be more dimensions.

When the character known as The Occupant says "I determined that if modern apocalypse is indeed an explosion of time in a void of meaning, then time is moving, and hte timelines of the Apocalyptic Calendar are moving as well. All the routes and capitals of chaos on the Calendar are constantly, imperceptibly rearranging themselves in relation to each other... " you read this passage as the obsessed but insightful observation of one character -- someone who would fit in very well in a story by Kurt Vonnegut or Tom Robbins. But unlike Vonnegut and Robbins, the emphasis here is not on the ideas, but rather on the characters, on the felt and lived through experience. This is not a clever satirical lecture delivered by a series of comic and improbable characters. Rather this is a modern myth, told with the haunting immediacy of dream. He defines the modern apocalypse as "an explosion of time in a void of meaning," but pursues this thought dramatically, rather than intellectually -- it becomes part of a fabric of metaphors, rather than the thesis of a lecture.

As an eleven year old boy, The Occupant's life is thrown into turmoil by the sound of a gunshot in Paris at 3:02 in the morning on May 7, 1968, as one of his parents shoots a young woman -- presumably the lover of either his father or his mother -- and that sound touches off the riots of the almost-revolution in Paris. And another character in America hears that same shot at that same time and is also puzzled, intrigued and intimately affected by it. This kind of twist of the time-space continuum is typical of Erickson's style, but here feels more like the wildly improbable and playful coincidences of Vonnegut and Robbins, which occur in an otherwise predictable reality, than entry-points to new and bizarre scifi-like or kafka-esque worlds as in Erickson's earliest novels (Days Between Stations and Rubicon Beach).

The relationship between The Occupant and Kristin resembles that of Cupid and Psyche as told by Apuleius in The Golden Ass. And The Occupant's pent-up passion, and emotional remoteness feels byronic. But these and other familiar narrative elements become twisted in new and intriguing ways.

Here the reality is Escher-like. Reading this novel is like walking through an Escher scene, where everything up close seems perfectly normal and clearly and sharply portrayed; but as you move further along or try to see further, unexpected distortions appear, and you find yourself moving down when you thought you were moving up; and while you keep moving forward, next thing you know, you are back where you started.



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