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BOOK REVIEW : America's Idealism and Need to Dominate : ARC d'X by Steve Erickso n; Poseidon; $20; 323 pages


Curving time backward and forward, giving it the X form of his title so that events run up to the node, reverse, and run the other way, Steve Erickson has written a phantasmagoric novel about American destiny.

Like the story of Genesis, it is based on a paradoxical transgression. For Adam, to go after the forbidden fruit of knowledge was, after all, the very assertion of the human spirit. With Erickson's Thomas Jefferson, the paradox is less admirable but it has the comparable result of putting a blight on history ever since.

Jefferson was our Revolution's leading voice for human liberty and equality. He kept slaves while disapproving of slavery. For many years he had as his mistress a beautiful, strong and talented woman. Her name was Sally Hemings; she was black and a slave. Jefferson and Hemings, as both the upward arc of human aspiration and the switchback arc of degradation, reappear in various guises and presences throughout "Arc d'X."

Erickson has divided the book into three parts. The first, told mainly as a straightforward, though highly charged narrative, puts Jefferson in Paris at the time of the French Revolution, where he is the idol of the streets.

Indoors, he rapes the teen-age Sally, who has come over with his household. He makes her his mistress and persuades her to return to Virginia with him, even though she is a free woman under French law and will be a slave again when she goes back.

The second part, written in a fiery confusion of styles, ranging from surreal to heavy-metal science fiction, is set at some imprecise and changing point in the future. A cataclysm in the form of a huge new volcano has buried much of California.

A theocratic city, Aeonopolis has risen on the lava. It is governed inefficiently by priests and a police force. Alcohol, television, history and other enjoyments are forbidden, though they thrive in an underground Sodom-like complex called the Arboretum.

Through this world, in various kinds of conflict with the rulers, wander Sally Gann, a distant descendant of Hemings, and Polly, her daughter. They are joined by Etcher, who becomes Sally's lover and Polly's protector. He is a figure who stands for Jefferson, in his mix of ennobling and destructive ardor, and also for the author and for the simultaneously creative and destructive American spirit.

Etcher steals the closely guarded history books from the priests' archive and, in exchange for protection, returns them page by page, extensively rewritten.

A brief third part stands chronologically between the first and second sections. Toward the end of the 1990s, a French scientist calculates that between the last day of this century and the first day of the 21st, there will be a 20-hour gap. It is a terrifying node, a black hole into which history will disappear and come out in wild and unpredictable disarray.

A doomsday fever takes over the world. Erickson enlists himself by name as one of his own characters, and moves to Berlin, where neo-Nazi skinheads rampage, and zoo animals wander the streets.

One of the skinheads murders Erickson and steals his talisman: a bit of the old Berlin Wall inscribed with Jefferson's phrase, "The pursuit of happiness." Subsequently, the skinhead slips through the time-node into Aeonopolis where he encounters another Jefferson figure--Jefferson himself--and brains him with his Pursuit of Happiness fragment.

"Arc d'X" is packed with fictional variations on history. In one variation, for example, Hemings refuses to return to Virginia. She stays on in France to become a Jacobin and a companion to Robespierre who, in turn, triumphs over his enemies and executes Napoleon. Jefferson, meanwhile, sells himself to his Virginia slaves and directs a slave rebellion against John Adams.

Erickson's theme is the lethal twinning of America's idealism and her need to dominate. When Jefferson assaulted Sally, he couldn't quite forgive himself but "accepted it as the dark thing that allowed him otherwise to be good." He offers generous terms for her return to Virginia.

He regrets that he can't emancipate her since it will be impossible for him to live there with a free black woman. "It was the nature of American freedom that he was free to take pleasure only in what he owned."

It is a wicked and graceful phrase. Erickson writes richly and powerfully about Jefferson and Hemings in the book's first part. The rest is much more uneven. There are compelling scenes in his futuristic montage, with its appearances, reappearances and swirling confusions of time. The writing, though, turns turgid and overblown.

Many of the passages are like a music video's clangorous effects and cloudy lack of reference. In contrast to the first part, and to moments of stunning precision throughout, they are prose to listen to heavy metal by.

The ghostly or transformed reincarnations of Jefferson and Hemings--artist-creator/artist-oppressor and woman victim/woman victor--move in an arbitrary haze of language. It blurs them and turns the universality that Erickson aims at, and sometimes achieves, into something oddly narcissistic and private.

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