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Antics of an Urban Guerrilla : FICTION : AMNESIASCOPE, By Steve Erickson (Henry Holt: $23: 225 pp.)

May 19, 1996|Schuyler Ingle | Ingle is a writer-drone living in futuristic Seattle

If Steve Erickson were a rocker and not the remarkable writer he is, "Amnesiascope," his sixth novel in the last 10 years, would be something of a compilation CD, one of those greatest hits accumulations of past work. Though set in a Los Angeles of some sort of post-apocalyptic future, "Amnesiascope" revisits an awful lot of the writer's past scribblings. Characters sail in from previous work, as do ideas and settings. In the hands of a lesser mortal, it would all become quite tiresome to any reader who had been following right along these last 10 years. But in Erickson's hands, it's quite a ride.

And the point of the book may well be in the ride itself, in the reading of the text, that act of intimacy between writer and reader in which neither can actually know what is happening. I say that because I'm not all that sure what has actually been said, having finished the book, having weathered the logorrhea. I remember the beginning of the book. I remember the middle. I remember the end. I remember grinning like a fool at some astonishing lines. Just don't ask me what it was all about.

Oh. OK. There's this guy who tells the story. His story. He's a writer, a novelist, and he's concerned about his life and his writing and all that American society has become. He drives around a lot. He supports himself banging out movie reviews for a weekly newspaper in Los Angeles. His best friend is named Ventura in case you are wondering which newspaper Erickson might have in mind. In a city given over to anarchy, the newspaper falls apart at the hands of an incompetent publisher who fires the beloved editor. Everybody quits and Erickson as novelist gets to have some sort of final word about something that probably really happened to him and his cronies. But to any reader outside L.A., so what?

This guy who's a writer who tells the story has a girlfriend and lots of past girlfriends and sex is a big deal and nothing such as AIDS or any other STDs seem to matter as the bodies flop back and forth and various organs have their way. "In this particular epoch," Erickson writes, "when sex is the last subversive act, I'm a guerrilla, spending my conscience in a white stream that douses no fires but its own." Nice line that. Just why sex is a subversive act is never really made clear. And this particular guerrilla is strictly hetero, though there are these titillating Guccione girl pairings scattered among the pages, just like in the magazines.

The landscape is the big player in "Amnesiascope," the city with no center crumbling in on itself, all but sliding into the sea. There's a wonderful scene where the writer drives through an abandoned LAX. Literally. Meandering around in what were once terminals. Very spooky. With babes in the back seat of the car having at it. There are concentric rings of backfires ever raging and getting doused throughout the city. Time has a way of sliding around. And when the rains come, it is a tropical deluge that forces everything to grow everywhere. It's a familiar landscape to readers of Philip K. Dick or J. G. Ballard or William Burroughs and I have always taken Erickson's mining of this territory as something of an homage.

What I am wondering is this: Is the mining all but over? Is this book the final wrap and ultimate reconsideration by a writer of his own past work? "A few years ago" he tells us, "I realized that while I had always written on my own terms, I had come to evaluate the worth of that work, and therefore my own worth, on the terms of others, and that not only was this corrupt, it was the very kind of contradiction from which insanity, the insanity of true lostness, is born." Having come to understand his own "lostness," in no small part through the act of writing, has Erickson now found himself? And is he ready to move on?

I love this stuff but it's all getting a little creaky after 10 years and the thrill of the way the word squiggles across the page, well, that's starting to get a little old, too. So, now that he has strutted his stuff in what is being touted as the author's "intensely confessional novel," I for one can't wait to see what comes next.

Erickson has a voice that needs to be heard and a vision that needs to be seen. He deserves the time it takes a reader to make it from cover to cover, if only for the ride. Because you never quite get back to where you started when you started reading.

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