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Welcome to the 'age of chaos'

February 16, 2005|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

Steve Erickson sits in padded splendor in the lobby of West Hollywood's storied Chateau Marmont, the patio doors open to the morning breeze. A waiter in black places two vintage-shaped $5 bottles of Coke on the table, and on the other side of the room a meeting has just ended involving someone connected with Los Lonely Boys, Grammy winners from the night before -- the man's cellphone then rings the band's single, "Heaven."

None of this could be happening in Erickson's latest novel, "Our Ecstatic Days," a rambling hallucination in which the top floors of the hotel, renamed Chateau X and shifted southward a bit, become a man-made island in the middle of a geology-defying lake that floods the L.A. Basin from a birth canal partway up Laurel Canyon.

It is the "age of chaos." Time marches to its own arrhythmia while a vague North American war rages among Islamists, Chinese rationalists and "occupied Albuquerque." Musical water snakes glow and hum. Buildings sicken and sometimes die, diagnosed by a doctor who senses their ills. Reality consists of overlapping dimensions, or maybe it's all loosely connected dreamscapes in which fathers are absent and relationships between mothers and their children are ruptured.

Woe to anyone who seeks to find order within Erickson's fictional world. Or, for that matter, traditional symbolism and meaning in work that even its creator finds mystifying. "I try not to figure these things out too much," says Erickson, 54. "I think the point where I start psychoanalyzing my own writing, I think that gets dangerous."

Erickson has been writing since, as a 7-year-old, he penned a tale about some boys who build a spaceship and fly to meet the man in the moon. "I was already staking out my literary territory," he jokes. Erickson teaches creative writing at CalArts, edits the new literary journal Black Clock and writes about movies for Los Angeles magazine.

Those jobs help pay the bills -- literary novelists tend not to sell many books and none of Erickson's five previous novels have made it to within shouting distance of a bestseller list.

But since 1985's "Days Between Stations," he has built a reputation among critics as a highly imaginative writer exploring universals -- love and sex, history, identity, memory and moral redemption -- set against shifting landscapes of bleak excess. A brothel in Paris. A black-tree swamp. An island in a river with only one bank. Vienna from which Hitler's American pornographer escapes with the elderly despot to occupied Mexico -- the Nazi blitz had defeated England and, after Winston Churchill's live on-radio suicide, the war moved to North America.

Always too there's Los Angeles, re-imagined in unimaginable ways, and a persistent chaos that defies Erickson's own orderly existence.

"Personally I don't handle chaos well at all," says Erickson, who lives in Topanga Canyon with his wife, Lori, a painter and director of TV commercials, and their 7-year-old son. "If the sink is full of dirty dishes, I have to wash them before I can start writing. I do think [the chaos in his novels] is part of the times we're living in, and maybe part of the experience of growing up in a place where the landscape changed almost by the moment."

He was raised in the San Fernando Valley around Granada Hills in the '50s and '60s, a period of vast and rapid development. "It was somewhere between what the Valley is now and what the Valley is in 'Chinatown' -- lots of orchards and ranches and something bordering on rural," Erickson says. "That changed completely during my childhood. I grew up in a house that was built when I was 5 and was gone by the time I was 17 because the Simi Valley Freeway took it. So the neighborhood I grew up in was born, lived and died in the space of my childhood."

Erickson, a UCLA grad, moved to New York and then Europe between 1975 and 1982, and when he returned the familiar had become strange. He realized "what a chaotic and ephemeral place Los Angeles is, both in urban terms and in psychic terms." The city's "lack of civic identity," he thinks, can fertilize an artist's growth in ways that cities with more defined senses of place, their own uber-personalities, cannot. "If you know what you want to do, L.A. can be a great place to do it because it doesn't impose itself on you at all the way a real city like New York or Paris, say, does," Erickson says. "But if you don't know what you want to do, don't know who you are, because it's a city that almost insists on reinvention, I think it can make you crazy."

Erickson doesn't draw the parallels himself, but his own disintegrated roots reflect those of many of his characters, who roam Erickson's imagined world as vagabonds.

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