Waxing Press

Book Review: Tours of the Black Clock by Steve Erickson

book reviews, tastemakingIan Wissman

Time shifts and contorts. It is layered and curls back on itself, rearranging history. In Steve Erickson’s Tours of the Black Clock, history is ripped open by writer-protagonist Banning Jainlight who alters the regular course of time in his role as personal erotica-writer to Der Fuhrer by capturing the specular image of Hitler’s then-dead love obsession and niece Geli Raubal (a mirror of the spectral woman whose beauty engulfs Jainlight's mind). As Jainlight’s writing reignites Hitler’s obsession, it changes the course of the war, which finds Germany in an unstable peace with Russia while England falls to the Reich.

It’s hard to write about Erickson’s work because he uses dream-logic in ways that elude our ability to pin down specific meaning or total clarity on the plot’s mechanics, characters’ motivations and the more rational forms of narrative. And Erickson uses the rules of a dream to weave tales that are at once political without being prescriptive or pedantic—they cut to the human soul of The Political to expose how the politics of lives, and people (and governments) are just an extension of humanity in general. In this way, Erickson is probably one of the most human and most American writers I have ever read.

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Like his most recent book, Shadowbahn, Tours of the Black Clock also shows us alternate timelines to the reality we know, re-writing history into a myth of The Real to expose kernels of meaning behind common truths—we need symbolic language and a unique narrative perspective to have a glancing understanding of a Truth in our real, human lives. Erickson also de-mythologizes a figure like Hitler to expose how humans construct myths to protect ourselves from The Real—we often try to divorce Hitler from his humanity and transform him into a monstrous entity to deny that anyone human is capable of such abysmal darkness. Instead, Erickson forces us to look at Hitler as corporeal and vulnerable. As Jainlight ushers the aging, decrepit body of Hitler out of Europe in the 1970s, and as the war still rages on, he hesitates telling a group American soldiers who the old man really is when asked to provide identification papers:

“Because there’s always the one awful chance that they will believe me, that they’d look into his face and eyes and see that it’s true, at which point the pure righteous wrath of their fight would have to accommodate the humanity of his evil. They’re fighting for an age in which the heart and consciousness have not been stripped of the references points that have become denied to time and space: they’ve stared into the bloody Rorschach of the Twentieth Century and seen the budding of a flower”

Jainlight, unwittingly responsible for undoing the common threads of history, tries to correct his wrongs by not breaking the myth of the monster. It’s a state of hypernormalization—if the general population recognizes the human in Hitler, they recognize their own capacity for atrocity and horror, recognize their neighbors’ and friends’ capacity. To acknowledge that any person on earth is capable of what Hitler wrought would end the progress of humanity. Hitler dies the same in every timeline, but leaving him a myth, a totem, is also a signpost for human history: even if he’s mythologized a monster, the myth serves as a moral compass, a fable almost, albeit blacker than any black hole. Jainlight cannot take the myth away, even when he most wants Hitler to face some kind of justice.

Erickson’s books stick in your mind for months, if not years after. The trajectory of your thinking is changed by his crepuscular dreamtales. You may find yourself darkened by them, deep inside yourself. But you are enlightened, too. Illumination often comes at the risk of making you cynical, but when one human is capable of such evil, and when time, like a black clock with no numbers, revolves around itself over and over, destined to repeat, is optimism really going to save us?