Tuesday, March 21, 2006

More on Arc d'X

(A sort of Part I to this post is here.)

Speculation about the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings is nothing new, as this Wikipedia article makes clear. Indeed, the article fails to mention that the antebellum African-American novelist William Wells Brown's Clotel; or, the President's Daughter (1853) makes indirect use of that story.

What IS new, to my knowledge, is the use to which Erickson puts it in Arc d'X and, more broadly, how directly he speaks of miscegenation in such clearly cosmic terms.

More yammering below the fold.

A quick assessment, first of all.: that warning over in my profile about my sometimes discussing novels that aren't very good doesn't apply in the case of Arc d'X. Erickson is a stylistically- and structurally-risk-taking writer, as will become evident in a bit. The fact that this novel gets blurbed by Thomas Pynchon, William Gibson, Peter Straub and Tom Robbins should give you a sense of the sort of novelist he is. Assuming you find his subject interesting, he's worth your attention.

As I mentioned in the previous post, American novels' treatments of miscegenation show it as, of course, having enormous consequences for the people involved, but rarely does it directly signify something larger than those consequences. Thanks to Faulkner, who DOES have it signify something larger, I was able to formulate a sort of rhetoric of miscegenation that allowed me to make the sort of claims I do about how miscegenation works as a trope for New World culture. In the case of Erickson's novel, though, I don't have to argue for the apocalypse. He creates it for me by constructing an alternative history of America--with a new Father, and a Mother this time as well.

Arc d'X consists of three broad "acts" (my term). The opening act introduces us to "Thomas," who as a child had witnessed the burning of a slave and is haunted by that memory, and "Sally," who joins him in Paris. They become lovers there (more about that later). A violent dream Sally has segues into the second act, in which Sally is awakened by the police and finds herself in a bed next to a man she does not know and who has been murdered--and, moreover, she is no longer in Paris but in a theocratic society in an uncertain time and place. Much happens here, much of it pretty darned sordid for a theocratic society (of course, seeing as the powers that be tolerate vice in a sort of Combat Zone called the Arboretum, what do you expect?), and it concludes with Sally escaping from this place. The third act, which I've just begun and which begins rather abruptly (no segue), is set in Berlin in 1999; its central figure is a writer named "Erickson" who, just now, is fascinated by an underground group which is attempting to rebuild the Berlin Wall. Sally hasn't (yet) shown up, but she's supposed to.

The excerpt below is from Thomas's thoughts as he has sex with Sally for the first time. It is, frankly, a rape scene, though Sally will come to welcome his nightly visits and, as a result, become the most powerful person in the household because of her status as Thomas's lover. Erickson does not pretty up any of this: his take on their relationship never becomes a romantic one. I think that's what makes this passage so powerful:
I've invented something. As the germ of conception in my head it was the best and wildest and most elusive of my inventions. It's a contraption halfcrazed by a love of justice, a machine oiled by fierce hostility to those who would ride the human race as though it were a dumb beast. I've set it loose gyrating across the world. It spins through villages, hamlets, towns, grand cities. It's a thing to be confronted every moment of every day by everyone who hears even its rumor: it will test most those who presume too glibly to believe in it. But I know it's a flawed thing, and I know the flaw is of me. Just as the white ink of my loins has fired the inspiration that made it, so the same ink is scrawled across the order of its extinction. The signature is my own. I've written its name. I've called it America. (46)

More later.

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