“What if,” the scientist Professor Seuroq asks in the last part of the twentieth century, “time is relative not simply to the perspective of motion, not simply to what the eye sees from a passing train or a rocket hurtling at the speed of light, but to the heart as well, and the speed at which it travels?” What is history, he further asks, but the “heart’s arc across the course of lifetime,” and many lifetimes beyond? The arc of the heart is the central metaphor of Steve Erickson’s constantly inventive and challenging Arc d’X, a novel that begins in the middle of the eighteenth century and ends, or pauses, in the first years of the third millennium. A philosophical mixture of history, alternate histories, science fiction, and fantasy, the book perceives the cause of far- reaching events in the actions of the human heart. Like Absalom, Absalom! (1936), William Faulkner’s fictional contemplation on history and love and freedom, to which this book is kin, Arc d’x requires its readers to reconsider the nature of knowing, the truth of story, and the extensive ramifications of the individual choice. Erickson’s novel contains four major story lines, each ultimately focused on the character of Sally Hemings. The first narrative is historical, reconstructing Thomas Jefferson’s supposed affair with his fourteen-year-old slave Sally. Erickson’s Thomas
(only once is he given the last name Jefferson, although Jefferson’s life and character are clearly the antecedent for Erickson’s creation) is a passionate, conflicted man. “I’m only as bright as the whitest light in any man can be, tempered as it is in every man by whatever black impulse he can’t ignore,” he confesses. “At my best I have only been the slave of a great idea.” Thomas, the author of the Declaration of Independence, in essence creates the United States of America, but in Erickson’s portrayal he is able to do so because he expends his “black impulses” in his loving and abusive relationship with Sally, the child he rapes and keeps enslaved in a sexual bondage. Sally, for her part, both loves and hates Thomas, yearns to worship him and to kill him. In Paris (where she has come with Thomas’ daughter Polly to join him and his other daughter Patsy), Sally realizes that she is free, that the legal rights of the slaveholder do not apply. At the same time she finds herself growing more enslaved by the sexual and emotional relationship that develops with Thomas, so that when he must return to America, her decision to return with him, to forfeit her legal rights in France, takes on immense importance. This decision reverberates throughout the rest of the novel.
The first hint that this novel will challenge the conventional occurs when Sally tries to kill Thomas, stabbing him in bed. Fleeing into the city, she witnesses the fall of the Bastille, then wanders into a bizarre countryside, a land of ash and rock, and discovers a house in the crater of a volcano. In the house she confronts her own image and then an older man whose thick glasses make his eyes “loom like blue crystal balls.” She has, for the moment, traveled through time, confronted her own grown daughter and the man she will come to love two centuries hence. Fleeing from this scene and returning to Paris, she finds Thomas unharmed and resubmits herself to him, goes with him to America, and becomes his acknowledged mistress in Virginia.
Sally next appears in a futuristic world, the very one seen in her earlier vision. This world is apparently a postcataclysmic, theocratic Los Angeles, now called Aeonopolis, ruled by Church Central. The city is bounded by Church Central tower to the west, overlooking the sea; by the Arboretum, a sprawling construction of buildings and underground passages in which inhabitants live beyond the rule of the Church, to the northeast; and, rising above both, by the volcano in the east which blocks out the sun until near noon each day. “If Church Central was anxious about the disorder of human desire that lurked in the Arboretum, it genuinely feared… the volcano because it represented the most alarming of possibilities: that there was indeed a God, who manifested himself daily in the mix of volcano smoke and ocean fog that the residents called the Vog.” Here Sally is discovered in a hotel, in bed beside a murdered man. Sally is now revealed to be married in this world to an actor, Gann Hurley, who is the father of her daughter Polly (the name also of Thomas’ daughter). Her attempted murder of Thomas in Paris two centuries before seems to have replayed itself, except that this man has been bludgeoned rather than stabbed. The murder investigation is led by Wade, a huge black man who realizes that Sally is innocent and is haunted by her beauty and sadness. Wade’s search leads him into the Arboretum, where he finds another strange death, that of a young white man covered with tattoos. In the Arboretum Wade meets Mona, a stripper from the North, from the land of Ice, with whom he becomes involved in an inverse version of Sally and Thomas’...
(The entire section is 2086 words.)