Highly innovative and experimental, Rubicon Beach has all the strangeness of a dream—with places that seem familiar but are not, with time that moves according to a logic of its own, the past and future existing side by side, with characters who seem to be important and then disappear, with other characters whose identities merge and then divide and become someone else again, with a landscape both vividly normal and vividly surreal—and all of this with a seeming senselessness, despite there being an urgency of feeling, a pressure of some meaning that will not quickly go away. Like the dreamer who wants to return to the real world as soon as possible and shakes the last bit of dream out of his head as so much nonsense, so might an impatient reader do with Steve Erickson’s book. For the reader willing to make the effort, however, Rubicon Beach offers a rich territory of meaning to explore. Written as a dream, the book is itself about dreams, on both a personal and collective level. It is about how individuals and nations are spurred on by inner dreams to become more than they are, how courage fails the dream, and how the dream can be betrayed. The betrayal of the American dream is a subject so often written about as to have become banal, but in Erickson’s hands, it is more than mere nostalgia at an idealism long gone. It is a haunting investigation, the implications of which will not quickly go away.
The book is divided into three parts. The first is set in a postapocalyptic Los Angeles. (What “event” has brought about the end is never specified; the reader is left to draw inferences.) Seawater has flooded the city, crisscrossed now with canals and lagoons full of floating debris; ominous birds circle overhead. There is a constant cacophonous din—the music of ruined buildings. Each building “sings” a tune of its own. America is now called America Two, and it is considered a crime to have bits of America One in one’s head. Cale, the hero of this section, has just been released from prison. Charged with politically subversive tendencies, he is freed because he inadvertently betrays, and causes the hanging of, a leader from the underground. Guilt-ridden and feeling old beyond his years, Cale cares little for his life—until the moment he sees a mysterious and beautiful young woman decapitate a man who kneels before her on the beach. He becomes obsessed with finding this woman, believing that somehow by finding her he might expiate his guilt and find again his lost passion and integrity.
Part 2 begins in South America, in a land where people live in trees, home of the beautiful young woman. She is uniquely gifted: Her eyes have the power to light the way for ships lost at sea. One sailor whose ship she has saved floats ashore and finds in her remarkable face gifts worth exploiting. After killing her father, he steals her away and uses her to win gambling bets in coastal towns, but his greed proves his own undoing and he dies in the jungle. She makes her way to America, specifically, Los Angeles, where she is employed as a maid in the home of a screenwriter and given the name Catherine. It is 1988. The screenwriter, Llewellyn Edgar, had come to Los Angeles as a poet but has sold out his talent to write Hollywood scripts, and now even his ability to do this is failing him. He becomes obsessed with Catherine’s face, neglects his wife, neglects the script he is supposed to be writing, has a photographer take pictures of Catherine, and in a moment of weakness signs a model release so that the photographer can make them all rich with her beauty. Catherine escapes and for a few months terrorizes an exclusive Los Angeles neighborhood by looking through the windows of the expensive homes and then vanishing. The police are looking for her, Edgar is searching for her, and the hunt comes to a climactic end when Catherine inadvertently causes a disastrous fire at the Ambassador Hotel on the twentieth anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s assassination.
Part 3 follows the life of Jack Mick Lake, born in Chicago in 1913 to a hardworking Protestant father and a mother of Native American heritage. Jack is a mathematical genius with an unusual talent—as a boy he hears and feels numbers as equations for abstractions such as justice and desire; he can also hear music from the earth. During the Depression he goes to college and falls in love with a woman; at the same time, he becomes aware of a new number that falls somewhere between nine and ten. His lover, a subversive, is eventually killed by police in a riot. His passion for music and numbers dies until he is in England in the 1950’s, when it is reawakened by meeting an eighty-year-old Cale and a mysteriously powerful woman who lives in a tree. He returns to America with a renewed desire to pursue The Number and to cross the river he had once turned his back on, toward the music of the earth he had heard as a boy.
How does the...
(The entire section is 2020 words.)