Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1821
In such earlier novels as Days Between Stations: A Novel (1985), Arc d’X (1993), and Amnesiascope: A Novel (1996), Steve Erickson presented his pessimistic vision of the future. The Sea Came in at Midnight again shows human society declining into a postmillennial dystopia, which the author emphasizes is a logical...
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In such earlier novels as Days Between Stations: A Novel (1985), Arc d’X (1993), and Amnesiascope: A Novel (1996), Steve Erickson presented his pessimistic vision of the future. The Sea Came in at Midnight again shows human society declining into a postmillennial dystopia, which the author emphasizes is a logical extrapolation given the course of history and especially the events of the twentieth century. The central character in The Sea Came in at Midnight is a seventeen-year-old girl, Kristin. Unhappy with her life in the small Northern California town of Davenhall, Kristin runs way from home, leaving the uncle with whom she has lived as long as she can remember, and joins a group encamped near the sea. What she does not at first realize is that they are pleased to see her because they need her for their millennial observance. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, two thousand females are expected to jump off a cliff into the sea, and the male priests who organize this venture have just discovered that they are one person short. Once she finds out what is going on, Kristin resolves to escape. Of all the women who are being driven to their deaths by the armed cult leaders, who obviously do not intend to join their flock in death, only Kristin has the will and the wit to escape. Afterward, she likes to look at the newspaper clipping that says two thousand women perished, for she knows that by fleeing, she threw off the count and invalidated the project. Kristin’s clear-sightedness and her practical common sense, so clearly revealed in this episode, later enable her to survive a series of bizarre adventures, including one episode as a sex slave and another as one of the girls who work at Tokyo “memory hotels,” where men pay to recite their memories and to listen to those of their hostesses.
Though Kristin’s resolute rationality may preserve her, it also keeps her from being fully human. Ever since the day when, as a small girl, she was taken to meet her birth mother, only to see her hesitate and then walk away, Kristin has not allowed herself to become emotionally involved with anyone. For this reason, she is ideal for the purposes of the man known only as the Occupant. The Occupant, too, has retreated from emotion and indeed from the outside world because of his experiences with loss. He, too, has been abandoned. As an eleven-year-old boy, living in a Paris flat with his mother and his father, who was a famous American poet, the Occupant had no premonition of tragedy. Then one night he heard a shot, ran to his parents’ bedroom, and caught a glimpse of a dead girl lying on the bed. He never did find out just what happened. There was a riot in the streets outside the apartment building, and it was easy for his mother to disappear into the crowd. When his father was sent to prison for murder, the Occupant was taken in by various friends. He never saw either of his parents again. However, he was still willing to chance caring for someone. During a return trip to Paris fourteen years later, the Occupant met Angie Kai, a nineteen-year-old Asian European. Though she insisted she did not love him, she was willing to live with him. Eventually they were married and settled down in a house in the Hollywood hills. Angie became pregnant. Then the Occupant awoke one morning to find her gone—he did not know where; he did not know why. Eventually he became convinced that Angie and her baby daughter were among the cult members who died.
By the time he places the advertisement that is quoted at the beginning of the novel, the Occupant has willed himself into detachment. He seldom emerges from his home in the Hollywood hills, where he is creating a great calendar of events he sees as apocalyptic. However, though he intends to live without love, he needs a convenient sexual outlet. In veiled terms, he advertises for an employee to serve his purposes, and because Kristin is hungry and homeless, she takes the job. Although initially she is understandably quite apprehensive, she soon settles in and for some months is actually quite contented. Even though the Occupant keeps her a prisoner in his house, in most respects he is quite considerate. Even having her clothes taken away does not particularly bother Kristen. Indeed, she finds that nakedness makes her feel free. Moreover, for the most part her time is her own. Except when he claims her as a sex partner, the Occupant lets her wander about the house and make use of his extensive library. Kristin might have been willing to stay permanently had the Occupant not decided to write a date on her body, thus involving her in his mind games. Kristin is willing to be the focal point of the Occupant’s passion, for sex with him is merely a mechanical process, but she does not want to become the focal point of the chaos that occupies his mind. Therefore she makes what is undoubtedly a wise decision, to escape while she can. With her usual resourcefulness, she finds someone to help her get away. However, despite himself, the Occupant has become fond of Kristin. When she, too, disappears without an explanation, the Occupant has still another reason to live apart from the rest of the human race.
Alienation is not just presented as a possibility in The Sea Came in at Midnight; it seems to be almost inevitable. Like the Occupant, Angie’s onetime lover Carl avoids real life by devoting himself to a project, in his case, the making of maps. However, Carl, too, discovers that even the most mechanical tasks lead eventually to troubling questions about the meaning of life. It is one thing to map the streets and sewers of Manhattan, as he once did; being hired by the city of Los Angeles to map the dreams of its residents is a very different matter.
Ironically, often what begins as love ends in alienation. There is no doubt that Angie Kai’s father doted on his little “Saki” or that his evaluations of her conduct were meant only to help her fulfill her potentialities. However, even after leaving home, Angie continues to apply her father’s rigid standards to everything she does. As a result, she becomes an emotional cripple, so preoccupied with herself and her own defects that she cannot love anyone, not her husband, not even her own child. By the time that Angie leaps off the cliff with her baby in her arms, she has obviously decided that love is not worth the price one must pay for it. Her act is the ultimate expression of alienation.
However, The Sea Came in at Midnight does much more than merely explain why so many human beings feel alienated from one another and even from life itself. It also shows that an isolated existence is both unhealthy and ultimately impossible. Though the author focuses on one character at a time, utilizing either first-person narration, as with the Occupant, or a very limited third-person perspective, the fact that he lets his characters wander so readily in and out of one another’s lives suggests that he believes one cannot live apart from others. Even the most self-obsessed of Erickson’s characters are sometimes driven to help people they do not know. Hearing someone pounding on a door, Angie unlocks it, thus enabling the Occupant to escape from Nadine “Maxxi Maraschino” Sienkiewicz, who has held him captive for seven months. On another occasion, Maxxi warns a girl away from some pornographers making “snuff” films, in which an actor is killed on camera, thus saving Angie’s life.
Similarly, after she finds a woman outside the Hollywood hills house in a car that has broken down, Kristin invites her in, and the two spend some hours together. However, though they converse, the women do not reveal themselves to each other. If they had opened up at all, if there had been any mention of Davenhall or of the name Pagel, Louise Pagel Blumenthal would have realized that Kristin is the daughter she had sought for so long. Their detachment costs them dearly.
Even though Louise’s quest for her daughter and the Occupant’s search for his baby girl fail and even though no one in the novel ever fully comprehends the meaning of life, The Sea Came in at Midnight is not a pessimistic book. Erickson’s characters do discover some important truths. When he finds himself regarding Kristin as a human being, the Occupant sees that it is almost impossible to stifle one’s need for other people. When Louise learns that because she featured fake murders in her pornographic films, actors are now being killed, she realizes that the world is built on an ethical system and that she must find her way to redemption.
The Sea Came in at Midnight also shows evidence of the influence of the Magical Realists, in that the reader is constantly reminded that the spiritual is very much a part of the real. As the characters move through their everyday lives, they are accompanied by their memories and visited by dreams. The lack of a clear chronological structure, along with the frequent shifts in point of view, does make the novel difficult to follow. However, by patterning his book in this way, Erickson means to show that one cannot live detached from the things of the spirit any more than one can exist in isolation. Thus Kristin cannot dream until that point near the end of the novel when she rejoins humanity. Similarly, the Occupant finally discovers that even if his baby is dead, he can reach her in dreams, and, moreover, that by reaching out toward others, he can in some sense keep her alive. It is the spirit, not the mind, that can keep chaos at bay.
If at times The Sea Came in at Midnight seems to be primarily a catalog of twentieth century wrongdoing, the author suggests that in the postapocalyptic world, we may do better. Erickson foresees a time when humanity will realize the importance of the spirit. Thus the city of Los Angeles hires Carl to trace the presence of dreams, while in Tokyo, men employ women to listen to their memories, thus affirming their reality and perpetuating their existence. By showing his characters as living simultaneously in the past and in the present, as finding truth in memories and dreams and worth in the people around them, Erickson has produced a book which, for all its recognition of the evils of contemporary life, offers some hope for the new millennium.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 95 (April 1, 1999): 1384.
Library Journal 124 (March 15, 1999): 108.
The New York Times Book Review 104 (April 18, 1999): 13.
Publishers Weekly 246 (February 22, 1999): 65.