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A Brief History of Time

New novel dissembles the millennium, one instant at a time

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There are two types of people who really must read Steve Erickson’s superb new novel, The Sea Came in at Midnight: those who are purposefully doing nothing this New Year’s Eve, and those who have spent a year or more planning just how to celebrate what may be their last night on earth. In the past few months, it seems the Millennium Scrooge has come into vogue—you know, the guy who juts into every New Year’s conversation he overhears to point out that he’s doing nothing that night, he’ll be at home in flannel pajamas eating cookies, he won’t even bother to watch Dick Clark, and, above all, he’ll be happy—very happy—with his decision. If he’s a devout, well-versed Millennium Scrooge, he may even support his position with references to Madison Avenue (how else did Y2K get so hip?), the Far East (what about Chinese New Year?), or the nonexistence of the Year 0 (Y2K is next year, thank you).

Steve Erickson is the king of Millennium Scrooges, but he’s not the least bit interested in the conventional deconstructions. The Sea Came in at Midnight is a tremendous project, dissembling not only notions of millennia, but of measured time in general. Thankfully, the complex and twisted intellect behind the novel is filtered cleanly through a half-dozen eccentric characters, ranging from a guilt-wracked pornographer to mad “scientist” known only as The Occupant. The progression of the book feels like a long and drunken walk home at 3 a.m.—lots of veering, jumpy associative thought and tidal emotions. But through the bumper-car movement of the plot, Erickson’s poetic language and haunted characters surface to achieve a graceful, heartbreaking cohesion.

It’s hard to name a real “main” character in The Sea Came in at Midnight, but a 17-year-old girl named Kristin probably appears on the most pages. Having recently escaped participating in a mass millennium-eve suicide, she appears early in the novel as a half-starved runaway living on the streets of Los Angeles. In desperation, she answers a cryptic personal ad that reads, “I want you at the end of your rope, lashed to the mast of my dreams.” Thus begins her twisted but tender relationship with The Occupant, a damaged misanthrope and self-proclaimed “Apocolyptolgist” who is obsessed with his bizarre calendar covering the walls of an entire room. According to The Occupant’s calendar, the mark of the millennium is not Jan. 31, 1999, but May 7, 1968, the date falling exactly between “two events so beyond the pale of unreason that a civilized person could barely bring himself to contemplate them.” These seminal occurrences, The Occupant explains with total confidence, are Ronald Reagan’s pilgrimage to a Nazi cemetery on May 5, 1985, and Coke’s introduction of New Coke 12 days later.

Impossible, you say. How can any date in 1968 fall between two dates in 1985? The Occupant is incredulous too—but for the opposite reason. In his mind, conventional perceptions of time are cruel and implausible. As Kristin explains it, “He believes things that happened for important reasons are not important, and things that happened for unimportant reasons are very important. [On most calendars], if you get 365 dates in one place, they all tend to fall in the same year. That’s just way too much of a coincidence ... I mean, how likely is that, that 365 consecutive days would happen to fall in the same year?”

The trick to loving this book is not to think very hard or analytically about the outrageous theories its characters propose. Much of what The Occupant proselytizes is absurd on paper, but emits a bone-true essence. He speaks to the great slews of fleetingly acknowledged tragedy, irrational freak occurrence and random personal ruin. He is a man tormented by the amnesia of the 20th century, where the unspeakable is commonplace and the sacred is ephemeral. His calendar is riddled with the dates commemorating the murder of nuns in El Salvador, the discovery of slaughtered eagles in Wyoming, the death of 20 women due to toxic shock syndrome—events that stay with us for the duration of their one-minute synopsis on a single night of evening news.

Another aspect of Midnight that requires reader-surrender is the number of outlandish coincidences that occur throughout. For instance, Kristin’s mother (whom she has never met) turns out to be part of a porn-filmmaking team who nearly killed The Occupant’s ex-wife in a snuff film. In fact, all the characters in the novel affect each other from wild angles, like connect-the-dots on acid. More broadly, they are connected by the senseless heartaches of their pasts and, ironically, by the enormity of their individual isolation. Perhaps the core of the book is best expressed in a dream-dialogue between The Occupant and a teenage girl when he tells her, “Everyone is his own millennium ... Everyone is his own age of chaos. Everyone is his own age of apocalypse.”

“No,” she says, “... Everyone is his own age of meaning.”

The Sea Came in at Midnight is strange and compelling enough to make you believe her. At least for a minute or so.

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