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The Sea Came in at Midnight
Steve Erickson
Avon Books, 259 pages

The Sea Came in at Midnight
Steve Erickson
Steve Erickson other novels include American Nomad (1997), Amnesiascope (1996), Arc d'X (1993), Tours of the Black Clock (1989), Leap Year (1989), Rubicon Beach (1986) and Days Between Stations (1985).

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A review by David Soyka

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This is an intriguing novel. While The Sea Came in at Midnight is published by an imprint of Avon, notable for its many titles in both fantasy and science fiction, it's not going to be shelved in the same place as Tolkien.  Kafka, Borges, and Garcia Marquez, yes, for this is the type of fiction that is often called "experimental" -- although, were it not for the connotations of fairies and sorcerers, fantasy is what it is. If we must affix labels, perhaps "modern fable" is the most apt.

The central character is a young runaway girl, Kristin, a sort of reverse "Christ" figure who refuses to be sacrificed (one of the many reflecting personae of this girl, "Christina," is, however, more clearly a sacrificial figure). The story opens where it ends, with Kristin working in a Tokyo memory hotel -- a sort of intellectual prostitution in which men pay to tell their life stories to young women as a way of regaining their memories/identities. Kristin had promised to tell a client, an old Japanese doctor, her story when he had finished his, but he has died while waiting for her in the memory booth.

"Thinking of the ongoing account of his life that he's been relating to her, she says, 'Well, Doctor,' playfully feigning annoyance, 'now I'll never know how it all turned out, will I?' And then realizes this is how it all turned out."
Kristin doesn't feel right about leaving the body alone, so she decides to go ahead and fulfill her end of the bargain and, notwithstanding the lifelessness of the audience (is Erickson implying something here about readers?), she tells her own life story.

Her story beings when she left home, searching for someone who could restore her ability to dream. She falls in with a millennium sect in which 1,999 women and children walk off a Northern California cliff on the eve of the New Millennium. Kristin was supposed to have been the 2,000th, but her last-minute refusal to jump spoils the symmetrical symbolism. (Let's not get bogged down in a debate about when the Millennium actually takes place; historically these crackpots obsess with the turn of the century when the zeros click on, despite the fact, as Erickson illustrates, that the non-Western world is totally oblivious to reckoning time according to a scholarly debatable calendar year in which a certain Jewish carpenter may have been born.)

But in one of the many linked symmetries in this highly inventive novel, Kristin's action mirrors that of another 17-year-old in 10th century Brittany who leaps from a tower to her death rather than stay in the boats that await the flooding expected when the year 999 turns to 1000 (hence the title). The girl's self-sacrifice reduces the number of villagers from 1000 to 999, seemingly preventing the Apocalypse. Whether or not that's a good thing, I guess depends on your eschatological viewpoint.

Kristin then answers an ad for a woman "at the end of your rope, lashed to the mast of my dreams" placed by a man who lives in the Hollywood Hills (a nice symbol of corrupted dreams) and is Kafkaesquely known only as "The Occupant." A professional "Apocalyptic Researcher," the Occupant is assembling a calendar based on the egocentric notion that his own calamitous life-events reflect the epistemological state of the world. He has placed the ad to fill a void left by his wife Angie (that's right you English majors, a variation of Angel), an Oriental strip dancer bearing his unborn child.

The Occupant is one in a nexus of at first seemingly random characters seeking atonement who in one way or another are ultimately interconnected with Kristin, a metaphor that beneath the chaos of the universe there is an underlying design. In particular among these is Kristin's mother, guilty-conscienced screenwriter of the first pornographic snuff film (in which the starlet is murdered upon achieving climax), and (even though their presence is mostly off-stage) the Occupant's parents, whose political radicalism is tragically betrayed. Indeed, the terrors, mistakes, and transcendental state of parenthood is a central notion representing the possibility of redemption for Kristin and the Occupant and, by extension, all the rest of us.

Wonderfully and surprisingly constructed, this lyrically impressionistic novel about life's often-times confusingly impenetrable connections isn't always an easy read -- sometimes you've got to work a bit to make sure you've got all the dots connected (though the symbolism isn't nearly as impenetrable as, say, Gravity's Rainbow). I'm not sure if I've figured everything out, but a novel laced with references to existential philosopher Sören Kierkegaard (whose quotation in the novel's epigraph is paired with pop chanteuse Björk -- mixing high and pop culture is one of the many cool things about Erickson) requires you to make your own leap of faith, along with the characters.

So if your idea of fantasy is restricted to elves and evil wizards, this might not be your kind of book. But I'd like to think the reason why Avon asked the SF Site to review this book is because it's theme is an increasingly familiar one for modern science fiction and fantasy readers: how do you make sense of an increasingly senseless world and find your place in it and peace with it? Which, after all, is what reading literature has always been about.

Copyright © 1999 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


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