History always auditioning for one last performance that’s never delivered because it’s always rewritten. To, uh, talk of the “lessons” of history suggests…models that can be applied to other instances, when no moment really is enough like another that any model applies, without turning the model into something that’s so much something else as to make it, well, not obsolete, but not all that relevant either.
Steve Erickson’s latest novel Shadowbahn is set in a fascinating alternate version of America in the near future. It’s a parallel America that could have been and is revealed by taking a road trip on a “shadow highway” that connects both costs of America and is described in the novel as:
[…] a rumored thoroughfare unmarked on any map, a secret highway called the “shadowbahn” that cuts through the heart of the country from one end to the other with impunity.
Twenty years after they fell, the Twin Towers mysteriously reappear in the Badlands of South Dakota. Moreover, the towers seem to transmit music, however, every one of the thousands of people who flock to see this miracle hears a different song. The towers are completely empty of people, except for one resident: a full-grown version of Jessie Presley, the stillborn twin brother of Elvis Presley, who suddenly awakens on the ninety-third floor of one of the towers and is going mad from memories of events that never happened and of a life where he survived in his brother’s place. Meanwhile, siblings Parker and Zema are on a road trip from L.A. to see their mother in Michigan, when they hear about the strange reappearance of the Twin Towers and decide to take a detour to see this apparition. Oh, and Zema’s body seems to transmit music, too, in a version of America were all music seems to be disappearing.
I know the premise of this novel sounds completely crazy, but since I’ve previously read Zeroville, I had faith in the author’s ability to weave a strange yet thought-provoking story. And he didn’t disappoint. Erickson has created a dreamscape, where he plays with the idea of actual and thematic twins and alternative versions, shadow versions and surrogates. The central theme of the novel is identity: both individual and cultural. Jessie Presley is haunted by a voice in his head that he knows isn’t his, by the spectre of what his brother would have become. He feels that he is the inferior version of his brother, a feeling that is intensified when he meets people that somehow also know that he is the “wrong” twin, and he vents out his frustrations by writing scathing articles in a music magazine and hanging around the artists and outcasts at, what seems to be, Andy Warhol’s Factory.
A significant part of the book is devoted to discussions on the history of American popular music. Parker and Zema’s father is a radio DJ and a very opinionated music snob, who spends a lot of time compiling elaborate playlists, placing songs in a specific, and, what he deems to be, the “right” order. The novel includes separate chapters, which are interspersed throughout the book, that put songs into pairings (in a kind of face-off) and look into the history of these songs and, on a larger scale, the evolution of American music, and how it has shaped and influenced American culture. It also reminds us that rock ‘n’ roll (what we associate with popular 20th-century Western music) evolved from blues music and was essentially invented by African Americans. Elvis was the bridge that brought it into mainstream culture and his absence in this version of America has profound cultural implications on the world. The novel suggests that music is the heartbeat of the country and one of the fundamental elements of its cultural identity that expresses the collective dreams and hopes of its people.
The novel tries to reconstruct the image of America by piecing it together from all these alternative parts. This shadow America is populated by alternative versions of historical figures and the novel seems to be asking, what would be the fates of these famous people in this phantom America, where the political and cultural landscape is different?
I really liked the relationship between Parker and his sister Zema, who was adopted from Ethiopia and struggles with her national identity. They go on a road trip across this alternative version of America that seems to be in a state of disunion. Through their story, the author explores the theme of family legacy, and seems to ask, what is the inheritance that parents leave to their children? In case of these siblings, it is represented by a playlist that was compiled by their father, as well as a notebook with comments about the songs. As they go across this shadow America, they listen to the playlist and are exposed to a wide variety of music that seems to represent the essence of America.
Shadowbahn is an engaging, remarkable piece of writing that keeps you guessing, what will happen next, until the very end. The narrative constantly shifts, weaving several story threads, and it almost feels like the book consists of several novels. I can understand how this disjointed structure and an impressive amount of musical references might seem frustrating for a lot of readers, but I find that the unconventional way he tells the story and the themes that are discussed in this book make this a fascinating and worthwhile read. In this book, as in Zeroville, Erickson demonstrates how to use pop culture references in a meaningful way, instead of just trying to profit off of the latest nostalgia trend. This is only my second book by Erickson, but I already feel that I’ve found a new favourite author.
The human heart commits its greatest treachery by healing. It commits its greatest treachery by surviving the love that was supposed to last forever, that was supposed to be the heart’s burden into eternity, only for that burden to be laid down by too much time and, worse, too much banality, too much of everything that’s beneath love, not good enough for love.
P.S. Here is a playlist of the songs referenced in Shadowbahn: