Szplug's Reviews > The Sea Came in at Midnight

The Sea Came in at Midnight by Steve Erickson
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's review
Feb 14, 2010

really liked it

On the final day of 999, an entire village of Armorican peasants awaited the imminent millennial ocean flood in dozens of wooden boats perched atop poles - an entire village but one. One thousand years later, another congerie of dazed believers march, lemming-like, to embrace the dawn of the third millenium by way of free-fall off of a thousand foot cliff on the California coast. In both cases, the chiliastic fever burned itself out unrealized: it will take a different sort - those with no faith whatsoever - to perceive that arbitrary measurements, etched by a desperate humanity, have little binding power upon the maelstromic movements of the universe's darkling rhythms.

Erickson's sixth book, a bloodstained paean to a century of chaos regnant, moves through its two-hundred and sixty pages with a kinetic, elegiac energy, a breathless sprint through blackened hallways in an unknown maze, where the brief illumination of intermittently kindled memory only serves to limn the unrecognized sameness of the labyrinthine route before temporarily blinding its travelers through the savage brilliance of its quenching. The story mirrors its subject matter with its sudden shifts in perspective, person, place, and time; yet all of Erickson's sprawling cast are connected to one another, sometimes by blood, sometimes by lust, but more often by an inability to dream - to taste the memory of the future - that is caused by their being touched by the cold, death-rattle finger of Chaos.

In The Sea Came in at Midnight, two dates hold a place of pivotal importance for the fixing point of its new millennium: the atomic blast that leveled Hiroshima, temporarily creating a earthen sibling for the sun, a flashpoint hell in which Japan's God was snuffed out and its memory-riven modernity began; and the Paris riots of May, 1968, in which a discordant horde of inexplicably angry, unfocussed students and workmen squared off against unexplainably angry, unfocussed authority. At the peak of the Parisian outburst - the prom dance of twentieth-century nihilism - a single gunshot rings out, a shot whose echo will ricochet insistently throughout the following decades, a whipcrack reminder of the nodal point of the true birth of the next thousand years. Wall-covering maps attempting to anchor the fluctuating vortices of apocalypse and those touched by the Kiss of Chaos; time-capsules, containing the most trivial and banal of personal objects, that exert an irresistible allure to a memory-starved populace; lurid peepshows upon the shadowy world of extreme pornography; and the return of Davenhall Island, Erickson's ghostly, barren Chinatown that functions as a dimensional sinkhole for the tortured ghosts that wander in and out of dreams even as time threshes backwards and forwards, are but part of the tour through the bizarre that makes up the novels main attraction.

This is my fourth book by the Los Angeles native, and probably the one with the strongest writing. Published in 1999, Erickson manages - through the surreal, hypnotic, and humorous textures of his syntactical painting, the eerie and sinister strangeness of the shimmering poetry that encompasses his style - to create fascinating characters inhabiting his miasmatic chimera of a world. All of them are spiritually wracked and sexually voracious - they ooze the confused decadence that seems to be the resinous aftermath of the belief in unbelief, the lack of faith in anything other than the self, that has come to define so much of the modern age. The introductory quotation by Kierkegaard, taken from Fear and Trembling, about the courage of Faith, is an exquisitely apt entranceway to the following darkness. If the book is dominated by the malignant, dispiriting, and corrosive effect of Chaos, of the omnipresent threat, or promise, of an apocalyptic wiping away of millennia of accumulated stain and grime, it is only because so many seek that Chaos with the fervent eagerness of a lover.

The father of one of the main characters, a Japanese-American girl named Saki-Angie, was in the habit of hanging one-word cardboard signs on his daughter's door to express what he perceived her current behavior and actions to reflect: the final one, left hanging in stark accusation year after year, was succinctly marked LOST. The same sign could be hung around the necks of virtually every inhabitant of The Sea Came in at Midnight as they struggle against the rising apocalyptic tide. Not until the realization of the futility of belief in death, the worship of annihilation, has taken hold, and the awareness has set in that such belief and worship should be aimed toward life - to seek the warmth of the womb and not the chill of the grave - will the sea's floodwaters finally begin to recede.

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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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Joshua Nomen-Mutatio This is an outstanding review, Chris. It seems you liked the book at least as much as I did (if not even more), but I gave it the added fifth star that you did not. Obviously the star-rating system is pretty flawed, but I just thought I'd make note of it.

message 2: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye Another amazing piece of writing, Chris.

Szplug Thank you, Ian. It's odd, because when, due to your kind words, I decided to check this out again, I couldn't even make it past the second paragraph. I find that many of my reviews don't age well with me—perhaps because one tends to zeroing-in on whatever artificialities and constructs and laboriousness you detect in your style, that others would not be privy to?

Not that I mean to intrude my sourness upon your compliment, mind, but just that it's a curious phenomenon that I experience, and I wonder if it's more of a universal thing across the (amateur?) reviewing sphere...

message 4: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye I think you're being a bit harsh on yourself. This reads as a rush, and who cares if in retrospect, it could have been done differently. It might have been perfect, but less interesting.

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