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Sarah Vowell

I feel fine
In Steve Erickson's visionary new novel, it already is the end of the world -- and we don't know it.

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

April 21, 1999 | "Why do my eyes hurt?" asks Neo, the Keanu Reeves character in the Alice-in-futureworld thriller "The Matrix." "You've never used them before," answers his new mentor Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) in the real world. Sucked through a 20th century telephone into a dark dystopia in the year 2199, Neo finds out what Westerners have suspected all along -- the future is no fun. The moral? You think the humdrum pre-apocalypse gets on your nerves? Just wait for the post-apocalypse, a fetid techno-cave in which humans are hunted down by computerized predators shaped like giant metal mosquitoes. Neo wonders, "What is this place?" A more precise question, grasshopper, is not what, but when.

This notion of jumping between centuries, traveling from the apocalypse to what Steve Erickson -- a Salon columnist -- jokingly calls the "apocalapse" in his new novel "The Sea Came in at Midnight," flies in the face of date books and time lines and watches. The book begins on Dec. 31, 1999, at which point 2,000 women and children are reported to have jumped off a cliff in Northern California at the behest of priests in white robes. But a girl of 17 knows there were only 1,999. She has escaped from the mass suicide, only to wander to Los Angeles in the first days of the new millennium. She becomes the sex slave to a man known as "the Occupant," who calls himself an "apocalyptologist."

If ever there were a place in which apocalyptology could be a viable career, it would be Los Angeles, a city, according to Erickson, "unimpressed by time." The curious -- and profound, and funny -- fruit of the Occupant's labor is an apocalypse calendar. And on this calendar, which covers the ceilings and walls of a room in his house, time is not an arrow, or even a circle. Time is a gadfly in which chronology is not chronological, "in some cases far-removed dates overlapping, in other cases consecutive dates separated by the length of the room." Apocalypse, as defined here, is not some well-planned book of Revelation scenario. An apocalypse is a random happening, anarchic destruction. Not a big historic date like the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. -- "because it had a rationale, however villainous the rationale was" -- but rather, the random killing of the civil rights leader's mother, gunned down inexplicably as she played a church organ in 1974.

By the Occupant's logic, the era he calls the Age of Apocalypse does not begin, as Christian hoopla would suggest, on Jan. 1, 2000. It begins on May 7, 1968. Whether the Occupant is, like Neo, one of the privileged who can see the "real world" or just a madman is up for grabs. What is clear is that, as an organizing vortex, the apocalypse calendar makes for pages and pages of lists, some of the best lists this side of Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA." I'm tempted to call it looking on the bright side, the way the author turns enumerations of everything from the Manson killings and Chernobyl to the transplantation of London Bridge to Arizona and the election of Kurt Waldheim, and makes the whole depressing litany sing with the rhythm of Berry chanting "Detroit Chicago Chattanooga Baton Rouge."

Erickson's oeuvre has a dreaminess about it. Reality is called into question to the point that real events, like the death of Nancy Spungen or the introduction of New Coke, can seem far-fetched, while fictional whoppers like 1,999 people tiptoeing off a cliff sound ripped from the headlines. Not to mention that the Occupant's apocalyptic age, beginning more than three decades ago, does more to explain the last 31 years of weirdness -- Michael Jackson, digital, the Thai food explosion, Ross Perot -- than the easier millennial metric system.

All of which is to say, this is one deep book. But the thing that grounds it, that keeps it from floating off into the stratosphere of chaos, is that the characters feel real. Kristin, the teenage girl, displays a charming self-reliance. And the Occupant, who runs around with the lyrics of Television's "Venus" in his head ("I fell into the arms of Venus de Milo") is a nihilistic voidoid who isn't expecting a hug in this or any other millennium. The other characters, whose relationships to Kristin and the Occupant are revealed in a sophisticated plot, are similarly memorable -- the ex-porn director who tracks down copies of her old movies so she can destroy them; the exotic dancer who claims to be the lost member of the Shangri-Las; the old Japanese man whose new millennium began on Jan. 1, 1946, the day the emperor announced to his subjects "that he was, in fact, not God."

Of all the millennial visions galloping into the marketplace this year faster than you can say "four horsemen," "The Sea Came in at Midnight" is likely the most challenging, and the most poetic. If all the Y2K books and "best of the millennium" articles and Prince references are just a procession of brainwashed lemmings marching off a cliff, Erickson, like Kristin, has bolted from the lineup and hitchhiked south. If you read one philosophical-doomsday kinky-sex road-trip novel this year, make it this one. | April 21, 1999

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About the writer
Sarah Vowell is a Salon contributing writer. Her column appears in Salon Arts & Entertainment every other Wednesday.

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