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‘Shadowbahn’ defies definition

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Erickson novel thoughtful, compelling and unique

What if the Twin Towers suddenly reappeared in the badlands of South Dakota some two decades after their destruction? And what if that reappearance was a harbinger of a thinning of the barrier between dimensions, where parallel universes begin to bleed into one another and have drastic impacts on certain seminal figures within those worlds?

What if American music and American history were inextricably entwined? How would changes to one influence the direction of the other?

These are the questions posed by “Shadowbahn” (Blue Rider, $27), the latest novel by pop surrealist Steve Erickson. It is a weird and wonderful book, a speculative near-future look at an alternate history that explores the powerful part played by music in the shaping of the world in which we live.

One day, 20 years after their fall was felt around America, the Twin Towers suddenly appear, looming large and whole in the vast emptiness of the Dakota badlands. Dubbed by the media as “American Stonehenge,” the Towers quickly become a pilgrimage site, one to which thousands upon thousands of people flock to see (but not enter) firsthand … and where many of these pilgrims hear mysterious music that is almost-but-not-quite familiar.

This America is different than our own, one marked by a past event referred to only as “the Rupturing.” This event has led to the notion of Disunion – vast stretches of America that have declared varying levels of sovereignty. It is a fractured country confused by the seeming resurrection of a particularly powerful precursor to that fracturing.

A young man from California named Parker and his adopted sister Zema – he white, she black – embark on a road trip to see their mother in Michigan. They are accompanied by a meticulously-curated playlist created by their famous father. As they make their way in and out of Disunion territory, they – and their playlist – prove to be unexpectedly connected to the events in South Dakota.

And on the 93rd floor of one of the towers, a man awakes. Jesse Garon Presley – in our history, the stillborn twin of Elvis – is seemingly trapped, unable to engage with the world outside. His journey takes him across and outside of history. We see Jesse encounter the embittered leader of a band that never got the chance to be the biggest band in the world; he’s a prominent figure at Andy Warhol’s Factory and meets a former senator from Massachusetts who never got to be the President as part of America’s Camelot.

Both pairs – Parker and Zema; Jesse and his unseen twin – embark on supernaturally-charged journeys through unfamiliar worlds tinged with familiarity. Both trips are driven by music – the ideas of music as well as the music itself. And both are unsure of the consequences inherent to their voyages, but neither can resist the pull.

“Shadowbahn” is unabashedly unconventional, with the sprawling storytelling of the book’s first half largely giving way to introspective and in-depth explorations of music both real and imagined. Erickson stretches and molds genre tropes to accompany big, existential ideas in forming a compellingly bizarre narrative that is in constant flux. The only true consistency is the constant engrossing readability of the tale being told. There’s a richness of detail rendered all the more fascinating by that which the author chooses to leave out.

In truth, it’s difficult to articulate the specifics of why this is a great book, but make no mistake … it absolutely is. Erickson forges connections between big ideas and big events, creating a textured world whose off-kilter sensibility somehow rings true even as surreal encounters and happenings play out. While the novel ostensibly has its protagonists, it isn’t really ABOUT them; it’s more of a deep dive into the viscera of the culture at large, using musical evolution (both that that was and that that wasn’t) as a vehicle to reflect on the ways that the past leads to the present.

The work itself offers whiffs of Erickson’s usual influences – a pinch of Thomas Pynchon here, a dash of Philip K. Dick there – but the end result is, as always, something completely and uniquely his own. The complexity of his ideas is matched by the deftness of his phrasing; that combination allows for work that basks in the surreal while still remaining anchored to its own reality. Erickson’s work has always pushed the boundaries of speculative fiction’s potential; his latest is no different.

“Shadowbahn” is a challenging work, charged with engaging ideas and driven by the unexpected. It’s precisely the sort of book that we’ve come to expect from Erickson, one of the most freewheeling and unfettered storytellers of the past 30 years. And while it might not answer all of the questions it poses, it’s the asking that really matters.

Insert any superlative that you like – odds are that “Shadowbahn” warrants that praise and more.

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