In the previous post I cited John Dewey's notion of "adventurousness" as the quality I most look for in new writers and new works of fiction. I also admitted that often enough a genuinely "adventurous" work doesn't finally succeed in using an aesthetically adventurous technique, form, trope, or narrative to create a fully satisfying work of literary art, judging it by the terms set out by its own methods.
It is also possible for a novel or story to be adventurous (or adventurous enough) in its formal or stylistic strategies only to use such strategies to, in effect, dress up an otherwise entirely conventional narrative. This, it seems to me, is exactly what happens in Steve Erickson's Our Ecstatic Days, which I have just finished reading.
The novel uses a number of devices--multiple narrators, shuffled chronology, various typographical flourishes (including a line of text, separate from the main text, that runs across the botton of the page and mirrors the act of "swimming" the main character has undertaken)--that most readers would no doubt find provocative, something different from the usual run of "literary fiction," but ultimately the story and the characters are entirely familiar, garden-variety elements of post-apocalyptic fantasy, yet another addition to the genre of which I take Our Ecstatic Days to be.
Like most such fantasies, a catastrophe has occured--in this case Los Angeles has turned into a lake--and the characters left to negotiate the wasted landscape do so by paring existence to the bone, surviving in an altered environment by taking nothing for granted and everything as contingent. Extremes of behavior (such as acting as an S&M mistress) no longer seem so extreme when extremity itself has come to define reality. In some way or another, the bleak world depicted in the novel is a projection of/version of/transformation of the present (in ths case, specifically Los Angeles), making this and most other apocalyptic fantasies essentially satires, but without much humor.
Thus, while reading Our Ecstatic Days I felt I had read it before, so familiar is its "vision" of the future. Furthermore, while I did find its formal features sufficiently interesting that I was able to finish the book, much of it, particularly the last fifty pages or so, was rather a slog. Eventually I had to conclude that the formal manipulations are really incidental to the vision of LA drowned that Erickson wants to express and that finally overrides all other considerations of character, point of view, style, etc. And since I am really no more interested in Steve Erickson's notions of what the future holds (or what it ought to hold, given our current derelictions) than I am in anyone else's--which is to say not much interested at all--I have to judge that the reading experience was ultimately not worth the effort expended. The typographical games notwithstanding, Our Ecstatic Days is still more concerned with the ideas its author wants to advance than with challenging readers to think and re-think about what novels can do.
In an interview at Bookslut, Erickson says "I don't think of myself as an experimental writer. Experimental writing is about the experiment, and experiments per se usually are for their own sake. My interest is in whatever serves the larger story or characters." So be it. I accept Erickson's sense of himself as something other than an experimental writer, as a writer more interested in "the larger story or characters." Unfortunately, neither the story nor the characters (most of whom are little more than ciphers) can elevate this novel beyond the confines of the genre in which it participates.