Review of Zeroville by Steve Erickson
Steve Erickson is that most unenviable of contemporary American writers––people either don’t read him at all, or they read him too carefully for all the wrong reasons. More often than not, useless and misleading adjectives are applied to his work: “visionary,” for example, or “mythmaking,” or God help us all, even “Pynchonian.” But Erickson isn’t, to his credit, any of these things whatsoever. Rather he is, quite simply, a really absorbing and continuously inventive novelist. He creates unusual characters worth caring about––and he devises original ways of telling about them.
His latest book, Zeroville, is just about as good as he gets. A sort of pop-culture-retelling of American history from 1969 through the early eighties, it follows the life and career of a renegade ex-Calvinist named Isaac Jerome (though he prefers to be called by the weirdly-appropriate name of Vikar.) Raised without any of the usual cultural amenities––television, radio, magazines, and simple human affection—Vikar eventually defies his father by going to the movies. He has a disparate introduction to world of cinema by viewing everything from Blow Up to The Sound of Music, and this turns out to be only the first step in an escalating series of transgressions.
When his father starts looking too intently at the kitchen knives and mumbling something about Abraham, Vikar splits for Hollywood. He shaves his head, imprints his skull with a tattoo of Mongtomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor embracing in A Place in the Sun, and establishes a new home amidst the overheated landscape of palm trees, mansions, movie stars, and their directors. He hears rumors of strange families roaming the hills; he works as a gopher at the studios, and wanders with ghosts at the Roosevelt Hotel, Schwab’s Drug Store, and the Houdini Mansion. Whenever he has a free moment, he scouts for meaning in the flickering frames of every film he can get his hands on––because, like Chauncey Gardiner, Vikar doesn’t like to be. He only likes to watch. (So long as he doesn’t feel like anybody else is watching back.)
Life is better lived at the movies, Vikar decides early on. For one thing, he doesn’t have to worry about continuity so much, or one thing leading to something else he’d just as soon not think about, especially an ending––such as the one which haunts his dreams with the vision of a stone slab, ancient ritualistic writings, and a mysterious figure awaiting some terrible form of justice. In movies, Vikar likes to think, you can actually flee causality, the force that grinds Erickson’s most memorable characters into the ground. “Each scene is in all times,” Vikar often tells himself; “and all times are in each scene.” For Vikar, film isn’t aesthetics––it’s ontology.
Nobody burns a metaphor into ash like Erickson, and the controlling image of Zeroville is the movie scene tattooed on Vikar’s skull of “the two most beautiful people in the history of movies, she the female version of him, and he the male version of her.” Vikar, labeled by one of his friends a “Cinéautistic,” can only live and think through film; and sometimes, as a result, he can’t tell the living from the thinking. Vikar’s personal world is a giant movie theater without entrance or exit, much like the miniature church he designs in theology school and carries around in his pocket (or his own head). The prisons in this book are abounding.
In many ways, Vikar brings postmodern culture in his wake: the geeky slam-dancing kids at Madame Wongs follow him around like a pop messiah; DeNiro spots him at a party and bam, Travis Bickle is born; and eventually, Vikar burns his peculiar vision into the fabric of movies themselves. He becomes a film editor; he gets booed (and applauded) at Cannes; and he falls in love with the (purportedly) illegitimate daughter of Buñuel. He eventually starts stumbling across bits of his dream life in Godard, Hitchcock, Powell, Dreyer and yes, even Corman. It’s not that Vikar wants to sacrifice himself for film; but he remains certain that somebody out there, maybe Dad, is still planning to sacrifice him.
Vikar’s obsessions ultimately drive him—and the late twentieth century—towards a zero-point where they vanish into themselves; and, as in most Erickson novels, the narrative develops with so much persuasion and confidence that you don’t notice when you’ve left the road altogether. In Erickson’s first novel, Days Between Stations, the story journeys backwards in the life of an obsessive, Abel Gance-like director; and in Tours of the Black Clock and The Sea Came in At Midnight, his characters travel on a sort of moebius loop from history through self and back to history again. But in Zeroville, Vikar’s story is not entirely regressive; he even triumphs, driving his obsessions to the point where he actually manifests them in the world of film he loves. He alters history. History doesn’t just alter him.
Like the predictability-addicts and nullity-obsessed denizens of Godard’s Alphaville (a film which haunts this book right down to the title), Vikar wants everything from life but love, and eventually he gets it. He shuns carnality; he fills his home with canisters of classic films; he moves freely through a world of film buffs and directors––Cassavettes, DePalma, Scorcese, and a John Milius-type who goes by the name of Viking Man. It’s a life in which everything has been transformed into images––whether Vikar knows it or not.
In many ways, this all sounds more complicated than it really is––and that’s the difficulty with discussing Erickson. His narratives are unusual, but not very interesting in themselves. Instead, they are always (and always only) a means of telling stories about the people Erickson imagines into existence––prematurely-aging children with a hard time understanding themselves, parents, history, and world. What makes Erickson most compelling is the confidence with which he wrestles these emotionally linear stories into existence; he doesn’t compose new riffs on old stories, or bend different generic conventions into one another; and he is never merely quirky or surrealistic or gimmicky. Like most good writers, he genuinely believes in the narrative worlds he creates; he maintains them with consistency and conviction; and he drives them as far as they will go before falling apart.
And oddly enough, everything Erickson believes in as a writer seems to be what drives his characters mad: causality, obsession, vacuity, loss, aesthetics, movies, music and love. Erickson is always (despite his flaws, which can be considerable, especially in his longer books) genuine. He freshly examines the world each time he writes about it. And he reinvents his way of writing with each novel, testing his characters to the point where they can’t be tested any more. He is the sort of novelist who keeps all the other novelists honest. And for these reasons, he remains much more interesting than the writers most people read.