Zeroville by Steve Erickson
Some books are so mammoth in concept that it seems ridiculous to try to whittle them down. You can go on and on about a book like Gravity’s Rainbow or Infinite Jest, for instance, but the only way their true size will be absorbed is in the experience. Fast phrases of summary or review only come off glancing, sentimental, a raindrop in the well. That Zeroville, the eighth novel from cult author Steve Erickson, accomplishes such gait in 352 pages of mostly short, numbered vignettes, is yet another facet of its unmistakable, so sleek brilliance.
Now allow me to backtrack. Zeroville, at its most basic, is the story of Vikar Jerome, a detached man with violent tendencies and a portrait of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor tattooed on his head. Vikar straggles into Hollywood in search of the city that births his obsession: film. There he finds mostly only frustration, empty heads and audiophiles who don’t seem to know anything about their world. Vikar’s only communion comes in strange forms: most glaringly as Soledad Paladid, a struggling, backwards actress rumored to be the offspring of Buñuel, and her neglected, dreaming daughter, Zazi, who Vikar takes to looking over like a father. As he gets deeper in Hollywood’s engine as an editor of art film, his deeper concern remains a dream vision he can’t get out of his head: a cryptic image that seems to haunt him and replicate into the lead of an exploration in which, in the words of the "About the Book" copy, “he discovers the astonishing secret that lies in every movie ever made.”
Such a claim might seem overzealous, but Erickson makes it sing. Zeroville takes a great deal of entropy from the Californian '70s and early '80s in which most of it is set: the Manson family has just been convicted; Raging Bull hits the screens; Devo and X play in dives where Vikar slamdances like a man with nothing. He is detached, searching for something he can never seem to find. Much of Vikar's psyche, as well as the film’s great commonwealth, is revealed in the films that he imbibes. Erickson, a film critic for Los Angeles magazine, utilizes his obvious knowledge of moving pictures to layer the story with the textures of classic cinema: 2001, The Long Goodbye, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and on and on and on. We are navigating entrenched waters here; the tide of imagery from those familiar screens where we've sat in the dark alone is layered like tiny tiles all through Vikar's careening steer.
Though it is stretched over a period of 10+ years, in landscapes from Hollywood to Paris to celluloid, there is an unconscious flow fixing the narrative. Erickson is so adept at moving action that months or years pass in a sentence, while in others time seems to exist unto themselves alone. "Fuck continuity," Vikar keeps saying. "It's a false concern that a scene must anticipate another scene that follows, even if it's not been shot yet, because all scenes anticipate and reflect each other." Like the aforementioned Gravity’s Rainbow, Zeroville adopts this strange meandering. It becomes an unknowing quest fueled by paranoia; melding the slapstick with the sexual.
Which leads to another of Erickson’s great talents: the way he’s able to write about film and music and sex and celebrity without sounding cloying, trifled, dull. So many writers who want to show the punk clubs and the strange sex situations where here Vikar ends up neck-deep focus too much on the shtick of it, on the temporal, the routine. Erickson instead absorbs his subject, makes it timeless instead of rout. The characters begin to exist not only on the page, but in the very fabric of real time. It becomes not a moment, but a pervasion, a thing that looms over itself, fueled by the backlog of its surroundings. It seems to want to spin forever. “'God loves two things and that’s Movies and the Bomb,' a character says to Vikar. 'Of all the monuments we’ve made to God over the last five thousand years, have there been any that so nearly communicate our awe of Him?'”
All this is not to say, however, that Zeroville is at all a mountain that must be conquered via only sweat and tears, like other such aspirational tomes. I read this novel pretty much straight through without stopping, fed in bite-size increments numbered from 1 to 227 and back down past 1 to 0. Zeroville is addictive. It is a puzzle that lives inside your head. It makes you imagine things you hadn’t expected. Most of the way though I wanted to be Vikar Jerome. I wanted a tattoo on my head. Even more, now, I wish I could wipe it from my brain and read again.
Zeroville by Steve Erickson