Just too late for the various best of the year pieces I’ve contributed to, I discover Steve Erickson’s Zeroville which is one of his best, and certainly the funniest thing he’s written. Of course it’s not really science fiction or fantasy but, as with everything he’s written, there is an element of the fantastic that runs through it. One of the central plot elements, for example, concerns a single frame inserted into every film ever made which, when extracted, create a new film. It is also, though this is something no review so far seems to have picked up, a novel that overlaps with his first book, Days Between Stations: our hero, Vikar, lives on the same secret street in Los Angeles that migrated between San Francisco and LA in the earlier novel; among the movies he watches is The Death of Marat by Adolphe Sarre; and when he starts to make his own film (another in the list of great unfinished movies in Erickson’s work) his scriptwriter is Michel Sarre, who still wears his eyepatch over one eye or the other apparently at random. In Days Between Stations this trick of Michel’s allowed him to see the world very differently, and this double view finds its echo in Zeroville when Vikar becomes aware that one profile reveals (in crude terms) the good side of a character and the other profile the bad side.
One of the better comic tricks that Erickson uses throughout the novel is not to name the films that Vikar watches or the various famous actors and directors he meets, but to describe them in a curious cracked demotic. In a sense this reminds me of the way Gene Wolfe disguises place names by using a similar demotic in Soldier in the Mist and its sequels. It took me a while, for example, to work out that the film in which a singing family evade the forces of law leaving dreadful songs in their wake was actually The Sound of Music; though this is particularly effective in that at the same point in the novel he also describes the Manson Family as a singing family, which gives a disturbing and very Ericksonian double vision.
There is a serious side to this, of course. Vikar is autistic with little understanding of the world and sees everything in terms of the films he watches (he is described at one point not as a cinephile but as cineautistic). These demotic descriptions, therefore, provide us with a glimpse of the way he perceives the world. We learn that Ronald Reagan has become president, for instance, when Vikar goes to see a movie and notices the villain; when he comes out of the cinema he sees the villain on television, and it takes him some time to realise this is not another film but the inauguration. However, like Chancey Gardener in Being There, most of the people he meets take his parroting of things he has heard as profound truths. It helps, of course, that he is in Hollywood a town where, paradoxically, no-one knows anything about film. The one person he meets who is as knowledgeable about film as he is, is the burglar who tries to rob him early in the novel and who spends the night discussing the relative merits of various Hollywood classics.
Vikar comes from a strict religious family in Philadelphia. In one powerfully haunting flashback we get the impression that his father is about to sacrifice him in the manner of Abraham sacrificing Isaac (Vikar’s real name is Ike). This underpins one of the underlying themes of the novel, which is that God hates children and finds different ways to destroy them. Vikar’s redemption comes through his caring for Zazi, the daughter of a bit-part actress he meets.
In Philadelphia, Vikar trained as an architect (his graduation piece was a model of a church inspired by a dream, but it was only when the examiner pointed it out that he realised there was no exit or entrance); but then he discovers film, forbidden by his family, and realises where his life must take him. He shaves his head and has a scene from George Stevens’ Place in the Sun tattooed on his scalp, then catches a bus across America to Hollywood. Here he encounters the ghost of D.W. Griffiths, is mistaken for one of the Manson family (the story takes us from approximately 1969 until approximately 1980), and starts working first as a set builder and then, through the influence of an alcoholic has-been, as an editor. He proves to have a peculiar talent for this and is taken on as editor for a film that is in trouble. Though no-one can understand what he is doing with the editing, the result seems to appal and delight audiences in equal measure but he wins an extraordinary jury prize at Cannes.
This success earns Vikar the chance to direct his own movie, but it never really gets off the ground because he is already fixated on a quest to find the extraneous frames inserted into other films. This quest involves the model of the doorless church he built, the Oslo asylum where Zazi’s mother was once detained, and a line of ancient Hebrew that he dreams and that turns out to be the inscription on Abraham’s knife when he was about to kill Isaac. This is the sort of weird set of connections and coincidences that always marks Erickson’s work; they seem meaningless when enumerated like this but in the context of his novels seem to open up deep and subtle meanings in the shape and texture of reality. Let’s just say that the imaginative landscape that Erickson’s work inhabits is intensely and thrillingly daring.
And I should say a word about structure, since so many of his novels have been marked by bold structural invention. Zeroville is told in a series of short numbered passages. Some of these are two or three pages long, most are around a paragraph, some are no more than a sentence, a word, even, in one instance, nothing. From the beginning of the novel they progress in orderly sequence from 1, but at what is roughly the mid-point of the novel they start to descend until we reach 0. Zero is an abiding image in Erickson’s work: the black clock in Tours of the Black Clock is the 20th century wiped clean of numbers; midnight in The Sea Came in at Midnight is the millennial point when everything is reset to zero. This is, perhaps, the only one of his novels when what is reset to zero is personal, unique to an individual, rather than some overall shaping characteristic of time itself. Nevertheless, here the individual seems as far reaching, as all-embracing as anything else Erickson has written. Is it any wonder I consider him one of the most exciting writers in America today?
First published at LiveJournal, 7 January 2008.