Steve Erickson

"Zeroville"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage NOV 1, 2007)

"But of course the Western changed along with America’s view of itself, from some sort of heroic country, where everybody’s free, to the spiritually fucked-up defiled place it really is, and now you got jive Italians, if you can feature that, making the only fucking Westerns worth seeing anymore because white America’s just too fucking confused, can’t figure out whether to embrace the myth or the anti-myth, so in a country where folks always figured you can escape your past, now the word is out that this is the country where you can do no such thing."

I’ve just finished Steve Erickson’s eighth novel the astonishing Zeroville, and quite simply, it’s the best new fiction novel I’ve read this year. Zeroville is a brilliant, scathing, surreal puzzle, a satirical off-kilter look at the Hollywood film industry through the eyes of cinema-savant, ex-seminarian Vikar Jerome. I predict that Erickson, a film critic for Los Angeles Magazine, has a cult hit on his hands.

Read an Interview with Matt RichtelWhen the book begins, it’s 1969, and Vikar drifts into Hollywood on the day of the Charles Manson Family murders at the home of actress Sharon Tate. Overnight, Hollywood becomes a nervous town, and Vikar’s appearance isn’t exactly reassuring. His shaved head is tattooed with an image of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in a scene from A Place in the Sun.

The product of a peculiar upbringing, Vikar has just been tossed out of a seminary after the rejection of his thesis. There are vague flashes of Vikar’s past--a fanatically religious father who “allowed in the house no books except the Bible, no magazines, newspapers, radio or the then new invention of television.” Defying his father, Vikar becomes obsessed with film, mentally consuming the images he sees, and integrating titles and salient characteristics of actors in a child-like fashion.

When Vikar first arrives in Hollywood, he visits numerous famous tourist spots, and at night begins to haunt “the crypts and cemeteries of Los Angeles.” He eventually gets a job at Paramount Studios building studio sets. From this vantage point, he mingles with various Hollywood personalities, and drifts into the social circle of a director known as Viking Man who wants to be the “next John Ford.” The tattooed, laconic Vikar fascinates Viking Man. He accurately states that Vikar isn’t a “cineaste, he’s a cineautistic.” Apart from flashes of anger and violence, Vikar appears to be emotionless. He consumes film, but there’s really nothing else he’s interested in, and nothing else he’s even aware of. Viking Man observes that Vikar “barely knows there’s a country called Vietnam let alone a war there.” When it comes to film, Vikar is “absolutely unschooled, his knowledge and opinions absolutely unmediated.” Vikar repels most people he meets (this changes as he climbs the ladder of success), but Viking Man realizes that Vikar is unique: “For this guy, Film 101 is whatever theater he’s randomly walked into that’s playing whatever movie is randomly playing. An obsession that’s still pure.”   

With the exception of the imprinting of films into his brain, Vikar is a perfect Tabula Rasa. Although he’s practically a walking film encyclopedia, all the information in his head remains a catalogue of names and quotes; there’s no synthesis of information. He dislikes a few films, but most of them are just “good.” Vikar doesn’t analyze what he sees; he simply catalogues the facts away somewhere in the unexplored recesses of his brain, and the things he remembers tend to be regurgitated at the most awkward moments--often with hilarious results. At one point in the novel, for example, he tells a room full of reporters that he wants to see the new Superman film because it stars a woman he knows: “the crazy one with the tits.”

Traditionally, the film industry selects a chosen few for special awards, and these awards are coveted, prestigious marks of merit selected and awarded by favoured insiders. It’s a masturbatory process--a Circle Jerk of self-congratulatory excess and mutual self-adoration. Vikar, rather ironically, is swept up into this exclusive company and becomes the subject of critical scrutiny by the film critics who can’t seem to decide whether he’s a genius or a lunatic. With the mantra “Fuck Continuity” Vikar inadvertently takes the film industry by storm:

“Each scene is in all times, Vikar tells himself, and all times are in each scene… The scenes of a movie can be shot out of sequence not because it’s
more convenient, but because all the scenes of a movie are really happening
at the same time…. Scenes reflect what hasn’t yet happened, scenes anticipate what already has happened. Scenes that have not yet happened, have.”

Vikar, who’s perfectly comfortable lumping Emmanuelle 2, and Emmanuelle 77 in the same category with The Battle of Algiers, is a reflexive vessel for the narcissistic film industry. Those who wish to laud his talents interpret his actions positively, and so he’s seen as brilliant, daring and innovative. But those who judge the merits of film are seen as people who mostly don’t know what on earth they’re talking about.

Lest I give the wrong impression of this complex and intelligent novel, I want to add that Zeroville is very, very funny. One of the biggest disappointments of Vikar’s strange life is that the residents of Hollywood know so little about film. Oddly enough, some of the best film criticism in the novel comes from two bizarre interlopers--a burglar and a prostitute--people unconnected to the film industry, yet both of these characters deliver some excellent speeches about film, and these speeches lead to hilarious results.

Zeroville will intrigue film buffs. I found myself trying to guess the titles of the many, many films here, and the fact that Vikar often describes them in a rather peculiar fashion just adds to the fun.  Here’s one example that’s easy to guess:

“In another movie, a private-eye fell in love with the blonde he was
 hired to follow. The blonde was haunted by past lives and the memory
 of once having committed suicide by flinging herself from an Old
 California Mission steeple; when she described the steeple, the
 private-eye recognized it, and told her she had seen it not in any past
 life but this one.”

The novel charts Vikar’s amazing odyssey through the film industry while marking significant social events of the time: the Vietnam War, the Kent State killings, and the birth of Punk. In the telling of this tale, enmeshed with film, actors, actresses, real events and the imagined, we see glimpses of the past--a young Robert de Niro, for example, who studies Vikar’s emotional detachment, and this brief encounter results in de Niro’s performance in Taxi Driver. Erickson entwines the real and the imagined so cleverly, that they become inseparable, and the bizarre, unfathomable, unforgettable Vikar becomes an integral part of it all--past, present, and future as he searches for the immutable secret that links all film and solves the puzzle of his strange past.

Zeroville is an amazing novel--a reminder of exactly how powerful literature can be. Erudite without appearing to be so, Zeroville defies standard literary classification. As I write this, I can hear Vikar saying “Fuck Literary Classification.” He didn’t say it in the novel, but after you read it, you’ll understand. Vikar is destined to join the annals of memorable anti-heroes. I feel as though he’s has entered my brain, and every time I watch a film, I’ll think of him.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 23 reviews


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About the Author:

Steve EricksonSteve Erickson was born in Santa Monica in 1950. He's lived most his life in Los Angeles, except for during the mid-Seventies and early Eighties when he lived in Europe and New York. His mohter, a former actress, ran a small theatre in LA and his father was a photographer.

Erickson wrote his first story when he was seven, which he was accused of plagiarizing because the teachers didn't believe he could have written it. Because of his stuttering some teachers believed that he couldn’t read. When he was fifteen he was already sending his stories to publishers. At seventeen he wrote his first novel. He studied film at UCLA earning a B.A. in 1972 and then journalism, earning his M.A. in 1973.

Over the years he has written for Esquire, Rolling Stone, Spin, Details, Elle, San Francisco, Bookforum, Frieze, Conjunctions, Tin House, Salon, the L.A. Weekly, the Los Angeles Reader, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, the New York Times Magazine and other publications and journals, and his work has been widely anthologized. He's received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 2007 was awarded a fellowship by the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.

Currently he's the film critic for Los Angeles and editor of the literary journal Black Clock, which is published by CalArts where he teaches in the MFA Writing Program.

He lives with his wife, artist and director Lori Precious, and their son in Los Angeles.

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