Kelly Shaw (kellyshaw) wrote,
Kelly Shaw

Zeroville by Steve Erickson

This week I finished Steve Erickson's new novel Zeroville, a strange and darkly comic journey through the late 1960s to early 80s cultural landscape, a scathing critique of the Hollywood movie business, and, to some degree, a travelogue through cinema's history.

I could hardly put down Zeroville and loved it almost without reservation. It hiccups only in the last two pages, when Erickson pulls the proverbial rug from underneath the reader in an unsatisfying fashion.

Despite this flaw, I wholeheartedly recommend Zeroville to anyone who feels passionately about Hollywood history and myths; about films like The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vertigo, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Taxi Driver; about the 1970s punk scene; or about adventurous works of fantasy fiction.

And, yes, I recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Theodore Roszak's Flicker. Both books contain main characters consumed by finding cinema's hidden truth.

Of course, I'm lauding Erickson's book for its cultural erudition, for the movies it references and uses as points of inspiration, without even mentioning its plot. But how could I not? It's overflowing with and obsessed by popular and esoteric cinema and literature, including the French novel La-Bas. These references, however, are not frivolously dropped into the narrative, but they actually make up the very fabric of Erickson's story. The book's title refers to a quote from Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, a New Wave film also preoccupied with cinema references; a film that endorses the cinephile's credo, "film is life." Erickson’s novel takes the cinephile's proclamation a step further, stating "cinema is reality!"

But Zeroville is most addictive not for its metaphysical underpinnings, but for its inspired central character, our travel guide through a changing Hollywood landscape, through a city that no longer respects or even remembers its legends -- Vikar, who is one of the most memorable main characters I've ever encountered. He's a sort-of "cineautistic," a social outsider who is indifferent to the world outside Hollywood. He dons a tattoo on his shaved head of his cinema idols, Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor from A Place in the Sun -- though don't mistake the renderings for James Dean and Natalie Wood. Vikar has quite the temper!

The book also has a rare comic sensibility, as Vikar's rise through Hollywood, as a set designer and editor, yields many humorous scenes. Delivered in deadpan, these scenes transport us from the Cannes Film Festival to Franco-era Spain to New York's CBGB music club to Hollywood drug parties -- they are so effective because they make us so uncomfortable. Much of Vikar's life, and Zeroville's dark comic tone, echoes a scene from Taxi Driver, where DeNiro ushers Cybil Shepard to a porno film. I can't remember the last time I laughed so loud and often while reading a book.

If none of these thoughts persuade you to pick up Zeroville, easily my favorite of Steve Erickson's novels, maybe this will: It's one of the most compulsively readable, addictive novels I've read all year. It tells a grand story, made accessible by Erickson's no-frills prose, and is filled with grand ideas about cinema and our relationship to it. When you come to the last page of Zeroville, you may be slightly dissatisfied with its denouement. But I promise you won't forget its journey.
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