Since his 1985 debut, Days Between Stations, Steve Erickson has published extraordinary novel after extraordinary novel, each one exploring a different terrain of our national psyche. If there’s a surrealist quality to his fiction, it’s likely because Erickson recognizes as well as any artist working today the surrealist quality of our real world. That being said, I hope he doesn’t quit his day job. As a film critic for Los Angeles magazine, he clearly appreciates the cultural relevance—and limitations—of cinema like no thinker since Walter Benjamin, and his massive body of Hollywood knowledge, lore, and theory informs his magnificent Zeroville in countless ways.
Mind you, any synopsis of Zeroville is doomed to fail, either from vagueness or from the wanton spoiling of its many surprises. The numbered chapters reel up to 227, which in its entirety reads,“Vikar doesn’t know it, but everything now has been reset to zero.” After that, the chapter numbers unspool back down to the final page. The novel opens with the 1969 arrival in Hollywood of one Jerome Vikar and depicts the evolution of the film industry from a period of creative experimentation to the age of unimaginative, comic-book adaptations. Vikar left divinity school, or was tossed out, and maintains some serious, unresolved issues with his father. One friend refers to him as “cinéautistic,” and his simpleminded habit of repeating verbatim what other people say calls to mind Chauncey Gardiner of Being There, albeit with a murderous temper and tattoos of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift on his shaved head.
Vikar’s unique genius finds expression in a nonlinear approach to filmmaking. As he says, “Continuity is one of the myths of film. In film, time is round like a reel. Fuck continuity. In every false movie is the true movie that must be set free.” His visionary editing work earns him accolades at Cannes, but his success is marred by a characteristic outburst at an international press conference, where he refers to John Wayne as an “evil white racist honky pigfucker,” a phrase picked up from a burglar who once broke into his apartment. More editing work follows, including a project that puts Vikar back in touch with an old acquaintance and her young daughter, whom he tries to protect from the Los Angeles dolce vita. All the while, Vikar hopes to adapt Huysmans’s satanic novel Là-Bas, which is indicative of his tastes.
Just as Days Between Stations featured a devoted cinemaphile re-creating a lost, silent-era masterpiece, this novel sees Vikar reassembling a film he has dreamt about and which he comes to believe he has seen subliminally planted, one cell at a time, in every movie he has seen. One character from Days Between Stations makes a cameo here, as do De Niro, Cassavetes, and other famous people real and unreal. Erickson has set his story in the fissures of our cultural memory and ingrained Vikar as another fictional construct among the rest of Hollywood’s invented, or reinvented, fakes and phonies.
Zeroville would make a superb film, especially in the hands of someone like Terry Gilliam or Atom Egoyan. Erickson’s ability to defamiliarize our known world makes him a consistently rewarding writer. Even when it covers the all too familiar ground of our recent history, Zeroville transports us, for hours at a sitting, to fully recognizable places we didn’t know existed.