Zeroville

I’ve been reading Steve Erickson for quite some time; he is one of my favorite living American writers. His new novel, his eighth, Zeroville, is one of his best ever — I am inclined to say it’s the best thing he’s written since Arc d’X (1993).

Zeroville is somewhat more linear and straightforward than most of Erickson’s other novels — though that is only a relative statement. It’s also largely focused on the movies, and almost requires a reader who is a movie freak. The novel takes place against the backdrop of Hollywood in the 1970s — the decade of the “New Hollywood,” with its promises of radical auteurism that eventually devolved into merely a new version of business as usual. One important minor character is closely modeled upon John Milius, and directors like Scorsese, De Palma, and Cassavetes, and actors like Robert DeNiro, make cameo appearances throughout the book. Indeed, much of the novel consists of rapt discussions of the movies: the main character is a film obsessive, and even the muggers and prostitutes whom he encounters turn out to be cineastes eager to argue about the relative worth of different movies in Howard Hawks’ oeuvre, or the position of Irving Rapper as an auteur. If you aren’t as enchanted by reading (or overhearing) such discussions as I am, then you probably won’t enjoy Zeroville nearly as much as I do. But if you are old enough to have participated in the cinephilia of the 1970s that Erickson channels here, or if you are now caught up in the contemporary (DVD- and Internet-fueled) second wave of cinephilia, then there’s a lot in Zeroville that will delight you.

The protagonist of Zeroville, Vikar Jerome (né Ike, “not Isaac”), is described at one point (by the Milius character) as “cineautistic.” A refugee from a horrendous fundamentalist Christian upbringing, with a father who is terrifyingly invested in the story of Abraham and Isaac, Vikar has rejected the God who slaughters his own children (not just Isaac, but Jesus too), and instead come to worship Cinema. He watches movies obsessively, promiscuously, and indiscriminately, and he knows them backwards and forwards; though he is never able to say more about how he feels about any given film than “I believe it is a very good movie.” Vikar has been described in several reviews as an analogue of Chance from Being There (played by Peter Sellers in the film version) — and that is not far wrong, at least from the outside. When Vikar tries to interact with other people, he seems unable to ‘read’ them, and they seem unable to make any sense of him (he “vexes” people). His conversation consists mostly of bizarre non sequiturs, and the verbatim repetition of quotes about the movies that he has picked up from others. He knows nothing about the extra-cinematic world: he shows up in Hollywood in 1969 barely aware that there’s a war going on in Vietnam, and at one point in 1981 or so he watches Don Siegel’s The Killers, and is then startled to see the same actor who had slapped around Angie Dickinson in that movie appearing in another one on TV: only to discover that this actor’s latter role is the extra-cinematic one of President of the United States.

Vikar presents a bizarre and menacing appearance — his head is shaved bald and adorned with a tattoo portraying Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun: “the most beautiful woman and the most beautiful man in the world.” He is also sexually obsessed (though he rejects any sort of consummation other than blow jobs from women whom he imagines to be Elizabeth Taylor or one of his other idols). And he is prone to sudden outbursts of violence: already, on the second page of the novel, he viciously attacks a hippie who misidentifies the figures on his tattoo as James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without A Cause.

Vikar is almost literally a blank slate, or a medium (in the spiritualistic sense) for the cinematic medium (in the McLuhan sense). The movies are inscribed, not just upon his skull, but upon his soul. And he does little more than let the movies pass through him. Watching the movies gives him strange dreams, and by the end of the film his dreams have contaminated the movies themselves, so that a single frame from his most obsessive dream (which seems to present Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in inverted form) ends up physically incorporated into every movie. As Montgomery Clift, speaking from beyond the grave, suggests to Vikar towards the end of the novel, “maybe we’re not dreaming [Cinema]. Maybe it’s dreaming us.”

In this way, Vikar is ultimately quite different from Jerzy Kosinsky’s, Hal Ashby’s, and Peter Sellers’ Chance, precisely in the way that the movies are radically different from television. Chance’s utterances could be described as random firings of the video scanning gun. Their charm and power reside in their superficiality and transitoriness. But Vikar’s utterances (and dreams) have a hidden logic, which is rooted in the depths of cinematic illusion. Vikar lives in a pre-VCR (and pre-personal computer) age, and he experiences the movies on the one hand in the form of larger-than-life figures projected, in the dark, on a giant screen, and on the other hand as reels of 35mm celluloid, which he obsessively collects even though he doesn’t own a projector, but only a movieola allowing him to inspect (and edit, cut and splice) individual frames.

That is to say, Vikar’s “cineautism” is rooted both in the unconscious depths implied by the overwhelmingness of cinematic projection, on the one hand, and by the materiality of celluloid, handled in physical, analog form, on the other. He becomes a film editor whose motto is “fuck continuity,” and whose guiding principle is that all cinematic moments are implicated in one another, so that everything is already (even before editing) connected to everything else both in space and in time. Cinema already exists, as a kind of Platonic form, before it is instantiated in one or another film, or moment of film. It would seem, even, that only cinema has such a Platonic form, or that Plato’s entire theory of Forms was nothing but an anticipation of Cinema.

This philosophy, implicit rather than directly expressed, allows Vikar, or impels him, to edit film in such a way that, irrespective of the intentions of the director, he is able to “set free from within the false film the true film.” His approach is entirely intuitive (or unconscious), but also so innovative that he wins a special award at Cannes for “the creation of a revelatory new cinematic rhetoric,” and gets nominated as well for an Academy Award (though, of course, he doesn’t win the latter). But such recognition means nothing at all to Vikar, who is helpless to do anything but continue to pursue Cinema’s hidden logic, no matter where it takes him.

Vikar seems affectless — except perhaps in his sudden moments of violent rage — to everyone who encounters him; and to the extent that he is charismatic, it is precisely on account of this affectlessness, combined with his total devotion to Cinema. But of course, this surface (or conscious) lack of emotion is only the index of the way in which, on a deeper level, Vikar is traversed and utterly embroiled by the impersonal, or prepersonal Affects of Cinema itself. This affect would seem to take the form, finally, beneath all the moments of love and betrayal and absence and violence and despair, in a sacrificial scene of inverted Oedipalization: inverted, because it is not about the son’s fantasmatic hatred of the father, but rather the father’s (including God the Father) all-too-real hatred of the son (or the daughter). This is not so much to psychoanalyze film, as to suggest that pyschoanalysis itself (just like Plato) is merely a derivative of a more ontologically fundamental Cinema.

Zeroville is thus traversed, like all of Erickson’s novels, with a certain melancholy, or sense of loss: a feeling that has directly political connotations in some of Erickson’s earlier novels, but that here is associated, rather, with the death of cinema itself, in a post-cinematic age thirty years further on than the time in which Vikar lives and in which the novel is set. I don’t mean to imply that this makes Erickson a luddite, or a paradoxical conservative. His novel’s investment in Cinema is entirely clear-eyed, and free of what Marshall McLuhan disparaged as “rear-view-mirrorism,” precisely in its identification of the movies with a (both primordial and historical) Past. Erickson evokes a Pastness which is that of the movies themselves, as well as of the passage from the movies to other, newer media forms. The movies are both past and eternal; or, they are eternal precisely in their pastness.

Or, as the black robber/mugger cineaste tells Vikar early on in the novel, and as Vikar then subsequently repeats to the assembled news reporters when he is being interviewed at Cannes after his award: “The Searchers is one wicked bad-ass movie whenever my man the Duke is on screen, evil white racist honky pigfucker though he may be.” Which sums up both the archaic limitations, the backwardness of the movies, relegated as they must be to the scrapheap of history, and their eternal truth nevertheless.

One Response to “Zeroville”

  1. I’ve read Tours of the Black Clock, Arc d’X and Amnesiascope. I also have copies of the Sea Came In At Midnight and Our Ecstatic Days that I began reading and haven’t finished yet. None of Erickson’s books are easy reads, but I think he’s as important as any living American writer. I’ve also nearly finished reading Juneteenth, the long awaited posthumous second novel of Ralph Ellison. I would argue that Ellison has to be included among the writers whose influence shows in Erickson’s work, but of course Juneteenth was only recently published and required massive editing. Three thousand pages of narrative were trimmed to only three hundred. I can’t help wondering if there isn’t a reverse Oedipal involved here in the sense that the form of coherence Erickson acheives appears to have provided a model for the editing of Juneteenth into a readable narrative. Cinema figures prominently in Juneteenth as the protagonist’s bridge from a childhood steeped in religion to an iconic political identity as an adult. Joycean surrealism was clearly a major part of Ellison’s inspiration, but Erickson’s surrealism shows more prominently in the formation of an audience through which Ellison’s vision can at last be delivered and a sense of history in a younger generation to which it can be entrusted.

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