Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Zeroville by Steve Erickson

I should start off with the consumer notice, knowing my usual readership: there are two writers named Steve(n) Eri(c)kson. Steven Erikson is the pen-name of the Canadian writer Steve Rune Lundin; he writes the "Malazan Book of the Fallen," which started in 1999. This book is by Steve Erickson, one of the great American writers of our time, whose first novel was Days Between Stations in 1985.

Zeroville is being called Erickson's most accessible novel, which is an odd back-handed complement. His previous book, 2005's Our Ecstatic Days, had a formal element that made it difficult for some readers, but his work in general is as open and immediate as the American road. Things might not always make perfect sense in an Erickson novel, but that's only one of the many ways they're like life itself. Erickson is a lot like one the current critical darlings, Haruki Murakami (another one of my favorite writers) -- they both mix fantastic with mundane elements into the semi-apocalyptic landscapes of their own homelands.

Zeroville opens in 1969, as a young man who will soon start calling himself Vikar comes to Los Angeles. He has a frame from A Place in the Sun tattooed on his bald head, a troubled childhood behind him, and the world of the movies ahead of him. Erickson never explains Vikar, but we come to understand him over the course of the novel, especially as we notice that his opinions (particularly about the movies) are all second-hand, all quotes from someone else. He drifts into the Hollywood sphere through his oddly violent passivity, becoming a set builder, then set designer, then editor, and eventually having the chance to direct a movie. Along the way, a host of other characters pass through his life -- most of them are famous names of the '70s, but Erickson rarely refers to any of them by name, so the reader has to try to figure out who they are. (If Erickson weren't such a mesmerizing writer, this could be annoying, but his style has always been to explain through inference and dialogue. Erickson's people tell us more than his narrative voice does.)

I expect Zeroville would be an even more impressive achievement for a reader who really knows the movies of the '70s -- I don't; I was only a kid at the time, and have only seen scattered stuff since then. Zeroville embodies the '70s strain of American moviemaking as Vikar, and then sets him loose in Hollywood, to mirror back the dreams and hatreds, the hopes and fear of that tumultuous decade and its most successful artform. Zeroville is one of the best novels of 2007, and a major landmark in Erickson's stop-and-start career, and, even more than that, it's a wonderfully readable novel about our American lives.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I stayed up until 1 a.m. last night finishing "Zeroville." Two concepts which struck me the most were, one, that God hates children, and two, that the doorless church is to keep you in, not out.

Having grown up in a staunchly Mormon family, even serving a two year mission for my church - at my expense - I especially resonate with these concepts. In all of the religious studying I have done, it has never occurred me that it is always the children that suffer. Isaac at the hand of Abraham, Pharaoh in Egypt's own son and the sons he sent his soldiers to murder, God sending his own son to suffer, and so on. In word, who can possibly believe in a god who demands a father murder his own child.

When someone is raised in a particular religion, told repeatedly that it is the only true church (as was my case in Mormonism) , it is almost impossible to get out. Not the organization per se, although that is challenging because they just don't want to let you go, but the idea of God, Heaven and Hell, the years and years of brainwashing that has been drilled into your head since childhood. It takes a long time for the guilt to go away. Not the guilt that now you are doing things that we strictly forbidden by the organization, but the guilt of wondering if you were wrong to leave that organization, if it were right after all. If you have turned your back on god. It's the notion and existence of god that is hard to get out of.

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