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Times Literary Supplement: "The attempt to tell two stories at once reveals two things about Erickson’s ambitious art: first, he is fascinated by simultaneity; second, he likes the form of his fiction to imitate its content."

Date: Nov 13 2007

At times during the past ten years it has seemed that the American novel has been domesticated. Purged of the excesses and ambitions that flourished in the 1970s, it has returned home to reacquaint itself with what it calls realism, telling tidy stories of familial tensions and Christmases together. Steve Erickson, however, is one of the writers who has resisted the retreat from the experimental edge of postmodern innovation. His books probe the borders between dream, fiction and reality through various complex and artful, narrative forms. In Our Ecstatic Days (2005), a character called Kristin begins a sentence on page 83. The novel switches to a different narrator a few pages later, but Kristin’s narrative proceeds on a single line which, rather than continuing down the page, extends horizontally through more than 200 of the following pages which are organized more or less conventionally.

The attempt to tell two stories at once reveals two things about Erickson’s ambitious art: first, he is fascinated by simultaneity; second, he likes the form of his fiction to imitate its content. In the earlier novel, the twin narrative represents Erickson’s attempt to get closer to the novel’s thematic fascination with doubling; it also reflects his efforts to trace the imaginative aftermath of the terrorist attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Simultaneity and doubling are both important to Erickson’s eighth novel, Zeroville, but the author seems to be better behaved than he used to be, more concerned to reward the reader’s expectations. Zeroville tells something like a mystery story about an obsessive movie fan, Vikar, who becomes a wonderfully intuitive film editor. Vikar discovers that an image which torments his dreams has been inserted as a single frame into the film reels he consults. As the suspense surrounding this secret builds, Erickson widens his lens to take in the America of the Manson murders in 1969, moving on to the 1980s, when voters chose a former actor to be President. Vikar is described as a “cineautistic”: someone whose narrow focus on film leaves him only dimly aware of world events. He is the novel’s central consciousness – until the book’s final moments, when Erickson performs an astonishing shift that requires a retrospective revision of almost everything that has gone before – and we learn a lot about his obsession with cinema but little of his personal history. As in a film, we see his actions, but have to guess the reasons behind his behaviour.

In many of Erickson’s earlier works, his prose reaches towards a poetic density, but in this book (perhaps to imitate the immediacy of film) he has settled on an obviously flat, reportorial style. “He picks up the phone and puts a call through to Mitch Rondell”. But what distinguishes Erickson’s novel from most cold mystery stories – reminding us of the controlling presence behind the story – is its complex structure. It is divided in to 454 short numbered sections, which go from 1 to 227, at which point the sequence reverses and the sections count back to zero as the story apparently moves back to biblical times.

This is another of Erickson’s experiments in imitative form: the looping journey from 1 to 227 and back to zero imitates the circular shape of a cinematic reel – Vikar insists that “time is round, like a reel”. The division of this story about a film editor into individual sections also dramatizes the process of editorial selection. A film editor, we are told, “chooses which shot to use” for maximum impact, and one of Erickson’s most subtle effects occurs when a line of dialogue reveals that something has happened that has not been dramatized. When a character tells Vikar that he shouldn’t “have said that thing about John Wayne” at a press conference, the nervous reader who flicks back to the conference to find what Vikar said will do so fruitlessly. There is no evidence of any omission in that scene; rather Erickson is drawing our attention to the way selection in art creates the illusion of a seamless whole out of fragments.

Though this novel contains a catalogue of film lore it is Erickson’s literary technique that impresses. His manipulation of narrative form is reason alone to read and admire his fiction, but Zeroville also has enough compelling intrigue to keep a reader pleased and puzzled, as dreams, imagination and film intersect with history and what passes for reality in Hollywood.