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Time Out New York: "It’s a strange plot, to be sure, but Erickson grounds it with a seamless timeline and cinematic allusions that will be candy to any film buff."

Date: Dec 7 2007

Godard is in the details
Surreal novelist Steve Erickson pens a plot-driven love letter to cinema.
By Drew Toal
 
 Like most contemporary writers of speculative fiction, Steve Erickson toned his imaginative muscles by reading Jorge Luis Borges. “I first read Labyrinths when I was young, living in Europe, and it made a big impact on me,” recalls the 57-year-old author. Under the Argentine’s heady influence, Erickson went on to write seven novels that merge gripping dystopic plots with unsolvable brain-teasers. His Rubicon Beach (1997), a chaotic portrait of Los Angeles, is a prime example of his disjointed, lyrical style. What distinguished that book from most other end-of-times sci-fi is its refusal to follow a linear plot: Instead of visceral, postapocalyptic reality, we get an ephemeral dreamscape that appears to be a torqued reflection of contemporary America.
 
Erickson’s logic-defying, surrealistic style has, until now, tended to leave readers lost in his fictional fun houses, alienating all but the most loyal fans. But he has shifted gears with his latest, Zeroville, his most polished, personal and accessible book to date. The tale, which begins in the late ’60s and ends in the early ’80s, retains some of the author’s penchant for the bizarre—it follows a “cinéautistic” ex-seminarian who relentlessly searches for an obscure link between every movie ever made. It’s a strange plot, to be sure, but Erickson grounds it with a seamless timeline and cinematic allusions that will be candy to any film buff.

The story opens when protagonist Vikar Jerome arrives in Tinseltown, sporting a tattoo of Montgomery Clift and Liz Taylor on his bald pate. There, he inadvertently falls in with a group of movie-loving hippies and begins working with up-and-coming local filmmakers. He starts out as a low-level set designer, but his insight is quickly noticed and he is brought under the tutelage of Dotty Langer—a famous, albeit burnt-out, editor who happened to work on A Place in the Sun. Vikar soon lands a job as an editor himself, and his work gets him pegged as an avant-garde visionary. He’s brought on to edit a film called Your Pale Blue Eyes, which, at Cannes, is given the inaugural Prix Sergei, an award for “an original and provocative contribution to the art of montage and the creation of a revelatory new cinematic rhetoric.” His newfound celebrity does not interest him, however. He continues to treat moviegoing as a sacred act, and his obsession eventually leads him on a fateful, globe-spanning quest to find the long-lost print of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc.
 
Erickson, who currently reviews movies for Los Angeles Magazine, spikes his narrative with an impressive amount of silver-screen history: He riffs on the work of, among others, John Ford, George Stevens, D.W. Griffith, Robert Altman and Jean-Luc Godard (whose 1965 sci-fi noir classic Alphaville <http://www.timeout.com/film/newyork/reviews/77779/alphaville.html> inspired Zeroville’s title). Erickson’s not just name-dropping; he’s also pondering cinematic form, and in fact mimics plot-driven films in order to propel Zeroville’s swift story line. Replacing the long fever-dream chapters of his previous books are taut, descriptive and often single-page chapters. “I wanted the novel to have the pop energy of a movie, so there were certain narrative laws that I followed,” he explains. “It cuts from one short scene to another, and you’ve got some Godardian numbers thrown in there. In that sense, it was a conscious decision to try and approximate the way a movie moves.”
 
The author also points out that Zeroville is not simply a story of degenerate West Coast culture in the vein of a Nathanael West or Joan Didion. “I don’t consider it a Hollywood novel, because most Hollywood novels ultimately are not about the movies, but about making movies,” Erickson explains. “Even Day of the Locust is kind of about the culture of the moviemaking machinery, and how it affects the city and people that live there.”
 
With its religious overtones, Zeroville captures cinephilia at its most devout. Like most obsessives, Vikar ends up posing more questions than he can answer, and like Godard’s Alphaville, the book closes with a nod to Borges. But even as the ending leans toward the esoteric, Erickson sticks to a highly structured plotline. “It’s the conclusion the book has been headed toward since the opening epigraph,” the author says. “You just have to pay attention.”
 
Zeroville (Europa Editions, $14.95 paperback) is out now.