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Globe & Mail (Toronto): ""What makes this book exceptional is that Erickson is able to push an unconventional story with new ways to look at the world, while also delivering one that is satisfying and complete."

Date: Nov 21 2007

Vikar, who has a close-up of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift tattooed onto his shaved head, takes a bus from Philadelphia to Los Angeles to pursue his obsession with film. Within an hour of his arriving, a hippie mistakes the images for James Dean and Natalie Wood. Vikar grabs a food tray, "roast beef and au jus spraying," and crashes it down on the blasphemer. "NOT Rebel Without a Cause," he says, pointing at his head.

Vikar, the main character in Steve Erickson's Zeroville, is a cinéautistic; his opinion of film is unmediated, untouched by culture or his own preconceptions. In Hollywood, Vikar finds people as indifferent to film as he is to them. The novel charts his trials and triumph, through the 1970s and '80s, getting robbed, becoming a film editor, making a friend, discovering punk.

In Hollywood, where Erickson is a film critic and author of seven previous novels, there is indifference to film that could, perhaps, be pinpointed as an indifference to structure. The hero's journey, a formulaic structure derived from Joseph Campbell's groundbreaking work on myths, is pressed upon many films as if it's a recipe for success (or money).

The problem is not with the idea, but how it's used. Rather than a source for inspiration, the hero's journey has become a blueprint, which makes tales that are predictable, confining and boring.

In Zeroville, Erickson breathes life into structure. Dotty, Vikar's mentor in film editing, explains how she watches the dailies, footage of a film in progress, and gets "some hint how to go about it." She doesn't start with a preconceived structure, rather lets the idea come to her. Vikar, as a film editor, follows Dotty's lead in dispelling the concern with continuity:

"No scene is really shot 'out of order.' It's a false concern that a scene must anticipate another that follows, even if it's not been shot yet, or that a scene must reflect a scene that precedes it, even if it's not been shot yet, because all scenes anticipate and reflect each other. ... 'Continuity' is one of the myths of film; in film, time is round, like a reel."

The scenes in a film are more like the edges of a circular lake. You can jump in anywhere and still swim to the middle. The structure of Zeroville shows how this works. The novel is divided short chapters. At chapter 227, the book resets and starts counting back to zero. If the first half is about dreaming up movies, the second half brings Vikar full circle, to show how movies dream us. No one idea in this book leads to another; all ideas lead to each other.

This is not to say that this book is revolutionary. Vikar is on a journey to find the secret that lies behind every film ever made. Erickson's writing, at the core, is embedded in a traditional structure, perhaps because he writes for a conventional reason, to find meaning. Our brains are complex, but the world is more so. We read stories in an attempt to make sense of the world.

Erickson, on the other hand, is writing to suggest new ways of looking at things. He's asking the reader to stretch, think and respond. In Zeroville, Vikar completes his journey when he discovers the secret behind every movie ever made. The book's revelation lies in its structure, the process of getting there. Parts are uncomfortable; Vikar is prone to unprovoked violence. Parts are strange, like the surreal ending, designed, I think, to emphasize an idea, rather than a plot.

What makes this book exceptional is that Erickson is able to push an unconventional story with new ways to look at the world, while also delivering one that is satisfying and complete. Zeroville is not always easy, but it is brilliant and accessible - like getting slammed over the head with a food tray, once you regain your senses, you'll thank the attacker for the wake-up.

Claire Cameron's first novel, The Line Painter, was published earlier this year.

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