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Zeroville Paperback – Nov 1 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Set primarily in Los Angeles from the late 1960s through 1980s, this darkly funny, wise but flawed novel from Erickson (Arc d'X) focuses on our collective fascination with movies. Vikar Jerome, whose almost deranged film fixation manifests itself in the images of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift tattooed on his bald head, wanders around Hollywood, where he gets mistaken for a perp in the Charles Manson murders and is robbed by a man who turns out to be a fellow film buff. After Vikar becomes a film editor, he's kidnapped by revolutionaries in Spain who want him to edit their propaganda film. Later, he wins a Cannes Film Festival award in France and receives an Oscar nomination, with strange consequences. Vikar repeatedly crosses paths with actress Soledad Palladin and her daughter, Zazi, though ambiguities in his relationship with this enigmatic pair, along with a recurring dream of his, derail this black comedy toward the end. The sudden point-of-view shift and possible supernatural element jar in an otherwise brilliant, often hilarious love song to film. (Nov.)
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About the Author
Stephen Michael Erickson was born in 1950. He lives in Los Angeles. He is a novelist, essayist and critic. His novels escape traditional classifications; no literary category describes them adequately. They are usually placed on the borders of surrealism or magical realism.
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But specifically, the way in which the character Vikar approaches reality and movies is as a complete innocent: he sees horror movies and thinks they are comedies; after watching The Sound of Music, he believes the An Trapps are a re-invention of the Manson family, trailing songs and terror throughout Europe. This narrative choice allows the reader to experience the last four decades of history and movies with completely new eyes, revealing just how odd a place and time America really is.
Vikar's innocence is balanced by his violence (smashing a hippie in the head with a dinner tray because the man mis-identified the Taylor/Clift tatoo on Vikar's head) suggesting, at least to me, the public claims to innocence that the U.S. has historically claimed while it has been engaged in some of the most violent actions of the modern period.
But, again, Zeroville stands up to readings on multiple levels and calls out of multiple readings. It also sheds light back on Erikson's earlier work, suggesting the linked but non-linear continuity of all his works.
If you like movies, punk rock, beautiful narrative prose or just flat out, off-handed weirdness then Zeroville is the perfect drug.
Vikar knows movies. In fact, that's all he knows. He finds his feelings in them, but learns how to communicate with others not through what is said during movies but rather what the people around him say about the movies. That's the thing about Erickson's writing that makes this book so hard to pin down: it's not a book about the movies, it's a book about how we feel about the movies. And in a way, it's a book about how the movies feel about us. Vikar gives his whole life to unspooling a cosmic reel of questions--saying that makes the book sound lofty and sanctimonious, but Erickson brings it down to earth with the grit of Vikar's obsessions, appetites and fears.
Like House of Leaves, I'm still not entirely sure that what I have written about Zeroville is even accurate. But to its credit the book was fun to read, even through its ruminations on God and sacrifice, so that I am ready to revisit this, and soon.
Vikar arrives in Hollywood in the summer of 1969. With Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor tattooed on the sides of his shaved head, Vikar -- still known by the name Ike Jerome -- has an encyclopedic knowledge of movie trivia. He did not come by it easily, given his Calvinist upbringing by a father who did not permit exposure to television, movies, or books other than the Bible. Having abandoned his study of architecture after the model of a church he designed was criticized for having no door, Vikar hopes to get a job in the film industry. He's disappointed to discover that the only person in Hollywood who shares his love and knowledge of movies is a burglar ("a foot soldier in the armed struggle against the white oppressor") who steals his television.
When Vikar later finds a job building sets at a movie studio, he finally meets people who understand movies: a film editor named Dotty who worked on A Place in the Sun, and a screenwriter named Viking Man, who believes "God loves two things and that's the Movies and the Bomb." The novel follows Vikar as he works his way into the film industry, including unwelcome detours to Franco's Spain and Cannes and an unhappy stay in New York, where he's regarded as an avant garde film editor (or an idiot savant) because he says things like "In every false movie is the true movie that must be set free." Since nobody understands his work, he is deemed a genius, both in Hollywood and abroad.
Vikar frequently reminded me of Jerzy Kosinski's Chauncey Gardiner, a seemingly clueless character who hears phrases he doesn't necessarily understand and later repeats them out of context with hilarious results. Vikar's mind is oddly wired. He does not believe in continuity, in movies or in life. He dreams in an ancient language that he doesn't understand. He's obsessed with the biblical story of Isaac. Late in the novel, fueled by his dreams and obsessions, Vikar begins what another character describes as an heroic quest, although it's really more of a lunatic's mission, the culmination of lifelong obsessions.
Zeroville is usually light but sometimes dark, often very funny but occasionally sad, brilliantly daffy but profoundly serious. Children play a role in the novel, as they do in the movies, and how they are treated by their parents is one of the novel's themes. In Vikar's view, God is not kind to children (and neither is the Devil, at least in The Exorcist, a movie Vikar mistakes for a comedy).
Apart from being an opinionated homage to Hollywood, actors, directors, and everyone else associated with film production, Zeroville pokes wicked fun at Hollywood, actors, directors, and everyone else associated with film production. Still, movie lovers should appreciate the nuanced discussions of classic films and the people who made them great. The book convinced me to take a second look (sometimes a first look) at several of the films the characters discuss.
In the end, however, Zeroville takes a provocative look at the influence movies have on our lives and at the unhealthy tendency of fans to worship their stars and creators. It inspires thought about the difference (if any) between illusion and reality, between celluloid characters and the people we know, between the plots we watch on screens and the lives we live. You can learn about life by watching good movies ... and by reading Zeroville.
At the novel’s start, Ike “Vikar” Jerome, a cipher-esque, idiot-savant film fanatic, arrives in Los Angeles during the summer of 1969 and quickly sheds a Philadelphian past to embrace his new home. With a huge tattoo emblazoned on his bald head – of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor from a scene in “A Place in the Sun” – and anger coursing through his body without restraint, Vikar hits the local art houses and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in an effort to discover his own destiny. He visits the famous Roosevelt Hotel, where he searches for the ghosts of D.W. Griffith and Monty Clift himself; gets hauled in by the cops while camping out in the canyons, a suspect in the Manson Family’s horrific Tate-LoBianco murders; talks film theory with a career burglar tied up in Vikar’s new Hollywood pad; and is swept into the drug-addled, free-love, film-obsessed Next Generation auteurs plotting their movie industry revolution from the sandy beaches of Zuma.
Vikar’s story spans a decade, with the very Chance the Gardner-like main character swept through Hollywood, Madrid and Cannes by outside forces who find themselves intrigued and spellbound by his presence. His bizarre physical appearance, his vexing, non-sequitur-heavy dialogue, and his earnest, “I like to watch” approach to the movies attracts figures great and small, famous and infamous. Verisimilitude mixes with literary license as Erickson’s fictional creation Vikar befriends thinly veiled Hollywood luminaries like John Milius, Margot Kidder, Brian DePalma, and even a pre-“Taxi Driver” Bobby DeNiro. The author is coy about some of the real life characters, discreet about others, and blatant as hell about the rest of the filmmaking crowd in his efforts to blur the lines between reality and fantasy, truth and conjecture.
While there is much satisfaction in the guessing game of “what’s that film?” or “who’s that actor/director?” which Erickson offers throughout the book, there is also an abundance of movie references that became tiresome even for me, a fanatical movie freakster. When everyone Vikar encounters knows the difference between a Howard Hawks and a John Ford picture, or identifies themselves as a cineaste with the ability to pontificate for hours on the slightest minutiae of a Bunuel film, the book becomes the literary equivalent of a Tarantino movie. There is storytelling skill, fantastic dialogue and compelling action within, but there is also unfortunately a level of showing off that the author indulges in which strips the novel of its fun and magic.
Those criticisms aside, ZEROVILLE is overall a remarkable novel that attempts to blur the lines between how reality shapes the movies and how the movies shape reality itself. The ideas are potent, the characters are engaging, and the ending manages to be mysterious, inconclusive and completely satisfying all at the same time. A Fade Out worthy of Fellini or Godard’s best.