By Steve Erickson
Europa. 329 pp. Paperback, $14.95
My first encounter with Steve Erickson was Arc d'X, which I devoured in 1993 while fatigued and feverish and bedridden. In that context, it became one of the great reading experiences of my life, virtually phantasmagoric. But I don't know if Arc d'X would have seemed any less hallucinogenic under normal conditions. Over his entire career Erickson has challenged readers with a fiercely intelligent and surprisingly sensual brand of American surrealism that can, at times, seem impenetrable.
For this reason, it surprised me that almost everything in Erickson's new novel Zeroville entertains so readily without seeming watered down or slight. Zeroville is funny, sad and darkly beautiful, built around short chapters that allow the author to capture the essential moment and move effortlessly through time.
Set primarily in the 1970s and '80s in Los Angeles, Zeroville features an ex-divinity student named Vikar, a punk in the age of hippies who on his shaved head has a tattoo of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor from the movie "A Place in the Sun." Damaged, violent and probably slightly autistic, Vikar arrives in Hollywood to pursue his devotion to the movies. He soon finds work building sets on a studio lot, meets a renowned editor and gets a few editing jobs. He becomes famous when he re-cuts a movie in New York City that has a controversial debut at the Cannes Film Festival.
As with everything that happens to Vikar, he stumbles into the good and the bad with equal indifference. He is always looking ahead to some glowing theater screen in the distance, and nothing in his immediate field of vision carries any weight.
That single-minded devotion, the way it creates a counterpoint in Vikar's interactions with other characters, is often hilarious. I can't recall having laughed out loud so much reading a novel. Vikar is a bit like Chance from Jerzy Kosinski's Being There, with touches of Voltaire's Candide, which leads to some outstanding set pieces. After Vikar surprises a thief in his apartment, knocks him out and ties him to a chair, they wind up having a long conversation about film while watching bad movies on TV. When Vikar goes to Madrid for an editing gig, he is kidnapped by revolutionaries and forced to splice together porn scenes and other footage to create a propaganda film. When he visits France for the release of his experimental film, he attends a press conference that goes hideously wrong.
These scenes aren't just funny -- they exhibit a curious combination of satire and depth, in part because Vikar, despite his limited emotional range (or because of it?), may be Erickson's most likable character. Whether he is calmly ranting at the Cannes reporters, having a private conversation with a prostitute or reliving childhood memories that suggest the movies might literally have saved him, Vikar's devotion to film lends him an integrity that puts him above the fray, making him untouchable.
The novel is just as steeped in films and film lore as its main character. Subtle cameos by a young Robert De Niro and other stars are skillfully handled, while Erickson does a nuanced job of depicting both genuine artistic impulse and all that corrupts it. Best of all, Erickson mixes high art and low pulp throughout Zeroville. "Emmanuelle 7," for example, is as likely to be mentioned as "The Long Goodbye," which are equals in Vikar's eyes.
However, Erickson isn't content with this wonderful exploration of character and place. The hyper-surreal elements of his prior novels gradually infiltrate Zeroville. Vikar's random encounters with a woman named Soledad, who may be the daughter of Spanish filmmaker Luis Bu¿uel, take on a cryptic significance. A search for a lost film suddenly becomes important, evoking comparisons to Theodore Roszak's cult-classic novel Flicker. Ghosts appear, real or imaginary. A recurring refrain throughout the novel, "God hates children," takes on more than symbolic weight. Finally, a shift in perspective occurs, with Erickson intentionally violating the internal logic of his own structure.
By the end of Zeroville, then, I was back in bed in 1993, reading Arc d'X and not "getting" all of it -- my heart more convinced than my head -- but blissfully happy nonetheless. Zeroville is that kind of novel. You want Vikar to have his peace, and you want Erickson to have his ending, because Vikar always acts according to his nature, regardless of the hand of God or author. ¿
--Jeff VanderMeer , a novelist living in Tallahassee, Fla., is currently a guest editor for Best American Fantasy.