“The last time he was in the United States,” begins a sentence in Steve Erickson’s 1993 Arc d’X, “driving aimlessly through Wyoming and the Dakotas for the purpose of being aimless, he heard the news of the Cataclysm the same way he heard all the news that year, on the car radio.” The nub of Erickson’s fiction, the physical and metaphysical essence, is in that line.
Since 1985, with his first novel, Days Between Stations, and now with Zeroville, his eighth–and best–novel, Erickson has been a singular voice in American fiction, for my money our most imaginative native novelist. The praise he’s received–“visionary,” “a dealer in myths,” “mind-warping,” “almost violently individual”–while perfectly accurate, may also have led some readers to assume that Erickson is too wild for them, that his books don’t offer the pleasures of character and narrative that are still the main reason people read novels.
There’s no denying the hallucinatory nature of Erickson’s novels. But even when they spiral off into the strangest territory, they always make emotional sense (you could say the same of “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “Visions of Johanna”). Look at that description of the drive from Arc d’X, the sense it conveys of the everyday suddenly invaded by bad news that travels like a rumor or a secret, by word of mouth or radio waves. No matter how much of that news we hear in Erickson’s books, we can never make total sense of the story it’s telling, even though the dread it imparts has been lurking there all along.
We’re not told how Los Angeles is taken over by water (Rubicon Beach, Our Ecstatic Days) or by the desert (Days Between Stations). And that’s why the novels deserve that overworked appellation “dreamlike”–because they present the most fantastic things matter-of-factly, without explanation. We find ourselves having to cope with a situation that’s both concrete and inexplicable. “He woke nine years later remembering nothing,” begins one passage in Days Between Stations. “It wasn’t so much that he couldn’t remember, but rather as though it was gone, his life before that morning.”
But the feeling of being adrift in vast physical spaces touches something familiar in the back of our minds, and I think it’s what makes Erickson a quintessentially American novelist. The scale of his dreamscapes–water and sand swallowing entire cities; a train journey covering an area so immense that there are literally days between stations–are fantastical versions of American vastness. As with the vistas Edward Hopper painted, Erickson creates spaces that are both empty and haunted, spaces that threaten to swallow their inhabitants. For Erickson’s characters, trying to live in these spaces is a way of both declaring their presence and accepting anonymity. And so they’re constantly prey to an anxious spiritual homelessness, caught by the inchoate mix of both promise and doom in America’s wide open spaces.
Vikar, the protagonist of Zeroville, finds the home that has eluded Erickson’s other characters. Zeroville takes place largely in the Los Angeles of the “new Hollywood,” the renaissance in American film that came together in the late ’60s, flowered in the ’70s and expired in the ’80s. Vikar, arriving in Los Angeles as a besotted fan in 1969, steps off the Greyhound and winds up working in the movies, first on sets and then as a whiz-kid editor. His story might almost be a parody of the fan-mag fluff about the wide-eyed hopefuls who bus to town, certain that stardom is waiting for them.
But the real setting of Zeroville is the movies. Not just individual movies, like The Bicycle Thief or I’m Not There or Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. But the place that can encompass all of them, as if they’ve always existed in the same time–the ones we haven’t seen as well as the ones yet to be made. In Zeroville all those movies are bits of one larger movie, as Jean-Pierre Leaud says in Masculin Feminin, “the film we dreamed, the film we all carried in our hearts; the film we wanted to make and secretly wanted to live.” This is a novel about how anyone who immerses himself in movies comes to the sad, and perhaps thrilling, realization that the “we” in those lines is eventually replaced by an “I”–which is to say, it’s about what happens when the idea of movies as communal experience gives way to the idea of movies as private obsession.
For Erickson, a writer who understands obsession, a novel about the movies is a natural progression. (Erickson is a longtime film critic, currently for Los Angeles magazine.) Private obsession seems a mild way of describing how movies function for Vikar. They make sense to him in a way that the world doesn’t. When Vikar hears that Patty Hearst has been kidnapped, he can’t figure out whether it’s because her kidnappers think that Citizen Kane is a very good movie or a very bad one. When he rescues a woman from being raped in a cemetery by smashing her assailant’s head into Jayne Mansfield’s gravestone, he’s more concerned about removing the blood from the monument than about the man he’s beaten. News of the Manson family’s arrest reminds Vikar of The Sound of Music, another story about a singing family pursued by the authorities.
It’s not hard to see why the movies seem more real than real life to him. Vikar grew up the son of a religious fanatic in eastern Pennsylvania, and his strongest childhood memory is of his father coming into his room one night and explaining that God’s “one hour of weakness for which He has spent eternity paying” was staying Abraham’s hand from killing Isaac, thus preventing Abraham from proving his perfect devotion to Him. “Children,” his father says, “are the manifestation of the sin that soiled the world with pleasure’s seed.”
Vikar goes to divinity school and ends up leaving at the age of 20 to revere other icons in more pleasurable houses of worship. He’s transfixed by sights like “a beautiful nude woman painted entirely gold,” stories like the one about a private eye in love with a blonde who’s haunted by memories of her past life. But the graven image that wins his idolatry is the enormous close-up of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor kissing in A Place in the Sun. Vikar shaves his head and has the image tattooed there, “she the female version of him, and he the male version of her.”
Vikar, though, is far from being one of the zombies who slog their way through that overrated “classic” The Day of the Locust, and Erickson has none of Nathanael West’s easy contempt. Erickson depicts Vikar as the most recognizable of oddballs, kin to anyone who has ever experienced just how easy it is to become immersed in the movies. He is the least worldly character in the novel, and yet he’s not much more obsessed than everyone else who has let the movies enter into their dreams.
There’s deadpan humor in the way Vikar finds himself working in the very place that has formed his inner life. He can’t understand why no one is impressed when he tells them that he has worked on films directed by Otto Preminger and Vincente Minnelli. Those directors are on their last legs in the new Hollywood. But Vikar finds a group that’s as besotted with the movies as he is. He meets the aspiring writer-director John Milius, here called Viking Man, who lives in Malibu among an extended group who talk movies endlessly and plan on being the next generation to make them, Paul Schrader, Brian De Palma and Robert DeNiro, among others. They say things like “Angie Dickinson is the modern incarnation of the quintessential Hawks woman,” which is exactly right but also the kind of funny/pompous pronouncement that young men in love with movies always make.
It would have been impossible for Erickson to write about the New Hollywood that came into existence in the late ’60s and early ’70s without noting the close connections between many of the figures: Coppola, De Palma, Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg, Milius, Schrader. Erickson gets at the elation these filmmakers felt as they seized the chance to honor the past they revered and build on it. And he captures the sadness of this community’s fragmentation. Speaking to Vikar in the ’80s–after Michael Cimino’s appalling Heaven’s Gate has brought down United Artists, the studio most friendly to filmmakers; when two of the group’s compatriots, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (a sometimes great director), have achieved the kind of success that will all but finish personal filmmaking in Hollywood; when his own dreams of being the next John Ford have been reduced to the likes of Conan the Barbarian–Viking Man delivers an elegy for the New Hollywood. “Fantasy heroes… Comic-book characters! That’s the movies now in a scrotum sac–glorified afternoon-serials and cute little robots…once we all thought we were going to make grand movies…. But then George and Steven fucked it up, and it’s not that they’ve made bad movies, you could almost wrap your mind around that. It’s that they’ve made really good versions of bad movies.”
But Erickson, whose antennae have long been tuned to the zeitgeist of the day after tomorrow, is too idiosyncratic a writer to be content with an elegy. The daring of the book is bubbling under the surface in the suggestion that the fragmentation that has taken over movies–the dissolution of movies themselves into barely coherent spectacle; the fragmentation of the mass audience; the advent of home viewing, which allows us to choose from a range of pictures unavailable to previous generations of moviegoers while drastically reducing the number of movies actually playing in theaters; the technology to watch movies in any way we wish, out of order, a few scenes at a time, the same scene, even the same moment, over and over again–is not the destruction of movies but their realization, the flowering of the personal obsessiveness they’ve always encouraged.
Throughout the novel, as she grows from toddler to teen punk, a young woman named Zazi (though missing the “e,” the name is an homage to the heroine of Raymond Queneau’s novel Zazie dans le metro and Louis Malle’s anarchic film version) keeps crossing Vikar’s path, and he keeps providing shelter and care–as if life periodically afforded him the opportunity to play John Wayne in The Searchers. In the book’s most painful scene, Vikar takes Zazi to see his beloved A Place in the Sun, and she and the rest of the young audience laugh at it, laugh at that raw, unprotected erotic moment when Taylor cradles Clift’s head, just as she’d cradle that beautiful ruined face a few years later, and says, “Tell Mama. Tell Mama all.” Who hasn’t had a moment like that, a moment of seeing something you love mocked, an experience you treasure defiled?
The heart of Zeroville is when Zazi sees George Stevens’s film again, by herself, on television, and delivers to Vikar a monologue that’s one of the truest things I know about watching movies:
Movies are supposed to be watched with other people, aren’t they? Isn’t that part of the point of movies–you know, one of those social ritual things, with everyone watching?… Five hundred or a thousand people or however many it is in a theater–what are they going to do with a movie like that? There’s too much common sense floating around the room, and what you have to do with a movie like that is give up your common sense, which is easier to do when it’s just you alone. It just seems…radical, any movie that, like, demands your privacy, because it’s, you know…a movie like that makes common sense completely beside the point, and you’re one on one with it, in the living room by yourself rather than the theater with all those people, and watching it is like being naked and you can’t be naked like that with strangers, you can’t even stand the idea of it, and you know that after you’re finished with it, much more with a movie like that than any stupid horror flick, some deep dark shit is going to be waiting at the bottom of the stairs…so I just couldn’t sleep. That movie’s like a ghost. Watch it alone and you become the thing or person it haunts. Last night, the movie became mine and no one else’s. Not even yours, Vikar.
And so, Erickson is saying, a popular art form that birthed our communal fantasies and allowed us to realize dreams we didn’t know we had, a multibillion-dollar medium pitched at a mass audience, is actually the most intensely private of pursuits.
That’s why the job Vikar eventually lands as a film editor, reworking a mystery film that has been abandoned by the director and turning it inside out so that the foreground becomes the background, is merely an extension of the connections he’s making in his head. Vikar imagines Natalie Wood’s Deanie going mad in the bathtub in Splendor in the Grass turning up as the wife who kills herself in the bath in Last Tango in Paris. He sees Tuesday Weld as the bewitching and terrifying teenage psychotic in Pretty Poison and reckons that it makes sense that she lost the lead in Rosemary’s Baby. “Who,” Vikar wonders, “would believe the Devil ravished this girl when everything about this girl gave every indication of having ravished the Devil?”
And it’s why, in the touch of the fantastic that Erickson loves, it makes perfect sense when Vikar discovers that the same frame exists in each of the movies that have affected him most. He finds it in an original print of the 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc, the cruelest and most unbearable of great movies (I scarcely know one anyone who, having seen it, can stand to see it again), and in Taxi Driver (1976) and Vertigo (1958) and In a Lonely Place (1950) and the movie from which the novel takes its name, Alphaville (1965). The image is the one that has been in the dream Vikar has had after nearly every movie he’s seen, but it exists in movies made before he was seeing movies, in movies made before he was even born. It’s as if his dreams have burned the image into the films, as if, instead of making him dream, he has made the movies dream.
That conceit is too poetic, too strange, too frightening and wonderful to reduce by explanation. But couldn’t it stand for the way we, the viewer, the reader, the listener, complete a work of art? Couldn’t it suggest that the moments that affect us most deeply in movies have very little to do with accepted notions of greatness or pantheons? I can’t explain that a shot of Eva Mendes in We Own the Night, sitting on Joaquin Phoenix’s lap as he plays poker, contains more of why I go to the movies than most performances that win wide acclaim. Nor why, in the midst of the dreck of Airport, Maureen Stapleton and Van Heflin as a middle-class couple trying desperately to stay afloat spoke to my childhood fears more directly than any movie did–until, years later, as an adult, I saw Vittorio de Sica’s Umberto D. What Erickson is celebrating here isn’t any sort of pantheon (Vikar finds his dream frame in both great films and dreck) but the ability of movies to plug right into our deepest fears and raptures.
Divided we dream.