First published in 2007; published digitally by Open Road Media on April 30, 2013
Steve Erickson's 2007 novel begins with 227 consecutively numbered chapters, followed by 226 chapters that are numbered like a countdown, from 226 to 0. Talk about a story arc! Apart from its unusual structure, Zeroville isn't quite like any other novel I've read. As one of the characters remarks near the novel's end, "What you thought you knew all along turns out to be something else." That's a fitting description of the story.
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 Cannes and Franco's Spain 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 something about life by watching good movies ... and by reading Zeroville.