Zeroville by Steve Erickson

He came to Los Angeles as a Traveler hurtling though space toward infinity, vestiges of childhood falling away like dimensions.

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Edition: Europa Editions, 2007, 329 pages.

Set in 70s Los Angeles, Zeroville follows Vikar, a young and inexperienced man with violent tendencies, who’s obsessed with movies and has a tattoo of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor from the 1951 movie A Place in the Sun on his shaved head.

He comes to Hollywood in 1969 to be surrounded by people, who are as passionate about movies as he is, but pretty soon becomes frustrated realising that most people he meets in L.A. don’t know or care that much about movies, and instead seem to be more interested in the new music scene and indulging in different forms of experimentation.

The novel explores and, to some extent, also critiques the transformations that took place in the Hollywood film industry during the decline of the studio system and the rise of young, radical filmmakers, the so-called “New Hollywood”, by showing how some film industry veterans with significant experience and knowledge were under-appreciated and pushed out of the industry because of Hollywood’s increasing obsession with youth culture.

The novel also explores the beginnings of the punk rock movement. Even Vikar is unwittingly drawn to the raw sound of early punk rock, admitting, for example, that he likes “that song about the dog” referring, of course, to I Wanna Be Your Dog by The Stooges.

Vikar is a fascinating character, and there’s a terrifying intensity about his passion for movies. One of the characters even describes him as “cineautistic” because of his unique view of the world that seems to be shaped and influenced by the movies that he has watched.

The novel is a surreal, funny, and, at some points, disorienting love letter to film that suggests that movies transcend time and articulate our collective experiences and dreams long after the people, who made them, are gone. It’s interesting how the novel plays with the idea of time as a loop or, more appropriately, as a reel. Vikar believes that a movie exists in all time and all times exist in a movie, and later on in the book he makes a bizarre discovery that to some extent confirms this idea and connects all the movies that have ever been made.

The novel is split into hundreds of short chapters that mimic the way a film is cut and put together in the process of editing. For example, a sentence would suddenly break off and then continue on in the next chapter, like a jump cut, or a new chapter would indicate a smooth cross-dissolve transition to a different setting or scene.

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Edition: published by Bloomsbury Publishing, 1999, 506 pages.

A great companion book to Zeroville is Peter Biskind’s non-fiction book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls that provides a great overview of that transitional period in the Hollywood film industry and definitely helps to recognise and understand many of the references to movies, actors, and directors that are included in this novel.

I think that the more you know about this time period, the more you will enjoy this book. This is definitely one of my top reads of the year, maybe even one of my favourite books of all time.

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