Less than zero | Bleader

Less than zero

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This isn't Alphaville, this is Zeroville! —private eye Lemmy Caution, as quoted in Steve Erickson's Zeroville

Which is pretty much where I've been the last couple months myself—disabled, mostly movieless—but when you can't score the hard stuff, the raw rush of celluloid, then arguably you go looking for surrogates. Like novels about films and filmgoing, that reproduce the cinematic mentalite, the cloistered sensation of sitting and staring in the dark. Not the sort of thing I'd normally care to indulge—since movies and novels work from opposite ends of the brain, deliver different kinds of frissons, one imagistic and spatial, open to interpretive whim, the other more conceptually prepackaged—but it's an emergency, so what the hell . . .

Steve Erickson, longtime SF/fantasy novelist and film writer, is fond of the big alpha-omega statement, the kind of expansive, universalizing claim—"The movie is in all times, and all times are in the movie. . . . All scenes anticipate and reflect each other," etc—that evaporates on inspection, and in Zeroville (Europa, 2007), his eighth long work of fiction, he's frequently on the verge of swallowing his own rhetorical tail. Not that there's anything wrong with that necessarily—e.g., Wittgenstein's devilishly deadpan "The world is everything that is the case" comes as near to saying nothing as saying something can ever get—and Don DeLillo follows a similar strategy in his '82 novel The Names (his masterpiece, I think), where words rather than films hold the arcane secrets of universe. But DeLillo convinces through the effects he achieves, his claims the product of the writing, not a starting point for it. Language, history, movies, economics, Jesus—change the metaphor and it's a party game anyone can play. But whether there's anything solid behind the rhetorical bluff and patter—an Archimedean point of rest, a lever and a place to stand—is another matter entirely.

There's also the problem of Erickson's auteurist preferences, which will only seem fresh and provocative if you haven't read much film criticism (specifically the Sarris-induced kind) in the past 40 years or so. Long, familiar riffs on Now, Voyager's talismanic cancer sticks, or on Hawks's Red River and Ford's The Searchers, with worshipful nods to the 40s hucksters and studio studs who dared redefine "masculine" sociopathy as aaarrtt (shades of Veit Harlan—or of Soviet-era class-revenge fantasies, with tractors running to fists, etc): we know what that's about, even with thieves and ex-theology students as duly authorized spokesmen. Not to mention the meticulous, shot-by-shot analysis of Stevens's A Place in the Sun, less the immortal object of Erickson's retelling than a lugubrious monstre sacre, which arguably sets its mark on film posterity in all the wrong ways (x shot = y emotion, everything overdetermined and literal, etc). Just a nominal voice of protest amid the fan-boy flights, from Zazi, Zeroville's least articulate character, but in Erickson's cinematic heart of hearts, it's Viking Man's megalomania that gets the best lines.

More successful as emergency cinema substitute is Stephen Graham Jones's Demon Theory (MacAdam Cage, 2006), which masquerades as a trilogy of screenplays (with continuity arrows, abbreviational markers, and other expendable chaff) while paying deconstructive homage to the Wes Craven brand of schlock commercial horror. Not that I've much stomach for this sort of thing, but the intensity finally gets to you—the flayings, guttings, and gougings, the decapitations and mutilations, with endless limbs wrenched from disobliging sockets, etc. Like a trip to an animal rendering plant or a pathological cut-and-paste weekend with Marina de Van. ("In my skin"?—more like under and out of it.) And if all the characters are unapologetically pasteboard—love, terror, honor, pain, stoicism, endurance . . . so what else you got for me?—then even pasteboard has its uses, if only as neutral aesthetic foil to the baroquely proliferating grue. Which somehow puts me in mind of A.O. Lovejoy's great chain of being (or maybe in this case nonbeing), the way every imaginable existential gap is filled to bursting, with bodies and beasties and physical mutations that drip, pustulate, and ooze. Medieval horror vacui in action!

Not to ignore the "scholarly" apparatus at the end, with hundreds of free-associating footnotes that beg to be read as a kind of parallel text. If Erickson loves le cinema, what then to make of Graham Jones's more visceral attachments? Just about every exploitation movie of the last 20 years makes a cameo appearance here. But whoever Demon Theory's editor was, I wish he/she'd caught more of the typos. A maverick commitment like this deserves something better.

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