Even though I had seen a picture of Steve Erickson, with wavy white hair and a stare that says, “Get to the point, bub,” I still caught myself wondering what he would look like. A ray of purple light, a wildebeest, Poseidon, all of these made more sense than reality’s premier contortionist taking the form of a man. I had read his latest novel, Zeroville, in one sitting, only putting it down to sob and hallucinate. When I tell him this, he locks eyes with me, leans back, and with a voice somewhat reminiscent of the cartoon tortoise who reduces Bugs Bunny to tears, says, “Yup.”
Erickson, author of eight novels, film critic for Los Angeles magazine and editor of CalArts’ literary rag, Black Clock, is the last great hope for L.A. to be taken seriously as a city that provokes thought, vision, wonder, whatever. Erickson has just reinvented the Hollywood Novel, a genre until now doomed to relive the cynicism of Day of the Locust forever.
“I don’t even think of Zeroville as a ‘Hollywood novel,’” Erickson says, unassuming and barely audible under the ArcLight sound system, which is blaring Bernard Herrmann from its impossibly high ceilings. “Hollywood novels tend to be about the movie business, and although there’s a bit of that, Zeroville is about loving movies, or being obsessed with movies.”
Zeroville is a book so enamored with film that it reads like one — quick scenes that cut, characters that reappear implausibly, dialogue firmly rooted in place but captured like a dream. Erickson’s books are postmodern in execution, not necessarily in message. For all of their tricks — his time lapses; his miraculous lakes that bubble up from nowhere to submerge Hollywood; and his inclination to suddenly break from the story he’s been telling for hundreds of pages to tell another, unrelated one — his novels are romantic, emotional and unabashedly human.
“In my books, when I do anything that might be regarded by others as experimental, it’s because I think that’s what’s going to serve the story. I hope I create this reality in my books that the reader will feel compelled to give him or herself over to. I’ll do whatever I need to do to create that.”
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Erickson attributes the splintering, amorphous quality of his novels to the radical suburbanization of the 1950s San Fernando Valley, which he witnessed as a child growing up in Granada Hills, a ranching town converted to another swimming-pooled arm of Los Angeles. “My walks to school would almost seem to change around me,” Erickson remembers, “from a grove of eucalyptus trees to another tract neighborhood.”
It’s easy to imagine a bed-headed Erickson miniature, dragging his heels to school, dreamily regarding a shopping center that hadn’t been there the night before. By the time he was in high school, Granada Hills High was the second largest in the country. “The neighborhood I grew up in literally was born, lived and died within the span of my childhood, and it was only much later, once I got some perspective on it, that I realized how this constant transformation of the landscape probably found its way into my work and defined my sense of the city.
“I think that L.A., or to be precise, Hollywood, promises everybody that they can write their own mythology. Nothing is imposed upon people. The advantage to L.A., if you kind of know what you want to do, it allows you to do it. It gets out of the way. I think the disadvantage for people who have no idea what they want to do is that L.A. can make you crazy. But it leaves everybody to their own devices or to their own fantasies. It encourages the individual fantasy instead of this overriding civic fantasy.” He says this, then vanishes in a ray of purple light.
The campaign issue of Black Clock, featuring political allegory, subversive satire and secret presidential histories, is out this month.