20 February 2008

Van Gogh and the movies

People who say that all of the great books have already been written are just not paying attention. I picked up Steve Erickson's Zeroville having never read anything of his before and with very little idea of what it was about. The Josef von Sternberg line that serves as the epigraph ("I believe that cinema was here from the beginning of the world") isn't merely some cute quotation, but an encapsulation of one of the novel's (many) themes and something the reader should seriously consider after finishing the book.

I'll leave the real reviews of this engaging and complex work to the real reviewers and instead focus on one element that caught my attention. Vikar is an ex-divinity student who wound up studying architecture. The presentation of his final project doesn't go as well as hoped:
In fact the committee chairman's fury had nothing to do with the lion or axe but with the fact that the small model church had no door. "There's no way in!" the chairman thundered, and even as the years passed, by the time Vikar got to Los Angeles he couldn't be sure whether leaving out the door had been inadvertent: "I believe," Vikar had answered in all innocence, "it's more that there's no way out."
The allusion to Van Gogh and his doorless Church at Auvers (painted in the last year of his life) is striking. His letters to Theo help explain his intent (as I sheepishly quote this):
The foreground of The Church at Auvers is brightly lit by the sun, but the church itself sits in its own shadow, and "neither reflects nor emanates any light of its own." After Van Gogh had been dismissed from the evangelical career he had hoped to continue in the Borinage, he wrote to his brother Theo from Cuesmes in July 1880, and quoted Shakespeare's image from Henry IV, Part 1 ("And I have not forgotten what the inside of a church is made of, I am a peppercorn, a brewer’s horse: the inside of a church!" — Act 3, Scene iii) of the dark emptiness inside a church to symbolize "empty and unenlightened preaching": "Their God is like the God of Shakespeare's drunken Falstaff, 'the inside of a church.'"
(It's interesting that this Wikipedia entry uses Kathleen Powers Erickson's book, At Eternity's Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent van Gogh as a source. She's probably no relation...but it's interesting.)

I found it especially telling that Soledad (which means "loneliness" or "solitude" in Spanish) smashes the structure by hurling it against a hotel wall, also destroying the certain object Vikar had placed inside (at the altar).

At the point where Erickson writes, "Vikar doesn't know it, but everything now has been reset to zero", we begin to go backwards. The previous section gives him "visions of smashing Soledad in the face with a Coke bottle" and his perceptions have now been inverted. He has come full circle, and his views of Solitude and the movies will no longer be the same.

By the time I reached the ending (a type of this event also occurs in Gene Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus, but with much more impact here), I could do nothing but breathlessly close the book and sit thinking...and thinking...

Dissertations could be written about this novel.

Much more (and better) information can be found in Bookslut's interview with Steve Erickson, as well as his recent appearance on The Bat Segundo Show. There are also many more links to other articles and interviews on his site.


Anonymous said...

Some of the elements you bring up here remind me of The Recognitions. Hmmm. I might have to dust Zeroville off and check it out.


amcorrea said...

Thank you for giving me yet one more reason to read The Recognitions...

I didn't quite know what to expect with Zeroville. Part of me suspected litblogger groupthink in the recommendations I was reading--but I really should know better than that by now.

The subtle clues and references to films and important figures in cinematic history were fun to read, but it's the story's structure and its thematic elements that were intriguing to me. It's "intellectual" and highly readable at once.

I look forward to hearing what you think whenever you get around to reading it.

Strategy Node said...

I stayed up until 1 a.m. last night finishing "Zeroville." Two concepts which struck me the most were, one, that God hates children, and two, that the doorless church is to keep you in, not out.

Having grown up in a staunchly Mormon family, even serving a two year mission for my church - at my expense - I especially resonate with these concepts. In all of the religious studying I have done, it has never occurred me that it is always the children that suffer. Isaac at the hand of Abraham, Pharaoh in Egypt's own son and the sons he sent his soldiers to murder, God sending his own son to suffer, and so on. In word, who can possibly believe in a god who demands a father murder his own child.

When someone is raised in a particular religion, told repeatedly that it is the only true church (as was my case in Mormonism) , it is almost impossible to get out. Not the organization per se, although that is challenging because they just don't want to let you go, but the idea of God, Heaven and Hell, the years and years of brainwashing that has been drilled into your head since childhood. It takes a long time for the guilt to go away. Not the guilt that now you are doing things that we strictly forbidden by the organization, but the guilt of wondering if you were wrong to leave that organization, if it were right after all. If you have turned your back on god. It's the notion and existence of god that is hard to get out of.