Books discussed in this essay:
• Aureole Carole Maso. City Lights. 136pp, $12.95.
• Zeroville Steve Erickson. Europa Editions. 380pp, $14.95.
• Michael Martone by Michael Martone Michael Martone. FC2. 186pp, $15.95.
Part 1 of this two-part essay can be found here.
Yet though Carole Maso intends a drama of private discovery, in Aureole, the book’s by no means indifferent to the larger world. As stories cohere into narrative, the catalytic element is what the cosmopolite protagonists might call the Leibe-Bildungs-roman: the love-formation-novel. In the opener girls meet during a student year abroad: “They’re so young they haven’t become anything.” Subsequently, the encounters enact their becoming, a growth that leaves behind occasional victims like the tormented priest. The extremes of lovemaking, the S&M, amount to a necessary risk, a testing of passion’s limits. Also the coming of age doesn’t neglect the ordinary. Problems of family and economics cast their shadow over the hothouse, the crucial example coming just after the great “Anjou Flying Streamers After.”
At that point, where a conventional novel would have its climax, there’s an untitled two-page insert in long paragraphs and italics—a unique format for this book, as is the perspective, first-person for once. Here a college-age Punjabi girl relates how she changed her life, getting free of her oppressive birthplace, after she met a white woman walking along the Ganges. The seminal meeting at water’s edge reprises others in Aureole, and it seems to result in another transgressive affair. But if so (the passage makes no explicit reference), the sex comes much later, in America, by which time the whole point of the exile’s brief tale is her desire to return. In our leaving is our return, just as, when this girl had her long-ago vision, the light hair of the wandering “Princess” made her seem at first very old.
Martone’s Martone, as you might imagine, comes across as considerably more lighthearted. The book pretends to be a collection of third-person “Contributor’s Notes,” such as appear in literary journals (many did, according to the actual Acknowledgements). Each begins with the same humble birth notice—”in Fort Wayne, Indiana”—and thereafter most stray far from what you’d call real life. A minute on Google will turn up the facts (Martone studied under Barth, at Johns Hopkins), but one stand-in has a career in earthmoving, and another runs through multiple wives before returning to his “ancestral home” outside Naples. Most Notes unspool over two or three pages, the prose unbroken, the detail well beyond publishing credentials: “at the age of nineteen years, four months, three days, twenty-two minutes, and an indeterminate number of seconds old he first experienced sexual intercourse.”
Three entries do have different titles, and one of these, like Maso’s odd-woman-out, comes at more or less the climax point (the 35th entry out of 44). But the variants wink at differences. Titled “Vita” or “About the Author,” they have the same substance as the others. Each has a loose coherence, clustering related details and incidents. The Contributor moves via associative leaps, as if via hyperlink. Unlike web pages, though, nearly all those in Martone/Martone move from youth to maturity.
So the Note that features his deflowering also speaks of a time when, as a child, he surprised his mother and father in the act. That isn’t the narrator’s own recollection, however. Martone’s mother tells him, after she herself has stumbled upon her 19-year-old and a girlfriend. Mama savors the irony, too. She’s by no means springing the kind of terrible secret that, in the common run of novel, would change everything. What changes everything, perhaps invests it with meaning, is the passage of time. The mother’s jovial recollection first carries the action of the Note closer to the present and then prompts its conclusion, when the adult writer visits his mother’s corpse, in the funeral home. There he catches an employee in a different form of flagrante delicto, “furtively applying rouge to his mother’s bloodless cheek.”
The episode’s final irony delivers the chill from which no irony can distract us. A substantial majority of the Notes work towards the same, the mother’s death. Her bony finger taps even the romantic picaresque that winds up in Italy, the last sentence of which enters a dead city, an “Etruscan dig.” Yet the pervading affect remains anything but gloomy. Nor could it be further from Maso’s, hot and bothered. Martone/Martone prefers to play Hamlet with Yorick’s skull. The novel concludes in a surrogate graveyard, the Contributors page of a magazine gone defunct, and there too sustains the tension between Joker and Reaper. The names and credits seem “like a party,” but a number are already lost to oblivion, “a fossil record of some life’s life-story.”
The syntactical stumble, the redundancy, eases the scare of “fossil record.” Similar corruptions riddle the depictions of Fort Wayne and its arcana (Martone has always turned such stuff to use, fond yet clever, starting with Alive and Dead in Indiana, in ’84). The Note concerning a local cartoon show gets off poker-faced jokes, but ends in “a kind of immortality,” the TV station’s archives. Not that the Contributor himself can enter this Paradise—where he lives, it’s “impossible to see.”
An identifying trait for postmodern art would be its subversion of “metanarrative.” That last word applies to the great majority of novels since Samuel Richardson, in 1758, launched the form’s halcyon moment with Pamela. That book’s metanarrative makes Pamela correspondent with her status group, her times; if she can keep her virtue then so may her society. Tom Wolfe’s metanarrative, his Beast, would be much the same–but he never questioned his central assumption. He never doubts that a novelist can know just what his life and times are up to. Martone’s Martone, in large part because it’s loaded with Americana, raises the question. It’s a clown-wagon, and every painted face against the windows presents an unsettling doppleganger. Which history can we trust? If Aureole harks back to an audience with the Goddess, Martone/Martone recalls meeting the Sphinx.
* * *
Zeroville’s defining mythic encounter would be with Teiresias, the blind hermaphrodite who tells your destiny. In these rough terms, the search for self-knowledge, the novel easily fits my defense of younger American postmodernists. But Steve Erickson sets up his own allusive framework. He reaches back to Genesis at its most intimate and terrifying: the sacrifice of Isaac.
The allegory received no mention in the Times review, nor in all but one of the others I read. Yet it’s everywhere, even in a horror-show flashback to the childhood of Zeroville‘s protagonists. Still, this novel dwells no more on family scars than Martone/Martone. Mostly it hurtles forward, following the improbable Hollywood career of its central naïf/savant, the seminary dropout Ike. Ike arrives so clueless about anything beyond his Bible training and a few classic movies that he falls briefly under suspicion for the Manson murders. Over the next decade-plus, however, with the luck of the innocent and the focus of the insane, he rises and falls as Vikar, the only industry player to ride the bus and avoid talking on the phone—as well as the legend behind a one-hit-wonder called Your Pale Blue Eyes. It’s a classic plot parabola, from Best Boy to Auteur to Zero, but it’s never bristled with so many references to Abraham and Isaac. Not for nothing does the protagonist prefer to get away from his full given name. He sees the Genesis episode especially in the movies, and nine times out of ten, no angel appears to spare the child. To Vikar, Chinatown reveals that “God has seeped into Los Angeles . . ., and found His instruments there by which to sacrifice his children.”
Such strong material seems to suggest that Zeroville doesn’t belong in this essay. The last third of the book actually features a damsel in distress, a vulnerable teenager, and delivers no surrogate climax. As you read, you’re never required to fill in wide gaps, as in Aureole, or to return repeatedly to Square One, as in Martone/Martone. Erickson, in fact, has distanced himself from novels like those. “I hear the word ‘experiment,’” he told a Bookslut interviewer, “and I reach for my revolver.” Also, as I’ve noted, Zeroville hardly went unnoticed. I applaud, too, Christopher Sorrentino’s thoughtful reading for the L.A. Times. Still, when your most powerful friend, your New York friend, describes the work as “simply impossible to explain”—who needs enemies? That is, what frustrates me goes beyond problems of degree (too many, too often . . .) to what smacks of dumbing-down, refusing to grapple with how an author freshens his or her form, and takes the experience to new vulnerability. Note, in sorry particular, how dismissively Schillinger characterizes Erickson’s oeuvre: “likes to mess with reader’s heads.”
Let me say, more usefully, that I’d pick Tours of the Black Clock (1989) as the greatest of his nine previous efforts, and that this messing with heads takes a specific form, that of a familiar world turned perverse. LA often serves as the turf, but whatever the setting, it’s either blasted by apocalypse (Our Ecstatic Days, ’91, drowned much of his hometown), off in an alternative history, or both. The strangeness owes something to a rhetoric that indulges the lurid coloration of Raymond Chandler and the noir tradition. Erickson’s poetics go further, though, veering into snarls and psalms. Till this novel, plots tended to veer as well, highly discontinuous. Tours for instance leapt from Hitler’s screening room to tundra swarming with silver buffalo. Not for nothing did it make an L.A. Times list, published in ’09, of “61 Essential Postmodern Reads.” So Zeroville deserves to be understood not just as some vague “best,” but—while keeping a weather eye on the author’s firearm—as an experiment.
Erickson perverts more than the setting, in his latest. Its title derives from Alphaville (the text itself supplies the citation, another device straight out of the postmodern playbook), and just as Goddard warped the detective story, so Zeroville plays havoc with two respected modes of narrative. He tweaks the historical drama and the parabola of rise and fall.
The history here is a Golden Age for cineastes like Erickson, a movie reviewer since Vikar’s era. It’s the ’70s, Hollywood’s celebrated “Decade Under the Influence,” and Zeroville not only awards Scorsese a flitting cameo, but also includes just about all the period’s movers and shakers. You could put the research up against anything in Tom Wolfe. One detail that helps establish Vikar’s character comes when he notices a reticent young actor studying him intently, then thinks ahead to this man’s performance, a few years later, “in a movie about a cab driver who goes crazy.” The moment zips by so fast, and massages such a worn cultural touchstone, that you don’t notice its disjunctive nature. Erickson jumps out of his sequential chronology while also knitting together imaginative worlds (Taxi Driver and the novel in hand) and real (DeNiro in the flesh, you in the theater). Crucial to this trick is the point of view, which till the book’s last pages is in close third person. Close, that is, to a more sympathetic Travis Bickle. Early on, Vikar is described as “cinéautistic,” and the coinage works.
The protagonist’s psychology, barely functional, drew a lot of comment in the reviews. None, however, noted that similar issues afflicted nearly everyone in Zeroville. Nearly everyone’s an obsessive, so that the feel is stylized; the repetitions, the movie chatter, actually contribute to the pleasure and momentum of the reading. More than that, with so many one- or two-note characters, and with the settings of some later episodes quite out of this world, the two people of genuine depth can’t help but insinuate something like, yes, a social value. These are two women: first Vikar’s mentor in the editing booth, sick and old and drinking more each time we see her, and later the teenager at risk, a punk girl with family issues and perspicuity. Vikar has a personal agenda, in taking the girl under his broken wing; his own obsessions included her mother, also broken. More than that, the struggle of both the actual parent and the stand-in dramatizes how these halcyon ’70s could be anything but for women. Says one of the more reliable fanatics in Vikar’s circle: “It’s really not a business for broads.”
And it’s really not a business of feminist revisionism, this novel. It’s not that simple sort of history, either—though the feminist sympathies deserve to be noted, and so far as I can see they weren’t. Nevertheless, the protagonist’s furious single-mindedness keeps things on the verge of hallucination. With its persistent links to dream, to the fabulous, Zeroville both has the social novel and devours it too.
Related is a structural gambit that might’ve been cooked up at a meeting of the arch-experimental OULIPO. I mean the numbering of the chapters. These can be very brief (one is a blank) but more often run a few pages, and Erickson counts first forwards to chapter 227, then backwards to 0 again. The turning point falls midway along the overall length, too, and calls attention to itself in the voice of the same unnamed Author who engineers the skillful flashes forward and back. Now, if the watershed number has some special significance in filmmaking, it eludes me. But I do think of the loser’s bookkeeping in Allen Ginsberg’s “America”—”America two dollars and 27 cents January 17, 1956″—because I do see how the reset occurs at the peak of Vikar’s success. He’s just been handed the Blue Eyes project, and the film’s to be featured at Cannes. What follows is the downside, inevitable it would seem, given his tenuous connection to the practical. But in Zeroville, the fall is complicated, first by a rise in nobility. Vikar sacrifices himself to save the girl. Moral growth like that allies the novel to a classic tradition, but its latter half also makes an audacious move into the surreal.
As chapters return to zero, cinema history enters the Collective Unconscious. Our hero says as much, in his way: “All stories are in the time and all time is in the stories.” This statement recurs in various forms, and may illuminate the chapter structure, in which movement forward is also movement back. More than that, it emphasizes how Erickson’s at play with his research, as befits details that anyone can find, these days, on IMDB.com. His key cut-and-paste concerns the lost master print of La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) and his own story’s darkest obsession. St. Joan after all was a child-woman sacrificed to a God of murder, and so Dreyer’s original conceals a destructive latter-day archetype; Vikar must track down the print and snip the threat from the loop. The effort leaves him drinking with the Angel of Death, its embodiment another highly playful touch. Only by such ambivalent means, and only in an alternative theater or Testament, do the final edits of our cinéautistic restore the balance between patriarch and child, man and woman.
* * *
This ambivalence also suggests how the shared dream we call the movies may have come to the end. Zeroville‘s tokens for history include many graves and ghosts, the oldest being D.W. Griffith, another patriarch. These days, Griffith’s narrative machinery no longer rules the zeitgeist. Even Vikar notices how LA theaters have lost their grandeur, and no doubt the places he visited have since been razed. No movie is so big, these days, that it won’t be cut to fit far smaller screens.
So the ’07 novel is an act of reparation, a giving back to the vanished world that made the work possible. Outstanding past examples in the artform include, well, where would you start? À la recherche du temps perdu? An impossible comparison for any novel, especially now, a hundred years after its hundred years as Top Story. Still, both Aureole and Martone/Martone are, like Zeroville, firmly grounded in the society that made them: Maso the demimonde and Martone just the opposite. That the authors’ view of the old home includes an acute awareness of its faults seems to me of a piece with their effort to invent original shapes and perspectives for its staging.
Handmedown shapes, cookie-cutter, would degrade and misrepresent the passions they seek to present. The point would seem almost to go without saying, except when John Barth said it in “The Literature of Exhaustion,” he set off bellows of objection that still echo round the yards. Maybe I’d do better to cite Milan Kundera, considering how the best-known American critics prefer their postmodernists to live abroad. “Kitsch,” according to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “is the stopover between being and oblivion.” The line, fittingly, was composed in exile from a regime that no longer exists—which ruled a country that no longer exists. What I’ve sketched here, then, might be considered a map to the new Republic of the Long Narrative. A map with lacunae, to be sure. In my eagerness to take down more prominent reviewers and their forums, I’ve left out the smaller places that make a point of keeping up with innovations. The exemplary American Book Review, for instance. Also the examples I chose for a more inclusive reading, one that marries social responsibility and high-wire artistry, are all relatively upbeat. All three novels reach a kind of Heaven, and two deliver plenty of laughs.
Still, what Maso, Martone, and Erickson offer falls well short of unalloyed happiness. Then too, since the works stand so far apart from each other, the conclusions I’ve drawn from them would apply to gloomier visions. Brian Evenson presents a salient case, full of blood and trouble. But I’m not going to draw up a list of other worthy names, either. That wouldn’t serve my purpose, a column of names stark as a girder. I’m arguing for the opposite, fiction elastic and fertile as Schopenhauer’s notion of self, explaining itself to itself—and in the process explaining itself to another.
John Domini’s latest novel is A Tomb on the Periphery. His translation of Tullio Pironti’s memoir Books & Rough Business is now out, and this essay will be the lead piece in his forthcoming collection, The Sea-God’s Herb.
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