Theodore Roszak’s FLICKER is a tour de force journey through the history of cinema and Hollywood, sprawling and lavish and finely written with believable, expert detail. While I quibbled with the beginning and end, it’s a hell of a ride, blending film theory, history, and an ancient conspiracy theory through the lens of an unsung horror movie director.
The book is the memoir of Jonathan Gates, a student at UCLA who seeks out foreign films for their titillating erotic honesty. After he meets Clare, the proprietor of an underground theater who is a genius critic in the making, he begins a love affair with both her and film. This leads him to the discovery of Max Castle, an obscure German horror director from Hollywood’s golden age whose abominable B movies hold a certain power. Eventually becoming obsessed with finding and documenting Castle’s work, he ends up on a journey that reveals a secret history of film, Hollywood, and an ancient religious conspiracy.
What a sprawling, interesting novel this is. Roszak certainly takes his time building his ideas, showing himself to be a master of pacing, the slow reveal, and how to tease out a massive and bizarre conspiracy theory that on the page feels utterly real. Engaged by the colorful characters, smart language, central mystery, weird eroticism, and thick film theory and history, I couldn’t stop reading. I found myself as invested in Max Castle and going ever deeper into the larger mystery as the protagonist was. I absolutely loved the idea of movies being planted within movies within movies. This is the kind of novel where the ideas are as intriguing as the story. The characters are wonderfully colorful, from pure inventions like Zip Lipsky, Castle’s belligerent cameraman to a fictionalized Orson Welles and John Huston.
As to the quibbles, the protagonist is pretty passive, he’s really there to observe, which works well but took some getting used to. The novel also took some effort before I found myself investing in it; the writing and story comes off a bit pretentious at the start, and it takes some time to get going. Similarly, the ending didn’t really tie off in a satisfying way. With so much great stuff in between, though, yeah, these were just quibbles for me. This is a terrific novel. As a novel of ideas, it’s actually quite epic.
Recommended for readers with the kinds of brains that eat language, readers who love film, and readers who love a great sprawling mystery.