Mysteries: Desert Visions – WSJ

Scott O’Connor resurrects the West Coast art scene of the 1970s in “Zero Zone” (Counterpoint, 310 pages, $26), a complexly structured novel that evokes the aesthetic thrills and apocalyptic impulses of its time and place as viscerally as a hot Santa Ana wind.

Jess Shepard, of Los Angeles, lost her parents to a car crash when she was 13, and turned to art to create a space “that could hold some of her grief and confusion while also pointing the way toward the possibility of something beautiful beyond.” Her early pieces, including a studio installation of nine connected chambers each flooded with a different color, had a profound effect on all sorts of viewers (“I woke up crying . . . I’ve come back every night since,” says one fan). Her latest project is Zero Zone, a 10-foot-high concrete room—with apertures to let the light in—built on an abandoned atomic-bomb testing site in the New Mexico desert.

The central drama in Mr. O’Connor’s book turns on the arrival at the installation of a quartet of visitors: a facially disfigured ex-con named Tanner; his acolyte, Danny, who’s already committed mayhem at Tanner’s behest; Isabella, a “slouchy, feral girl full of malice”; and her new friend Martha, a Las Vegas waitress feeling haunted by the ghost of her dead sister. The women are mesmerized by Tanner, who styles himself a messiah of sorts. (“I’ve seen . . . the world where we belong,” he claims.) The four, in search of a portal into an alternate reality, occupy the art site and chase off other visitors. Police are called. Fatal violence ensues.

In the aftermath of the showdown at Zero Zone, a bitter Isabella, feeling cheated of deliverance, tracks Jess, the artist who built the beguiling oasis from which she was ejected, and attacks her at a gallery opening. Isabella scars Jess’s face—and is then arrested and incarcerated.

Mr. O’Connor relies on a fractured chronology to reflect some of his characters’ theories of time. Two years after Isabella’s detention, we learn, she is released on her own recognizance and drops from sight. Her mother, fearing she will return to Zero Zone for a malign reunion with Tanner, calls a still-traumatized Jess and begs her to find “Izzy” and stop her. The guilt-ridden Jess agrees to try.

“Zero Zone,” the author’s third novel, superbly captures an era when gurus both good and bad were plentiful, conceptual artists risked their own skins and psyches, and art seemed to open new windows on the soul. Jess makes a worthy protagonist in this milieu; she begins her various projects, she claims, by “looking for clues.” Clues to what? “That’s the question. Clues to something that I can’t quite feel or see. Until I do.”

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