Hate the Players

Bruce Wagner’s novel Dead Stars doesn’t understand what makes Hollywood satire work.

Illustration by Sean Ford.

Satirizing Hollywood, to the extent that it’s even possible, isn’t for the faint of heart. How do you exaggerate something that’s so outsize on its own, a land of people who don’t know the meaning of shame yet live in fear of embarrassment? The best chroniclers of this weird world haven’t always necessarily been the meanest: Terry Southern, sharper than the Wicked Witch of the West’s hatpin, vested his woolly and wonderful 1970 Hollywood pasquinade Blue Movie with a kind of cockeyed sympathy. And the most literary, with a capital L, haven’t necessarily gotten it right: Nathanael West may be revered in some circles, but The Day of the Locust hovers too safely above the fray—it’s a Bible-studies lesson more ponderous and superior than anything Cecil B. De Mille could have come up with.*

But now we live in an age when Kim Kardashian can open an interview with Elizabeth Taylor—one of the last interviews given by the actress, conducted before Kardashian’s 72-day marriage to Kris Humphries—by asking, “I’m six husbands and some big jewels behind. What should I do?” How can any self-respecting observer of Hollywood’s vanity and foibles possibly compete?

The citizens of Hollywood, even its most loathsome, attention-mongering denizens, demand the very thing that’s hardest for an author to give them: affection, not derision. And affection is the very thing that’s lacking in Bruce Wagner’s Dead Stars, a gassy ramble of a novel that goes so far over the top it bends itself right back down to the bottom.

Dead Stars is an ambitious work, enfolding the misadventures and disappointments of a raft of Los Angelenos who desperately want to be somebodies: Bud Wiggins, the down-on-his-luck would-be novelist and screenwriter at the center of Wagner’s first novel, 1991’s Force Majeure, makes a repeat appearance here. Then there’s Telma, a 13-year-old breast-cancer survivor who underwent a radical mastectomy at age 9. She’s built a career out of being a “kancerhero,” overseeing a “kansurvivor” kommunity, but her celebrity’s fading. She thinks nabbing a guest spot on Glee will help, and to that end she enlists the help of fellow kancerhero Michael Douglas (who may not mind being turned into fodder for Wagner’s smart-aleckiness, though maybe he ought to). In another of the novel’s multiple tangled threads, 16-year-old Reeyonna, the daughter of a Sally Mann-style photographer who made a name for herself taking semierotic pictures of her child, is pregnant by her porn-obsessed boyfriend. Reeyonna also has a half-brother, Jerzy, himself a photographer, who specializes in surreptitious crotch shots of unsuspecting, barely legal starlets. He calls himself a “papsmearazzi.”

It all sounds so made up, it could be true. With Dead Stars, Wagner’s striving to capture the essence of our crazy reality-TV-mirror culture, the way people talk and swagger with little interest in anything outside themselves. The language of the younger characters is often a knd of shrthnd-newspk evolvd frm yrs of txting; rding it is exhsting. Wagner enlists creative typography, often substituting a star or heart dingbat for the actual word. Reeyonna ponders what sort of tattoo she’ll get after her baby is born:

maybe a poem on the ribs that swept below her ♥, like in keltic or Hebrew or maybe in Buddhist, lots of movie stars had those, but how could you even pick a poem, there were so many? The trouble with getting a baby pic or a poem under your tit was one day your tit would sag & cover the pome.

Heavy. Kind of like that sagging tit, actually. Sections of Dead Stars are written more conventionally than that; not coincidentally, those sections are the best in the book. Whether or not you’ve read Force Majeure, the further adventures of Bud Wiggins—who may finally have a chance at the big time, thanks to his old pal Michael Tolkin — are both entertaining and perceptive. (Bud’s down-and-out status doesn’t prevent him from taking down, foxily, the pretensions of David Simon, who insists on calling his TV series “novels.”)

But mostly, Dead Stars is bloated with stream-of-consciousness rants, tired monologues referencing our culture’s celebrity obsession, and pointillist descriptions of Web porn that are so graphic, they read like the shockeroo tactics of a creepy Evangelist minister who secretly gets off on the stuff. Wagner’s prose mimics the disinterested restlessness of a person who does nothing but trawl the Internet, but his conceit might be too effective; I kept wishing that turning the pages opened new tabs.

Wagner is an almost scarily bright guy. But what he’s doing here isn’t skewering the ugliness of our celeb-obsessed culture; he’s only adding to the ugliness, like a toddler repeating a swear word. Jaundice seeps into every crack of the story, becoming a kind of holier-than-thou self-absorption. Reading his characterization of Telma, the ambitious, mutilated kansurvivor, I couldn’t help thinking of Southern’s description, from Blue Movie, of the randy Hollywood society hostess Teeny Marie:

She was a rather artificial person; inventory-wise, from tip to toe, and in rough chronology, it was like this: severe malaria as a child had made her totally hairless; carcinoma had taken her breasts; and finally she had lost a leg, her left, in an auto crash outside Villefranche-sur-Mer, and an eye, her right, during an incredible “dart-fight” in a Soho pub.

Southern—who, incidentally, very favorably blurbed Force Majeure—goes much further than Wagner does, and even for all his loopy highball excess, he’s more perceptive. (Not to mention that his prose, even when he’s being filthy as hell, has an unmatchable elegance.) But most importantly he loves the absurdity of his characters—these may not be very nice people, but their vanity and their foibles give him great pleasure, and when he writes about them his voice lights up like a marquee.

Bruce Wagner.
Bruce Wagner.

Photo by Laura Peterson.

In Dead Stars, Wagner wants us to care about his characters—that’s clear from the book’s ending, in which even the most craven and misguided among them suffer loss and pain, or at least recognize that they’ve got to change their current path. But the graft doesn’t take. What should be one of the most moving passages in the book—a reconciliation between a brutally estranged mother and daughter—becomes just another exercise in wordplay: “When Reeyonna at 1st saw her, her features broke lose from their tenuous corral and spasmscattered, roving mountainscapes parched & dead. Mother Jacquie imperturbably rounded them up.”

There are more ways of writing about Hollywood than you’d think one dream city, one microcosm, could hold. The real-life Tolkin’s The Player, acerbic and spot-on, nails ’80s Hollywood excess like no other novel. Other works, like Steve Erickson’s Zeroville, or the twin novels of John Kaye, Stars Screaming and The Dead Circus, are sturdily poetic. In those books, the dream vision of Hollywood is so far off from the reality of their characters’ lives that it becomes part of their fabric: It’s the negative space that defines the positive. Hollywood culture doesn’t rob people of their humanity—it makes them see the urgency of hanging onto it at all costs.

And anyway, no matter how ugly Hollywood gets, shouldn’t poking a stick at it be just a little fun? It has to be possible to find the humor in its folly and to locate some genuine human pain there, too, without turning the whole enterprise into a cautionary tale.

Is there room for compassion in satire? How can we love a Hollywood that’s more unlovable than it’s ever been before? There’s no easy answer, but maybe this is the time to turn to the late Don Carpenter, also a screenwriter and a marvelous novelist, one who could call Hollywood on its bullcrap and still find the thump of its pulse. Here’s how he describes the old Schwab’s lunch counter in his 1979 novel A Couple of Comedians:

Beginners come here to somehow be absorbed into the mainstream, longtime hangers-on come to be with friends and equals, stars and hits come to keep themselves honest and to remember, this is how it was and this is how it could be again. And a lot of people come here to look at the others, and a lot of assholes and dimwits show up to confuse the issue.

I like Schwab’s.

It’s that final note of affection that makes the idea sing. Hollywood is filled with more assholes and dimwits than ever before, and maybe today’s versions are of a coarser grade than in Carpenter’s day. Still, these are our assholes and dimwits: We elevated them by buying their product, by either liking it or pretending to like it. Hollywood, fatter and more powerful than it’s ever been, has become the monster we love to hate, but hating it has become so easy. Maybe the bigger challenge is finding more of it to love.

Dead Stars by Bruce Wagner. Blue Rider Press.

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*Correction, Aug. 6, 2012: This article originally spelled Nathanael West’s name incorrectly. (Return.)