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My friend Julia, who knows everything, once pointed out Bruce Wagner to me at a screening. She said he was an extremely funny writer. I had by then been living for five years in a city where my florist, my mechanic, and my dentist were all sitting on screenplays, so I didn’t always take the word “writer” very seriously. “No,” said Julia, “a real writer. A novelist.”
In fact, Wagner is the preeminent Hollywood novelist of our time, to judge from his press kit. His books are read by the likes of John Updike and Salman Rushdie and reviewed in every publication fromEntertainment Weekly to The Jewish Journal. According to Bret Easton Ellis, Wagner’s latest book, Still Holding, is “the great Hollywood novel.” And despite this ubiquity, Wagner is also regarded as a serious literary writer—compared variously to Nathaniel West, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Swift, Pope, and even Thackeray. Words like “scathing,” “caustic,” “brash,” and “savage” lurch out of the swath of quotes that preface his paperbacks. It’s the sort of praise that makes reading him sound like a great deal of fun. A novel that offers the guilty pleasures of Jackie Collins with the literary imprimatur of Salman Rushdie? Who wouldn’t give it a try?
Needless to say, Wagner’s work—at least his cellular trilogy—both is and isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The subject matter that garners Wagner his greatest acclaim—Hollywood—is not the locus of his best work, and his greatest strengths—fearlessness, imagination, and vocabulary—don’t always combine to form a world of sufficient depth. Wagner’s trilogy, comprising the novels I’m Losing You, I’ll Let You Go, and Still Holding (see? the titles are all things one might say on the phone), is neither truly a trilogy nor particularly cellular, but it does offer what amounts to a unified field theory of fame, not-fame, and the space in between.
I’m Losing You, the first book in the trilogy, contains four books, each of which has numerous unnamed chapters. Each of those chapters introduces a new phalanx of characters—at least 20 in the foreground by the time they’re all assembled. A partial summary will give a sense of the complexity of their interrelationships as well as of the book’s purview: the first characters we meet are Serena Ribkin, a Beverly Hills power wife in her dotage, and her son Donny, an agent who is obsessed with fame and its relation to status. Upon learning that his ex-wife has taken up with a lesbian film critic and writer of novellas, he muses: “Better a recherchéclitterateur than some art-house director in the thralldom of a freak crossover hit. Better some dyke of Academe than a lawyer-turned-screenwriter. Lawyers-turned-screenwriters were the worst.” Donny is in some ways a typical Wagner protagonist: perceptive but lost, craven but unconscious. In what we can only assume is a misguided attempt to do good, he picks up a homeless woman and her daughter by the side of the freeway and installs them in a suite at the St. James Club. One afternoon he takes them to meet his friend, the blindingly famous actress Oberon Mall, and after the adults get stoned and the seven-year-old has been given a valium, Donny takes his protégée off to the bedroom. Obie (as she’s called), who is exploring the amorality of a character she hopes to play (or so she later justifies it to her shrink), engages the little girl in a game called find the diamond. The hunt involves reaching into the actress’s vagina. Even Obie’s shrink decides that this crime need not be reported, choosing to believe the wishful rationalizations of the Big Star rather than expose her clients, and herself, to the moral scrutiny of the non-famous world.
I’m Losing You mostly follows the slime trails of its characters’ drug-, sex-, or fame-seeking peregrinations. (Occasionally a filial or emotional tie is formed, but these attachments are as meaningless as the others.) By the time the reader gets to book four, Donny’s been “hospitalized for a crack-up.” We learn this from Phyliss, who, in book two, was about to produce the film in which Obie was to star and which Donny’s ex-wife Katharine was to write. Phyliss gives the Donny update to Ursula, the formerly homeless woman—who gets her own subplot in book four. Thus we learn that after their adventure at Obie’s, Donny took Ursula on crystal-meth-powered shopping expeditions, paid for her daughter’s schooling, and humiliated her in bed by, among other things, intentionally vomiting on her. (Incredibly, he is not the only character in the book to indulge in this practice.) You can see how a complete synopsis would soon become dizzying. Still, because every new character is connected—by shared sexual partners, business deals, drug habits, or doctors—the world of the novel is self-contained, even insular. The portrait of Hollywood that emerges is sometimes darkly funny, as when Obie goes in for a root canal and comes out in a coma—an old friend visits and notices that “once in a while, when he held her, an eye rolled up and looked into his like something from Sea World”—but the darkness is so total that funny pales.
Wagner portrays fame as an addictive substance indistinguishable from drugs, sex, and alcohol. It sucks the moral impulses out of anyone who comes within its orbit: doctors forget their oaths, parents anesthetize their children, friends steal, lovers betray, etc., etc. And like other addictions, the fame addiction never climbs far enough up the brain stem to engender much subtle thinking in its victims. Characters thus afflicted may be realistic but they are also tiresomely predictable in their cravenness. In a contemporary novel, where table settings and even forms of address are hardly relevant, addictions may be as close as one gets to manners—but they are no substitute for suspense. Like addicts everywhere, Wagner’s Hollywooden have granted some totem the power to run their lives when all they really want is to be universally and unconditionally loved. You might argue that that’s what we all want, down in the squalling hideousness of our infant souls. Maybe so, but isn’t the whole point of adult life to get over that (and the point of the novel, in part, to show us how)? Not to eradicate it but to fool it, edge past it, or vault over it. Addictions offer characters no leverage for such maneuvers.
The only exception to I’m Losing You’s culture of addiction is Simon, a dead-animal-removal specialist, and he disappears after book one. Simon is looking not for fame but for Fluffy, the name he gives to whatever is trapped in the wall or under the floor of the house he has been called to. Most of the time, his strategy is not to remove but to wait out the process of decay. Simon tends to say the same thing to everyone he meets (“If Fluffy’s decided to take his permanent vacation inside a wall, there’s not much I can do but tear the wall open . . . which I don’t think would please either one of us”) but at least he seems to enjoy life for what it is—and he is scrupulously careful not to overcharge. I suspect his role in the novel is primarily metaphorical (there’s something dead in the wall, stinking up the place, and the only person who can see it is so far out of the loop he’s an asteroid), but he brings a humanity to the proceedings that one is sorry to see depart. The rest of the book’s characters are all, one way or another, trapped in the orbit of the Big Star fame.
Wagner’s Hollywood is also rife with sexual perversion—perhaps this provides a level of realism that only true Hollywood insiders can appreciate. (If that’s the case I must have spent ten years going to the wrong parties, because I never once heard of anyone using vomit as a sex aid—but I digress.) Whether or not any of the perversity on display in this novel offers verisimilitude, most of it is far closer to appalling than titillating: the aforementioned diamond-ring hunt, for example, or an encounter between a randy masseuse and a butt plug. When a jilted lesbian, having learned that her lover has been unfaithful, ships her an antique alligator-skin doctor’s bag containing a human turd, I finally thought I understood Wagner’s intent. Though the recipient makes much of the bag’s provenance (Paris flea market), and the symbolism of the snap-shut skin case is unmistakable in the context of the lesbian pair’s previously pun-riven repartee, the real message is simple: the recipient, like the reader, has been handed a piece of shit. Because of the book’s preponderance of warped sexual acts and frequent expulsions of substances best left internal, I have to conclude that Wagner wantshis reader to feel soiled and shamed. In his Hollywood, those are the two universal experiences everyone must either inflict or sustain.
Books one, three, and four of I’m Losing You are presented by an omniscient narrator, but book two contains only the disembodied voices of individual characters as rendered in e-mails, journal entries, dictated notes, correspondence, and literary efforts. This is a peculiar strategy. Just when one has begun to figure out the novel’s relationships and characters, the narrator vanishes. The reader finds herself alone with the incessant punnings of the smug woman producer, the lovesick confessions of the lesbian screenwriter (“The bruises on my tits look like giant blue flowers, garlands for my vows”), and the painful manglings of the delusional starlet (“I KNOW there’s probably much more under the surface ‘to be revealed.’ What I was told by Rodrigo is most likely the proverbial tip of the iceberg,”). Why? At my most cynical, I think this sudden shift into individual narratives is not an authorial choice at all—just an artifact of the “cellular trilogy” conceit. But considering my conclusion above about Wagner’s use of human excreta, it occurs to me that Wagner’s aim is to provide the reader with the same experience of abandonment suffered by any seemingly innocent creature in his Hollywood (e.g., the homeless woman’s daughter, the various Fluffies). One is relieved but wary when the narrative voice reappears at the start of book three to describe a “trim, hairless” producer’s poolside consumption of Gogol’s Dead Souls,. (“Zev was convinced there was a movie in it, an AIDS opera that would make Philadelphia look like the HBO cartoon it was.”) Don’t leave me alone with these people again, you want to say, now knowing what even the relatively benign among them is capable of. Sure enough, our new friend Zev eventually forces his African-American, Harvard-educated assistant to be bound and gagged while Zev first defecates nearby, then fellates him, then vomits on his belly. Having the narrator back is no help when the author’s goal is to abuse his reader. Why would an author want to do such a thing? The only explanation I can muster is that it is essential to his honest and hideous vision of Hollywood.
Needless to say, I approached the second book in Wagner’s trilogy with trepidation. In fact, I wanted no part of it. And then I opened the cover. Inside I found a frontispiece of the sort once sees in books of fairy tales—it depicts a boy and his dog at the gates of something like a castle. There is a table of contents naming 52 chapters, each with an inviting narrative title such as “The Labyrinth” or “Song of the Orphan Girl.” There is even a guide to the characters, which include a brilliant invalid, a homeless orphan, and an English eccentric. Nor are these introductory flourishes betrayed by the nearly 600-page novel that follows. The immense readability and charm of I’ll Let You Go are inconceivable as products of the cruel, mean-spirited authorial persona I’d attributed to Wagner after reading I’m Losing You. On the other hand, I’ll Let You Go is not really a Hollywood novel. Though it explores both a bleak urban landscape (where homeless people sleep in boxes and children fend for themselves) and the golden precincts of the fantastically wealthy (where every eccentric can eat pomegranate pastries and have his or her own million-dollar funerary monument), I’ll Let You Go is far closer to David Copperfield than to Day of the Locust. Neither novel of manners nor social satire, the second book in Wagner’s cellular trilogy is a Dickensian panorama set in present-day Los Angeles.
In I’ll Let You Go the story of an astoundingly rich young man’s quest to find the father who ran away before he was born runs parallel to the quest of a distinctly anachronous vagrant. The latter, who calls himself Topsy, attempts to aid and protect the various innocents he encounters in his netherworld—in particular an orphan girl named Amaryllis, who has seen more than her share of atrocious human behavior. Topsy suffers from the delusion that he is William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement: “Topsy loathed anything modern and it seemed to Amaryllis he had the impression the year—this year of our Lord—was 1840 or ’60 or ’80 or sometime ‘bigly twixt.’ “ Tull, the fatherless boy, comes from a family of eccentrics: his mother is a mad redheaded beauty who designs mazes and travels the world restlessly; his grandfather is a man who has more in common with Tull’s Great Dane Pullman than with most living beings and who occupies himself planning his own interment; and his cousin Edward is a doomed and sardonic invalid who travels in an elaborately customized armored vehicle with gullwing doors.
In the course of the novel, Amaryllis is sent to and escapes from a series of harrowing shelters and foster homes, including one in which the reader witnesses moments of sexual abuse worthy of the preceding book. Tull pursues the story of his vanished father into the offices of a rare-book dealer, the faux-ancient ruins of a building constructed as his parents’ love nest (as portrayed in the frontispiece), and the offices of the William Morris Agency (where his father, pre-delusion, once worked). He is accompanied sometimes by his cousins (Edward has a sister named Lucy who fancies herself the author of a girl-detective novel called The Blue Maze) and always by his soulful, constitutionally short-lived and long-boned dog. Tull is also in the throes of adolescence and all the confusion, anger, lust, and amazed self-regard that come therewith: “He raged. He plastered bumper stickers—MY KID SHOT YOUR HONOR STUDENT—on faculty cars. He stole hard-boiled eggs and batteries from 7-Eleven and a Schwinn from outside Borders on the Promenade. He provoked fights with stronger, wilier boys and for the first time felt the exhilarating, nauseous pain of hard knuckles against cheekbone, sinuses, gut. He was winded and bruised, snide and weepy. He was all over the place.”
By the end of the novel, Topsy has been suspected and cleared of the crime of murdering Amaryllis’s mother and also revealed to be Tull’s long-lost father. He is restored to sanity long enough to make amends to Tull and his mother and to encourage a budding romance between Amaryllis and Tull, but in the end he descends into madness again—albeit with the family’s boundless wealth keeping him out of harm’s way. Tull gains a father—real name, Marcus Weiner—but loses his cousin Edward (who combines innocence and experience in a painful admixture). Tull’s mother stops her wandering and drug abuse long enough to see her son through the worst of his adolescence and may or may not fall back into the slough of despond after her reunion with her estranged husband.
The preceding synopsis omits numerous subplots and set pieces, and hardly does justice to the complexity of the central story, which—despite uncanny coincidences and magical-seeming connections—feels plausible and concrete. This is partly due to the book’s copiously and accurately traveled Los Angeles: the book opens in Bel Air, perhaps the most exclusive gated community in America and thus a place where Wagner can safely locate all manner of architectural follies, landscaping fantasias, and souped-up personal vehicles and be assured that most readers would never know whether such things really exist. The counterposed world of homeless shanties, shelters, and social programs (“the system”) is equally fantastical, though Wagner’s research was clearly assiduous. Throughout the book, things that do exist in the real world—from abandoned buildings to cemeteries, bakeries, and the tailor Montalvo—are all where and how he says they are, so I am inclined to believe that these other locations are no less so. Wagner confessed to the interviewer Dan Epstein that he had actually become a court-appointed special advocate (for children) in the course of his research for this novel. Apparently he wanted to know the social underneath of Los Angeles as well as he already knew its much-improved epidermis. The social services net and its many gaps are not as easily defined by consumables as the hollow world of Hollywood, but Wagner renders the former as persuasively as Dickens’ debtors’ prisons and workhouses.
But more than by geography, one is anchored to the story by the voice of its narrator—a great Dickensian wise guy of a guide. He is profoundly intrusive, prone to footnotes and occasionally maddening lists; he knows the brand names and prices of luxury bedsheets as well as the simple amazement of first love. He is endlessly trustworthy—never failing to tie up a loose end, even if the promise to do so and the ultimate knot are separated by several hundred pages. He skillfully anticipates questions and gently prepares us for the depredations of reality and time that gradually take over as the story comes to a close: “[Marcus] was having relapses—an accent had crept back to his voice and the tailor Montalvo called to say that Marcus had ordered a dozen suits in ‘the bespoke Victorian cut.’ The bill was to be sent to a certain W. Morris of Kelmscott Manor. But the details of his infirmity no longer seduced [his ex-wife]—once the stained glass was broken, the rebuilt church could not allure.”
I know there is a modernist precept of some sort that the most unsettling portrait of evil is the one with the smiling face, and by that precept the sadistic producer at poolside should cast a longer shadow than the murderous crack-addicted former social worker who lives in a box, but for me the latter character is the truly chilling one because his malignancy is loosed among the lost and helpless of the world. No one in Wagner’s Hollywood books is truly blameless, but in I’ll Let You Go he has written a novel about innocents who become the authors of their own worlds. Some of them, like hothouse flowers, are the product of immense wealth—they design garden labyrinths, write “girl detective” stories, embroider fabulous masks, take their seventh-grade classmates on a trip around the world in a private jet, and engineer the return of a lost parent. Others are survivors—of homelessness, of madness, of abuse both mental and physical—they bake confections of mysterious sweetness, collect clippings about the lives of latter-day saints, and cling to various magical and mysterious beliefs. All have been abandoned by one or more parents, if not by God—if such a figure exists for Wagner. These people are innocent, but they are also tough, pursuing their goals, escaping their confinements, even killing their adversaries: in a remarkable subplot another of Topsy–Marcus’s homeless wards, a deaf-mute named Jane, murders a hideous rapist. Still, one feels these characters would shrivel up and die on exposure to the foul air of Wagner’s Hollywood novels, where the only innocent is the occasional infant—used more as prop than character. (The diamond hunter doesn’t even warrant a name.) Real children with their own ideas and feelings are notably absent from Wagner’s Hollywood novels, and real innocence—whether in the form of a clueless ingénue (she ends up a porn star) or a diamond-seeking girl-child—never goes unpunished.
Still Holding, the third book of Wagner’s trilogy, is in many ways a revised version of I’m Losing You—a satirical tale of the addictions, obsessions, and friable morals native to the movie business. This time around, Wagner has admirably compressed his cast of characters and thus created a manageable braid of plot where the first book offered a hairball, but numerous themes and motifs recur: a movie star in a coma, a smart-yet-clueless ingénue who falls in with a bad crowd, a Coriolis effect put in motion around a dubious spiritual practice, and various, appalling abuses of the role of parent. In this novel, however, the narrative voice stays put, and that keeps the reader oriented, if not exactly at ease. And this time the possibility of redemption—or at any rate human kindness—is visible, if just barely. The book follows three characters: a quasi-enlightened Buddhist actor called Kit Lightfoot; an aimless, overweight secretary named Lisanne; and Becca, a young actress with a more-than-passing likeness to Drew Barrymore. Lisanne becomes pregnant after a one-night stand with her college boyfriend and descends into madness, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that she is taken in by a wealthy man who seems willing to pay for her son’s care as long as he can masturbate while watching her breastfeed. Lisanne is also gradually seduced by a quasi-imaginary version of Tibetan Buddhism. The ingénue Becca gains entry to Hollywood society by working as a celebrity look-alike, and there gains a boyfriend named Rusty who has some particularly unsavory friends. Kit, after signing on for the role of “a retard” (a guaranteed Oscar nod in the eyes of his fiancée, his best friend, and others), is attacked by a rebuffed fan and winds up comatose (and, later, brain-damaged to the point where his speech resembles that of the character he was about to assume). While Kit is hospitalized, his fiancée takes up with his best friend, and the Tibetan monks to whom Kit has generously donated a great deal of money over the years come to attend to the disabled movie star. His father also shows up, to no good effect. Meanwhile, Becca becomes Kit’s fiancée’s personal assistant, and Lisanne finds a blissed-out plateau as Kit’s personal toilet scrubber. The three plotlines eventually collide amid the wreckage of families and the expulsion of fluids.
Ten pages into Still Holding, the reader confronts an act of canine cunnilingus (dog on hooker)—it’s Thanksgiving dinner chez Kit and the scene makes it clear that and there’s going to be plenty of darkness even in Lightfoot. Even though he’s been meditating every day for fifteen years (and everyone else is obviously damaged goods), he’s no hero. The chapter is entitled “Does a dog have the Buddha nature?” It’s a question we will eventually ask of just about every character in the book: are any of these people capable of sympathy? Mercy? Humor? Kit, our most hopeful candidate, is capable of self-reflection, which is more than anyone in I’m Losing You could manage: “He hated his behavior of late, the way he acted, spoke, thought. His only comfort was in telling himself that he was in the at-least-conscious throes of some sort of perversely pathetic karmic regression. For years he had been meticulous, impeccable, mindful—now he was frivolous and inane, wasteful, asinine.” But no sooner is Kit’s capacity for complexity given then it is taken away: he spends most of the novel a vegetable, helplessly surrounded by the same old unsavories who make Wagner’s Hollywood such a hellscape in I’m Losing You.
Still Holding is billed in the flap copy as Wagner’s most ambitious novel. Presumably, its exploration of the use and abuse of Buddhist philosophy is the source of this assertion. Wagner presents the beliefs and practices of Kit, the Tibetan monks, and even poor, misguided Lisanne almost without mockery. In a chapter entitled “Buddhism for Dummies,” he describes the guidance the Tibetan monks offer to Kit as he struggles to regain consciousness: “They reasserted that the name of the Buddha meant ‘one who is awake,’ and again and again offered up the Three Jewels—The Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha. They said ‘Buddhism’ did not exist. That Siddhartha Gautama was simply a man who saw things as they were: that to live was to suffer . . . Over and over they told him that the difference between buddhas and sentient beings was that a Buddha realized all phenomena were totally devoid of arising, dwelling, and ceasing, and had no true existence, whereas sentient beings believed all phenomena to be real and solid.” It is ultimately Kit’s practice of meditation that predisposes his brain to heal its injuries (it is already well accustomed to living in “the luminous fullness of now”), and it is the attention and instruction of the monks that give him the humility to tolerate the very literal “beginner’s mind” of his recovery. The book’s inscription is a Buddhist mealtime prayer: “Pray for those that eat, / The things that are eaten, / And the act of eating itself.” This may be meant archly but it also seems to promise that the following pages will offer some of the practicing Buddhist’s sympathy for the world, and thus—one hopes—some sympathy for the reader.
Sadly, we are back in Wagner’s Hollywood, where all hope is a liability. Though the Buddhist themes in Still Holding offer interesting ideas about consciousness, Wagner again fails to imbue his starlike and starstruck characters with anything approaching the moral depth of human beings. When not a vegetable, Kit is philosophically complex but motivationally simple, essentially animal: he works hard to regain his life of luxury and excess and—despite questioning—operates primarily out of emotional greed.Still Holding may describe a world in which people struggle with the problem of consciousness—or at any rate, where they meditate and go to Buddhist bookstores and practice yoga—but there is no enlightenment except in the form of delusion (Lisanne’s moments of toilet-scrubbing bliss). Kit’s shallow behavior isn’t inconsistent with a Buddhist worldview, but Wagner still seems to punish us for wanting him to do better than he does. Still Holding offers a faint fragrance of the mercy that I’m Losing You so painfully lacks: Wagner focuses on characters who straddle the worlds of have and have-not and extends what they seek from fame itself to fame- or-enlightenment (while not making it entirely clear if he believes in the possibility of the latter). But the enthusiastic reader of I’ll Let You Go must still wonder where all the innocents (and innocence) went.
Today, even Tibetan monks know that the entertainment business is a cynical enterprise populated by raving egomaniacs on one side of the desk and foolish, self-deluding aspirants on the other. As Caryn James recently noted in The New York Times, “All [works in the recent deluge of Hollywood fiction] are here to remind us, clued-in readers that we are, that Hollywood is even nastier than we thought.” To be worthy of our attention now, the Hollywood novel must do more than represent ghouls at play. Wagner’s trenchant satire may well deserve comparison with Pope or even Thackeray, but in a world where the nightly news tells me what’s inside Courtney Cox Arquette’s medicine cabinet, is there any point in satire?
Wagner has access to the shiny non-thing we call Hollywood, so he can fill novels with dropped names, puppetlike behaviors, and hideous secrets, and his reviews are riven with comments as sensational as this subject matter, even if they don’t always originate as praise. When Updike says Wagner’s prose “coruscates,” when Rushdie says he “tears into his subject with a taboo-breaking savage rage,” or when McInerney calls one book “a comprehensive Hollywood demonology,” they’re talking about the scabrous behavior and the terrible effusions of bodily fluids. The reader can’t know what’s been omitted: the sheer unpleasantness of the reading experience. In the cruelest moments of his Hollywood novels, Wagner accomplishes something beyond satire, something closer to virtual reality: he makes you feel as soiled and remorseful as an entertainment-consuming American ought to feel at this dire cultural moment.
Which is all the more reason to marvel at I’ll Let You Go—the one novel of Wagner’s that looks beyond the Big Star precincts of Los Angeles. There, he offers the reader a world no less evil than his Hollywood, but somehow beautiful, too. And he populates that world with people for whom one can feel the strange pity one feels for great, complex characters, that pity tinged with both amusement and affection. Wagner may be the purplest-assed babboon in the feces-flinging school of the Hollywood novel but he is also the victim of the very fame-machine he mocks: his reputation is based not on his best work but his cruelest—and on his ability to abuse his readers mercilessly, just the way they do it in Hollywood, if you believe the novels of Bruce Wagner.
Originally published in the April/May 2004 issue of Boston Review.
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