NO ONE has delineated the agony of artistic endeavour with greater precision than Los Angeles’s Bruce Wagner. Jack Michelet, a fictional novelist in Wagner’s fifth novel, The Chrysanthemum Palace (2005), observes that “Americans define Time as the space within which one succeeds or fails.” Everything that Wagner has written occurs in that space, and as in real life, there is always more failure than success. Whenever one of his Hollywood hustlers gets a green light, it’s usually a prelude to a troubled shoot and a disappointing weekend take. And for the lucky few who do enjoy continued triumph in the movie business, there is the ever-present fear of terminal illness or drug-induced insanity to bring them down.
Wagner’s novels have been described (by Will Self, among others) as Hollywood satires, but he resists the term, which seems fair. He’s not above mocking the affectations of celebrities — or even, and most amusingly, his literary contemporaries; but beneath his astringency, there lies something warmer, a celebration of yearning. Rather than present his characters as the butt of humour, he usually encourages the reader to admire their struggle, no matter how futile or pitiful. More than a few monsters stalk his pages, but even his most self-obsessed creations are seeking spiritual solace. For some this is found in pills, for others pornography, but a surprising amount turn to philosophy, spirituality, or great literature. Almost all of his books feature either a practising Buddhist character or an outrageous, final-act reversal of fortune. Wagner never mistakes mordancy for modernity. Not every character finds salvation, and for the terminally damned a self-fashioned noose is a popular way out. Wagner, though, is as alert to the narrative possibilities of an unexpected bolt of good luck as he is to endless snake eyes.
His debut novel, Force Majeure (1991), is his rawest, a cri de coeur from agonized screenwriter Bud Wiggins. The obvious inspiration is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby stories, but the humor here is even blacker, as Wagner delves down deep into Wiggins’s inner hell. After squandering his principal photography fee for a never-to-be-released film on a pimp coat and used car, Bud works as a limo driver, gets trampled at the Oscars when Steve Martin appears with a talking monkey, shows up as a script doctor for a horror film only to be forced to play an actual doctor, falls in love with a disfigured woman, gets sued by the Writers Guild, befriends a killer with literary ambitions, suffers from bad breath and a skin disease, and can’t even hold down a job on a project entitled The Worst Movie Ever Made. Throughout these indignities, he sustains himself only by the success of his self-published novel Shotgun in an LA bookstore. The final kick in the teeth comes when he discovers his mother purchased every copy.
Wagner gave Wiggins his initials and much of his life experience. It’s not much of a stretch to assume that Wagner’s script work on Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) inspired Wiggins’s gig on a film called Bloodbath 2; he once told an interviewer that his experience performing cameos in oddball cult movies including One Crazy Summer (1986), Mortuary Academy (1988), and I, Madman (1989) also fed into his fiction. The connection is made even more explicit in Wagner’s Wild Palms — a comic strip that ran in Details from 1990-’93. During the filming of a movie entitled Maps to the Stars, Wiggins bursts on set to babble into the camera about his lack of critical appreciation. The cartoon Wiggins is clearly a close copy of Wagner, sharing the same thick glasses, shaved head, and downcast expression. (In Wagner’s fictional world, Maps to the Stars was made in 2007; in real life, it’s taken until 2014 to reach the screen.)
Wagner’s usual style is dark comic hyperrealism, but perhaps due to its comic book origins, Wild Palms borrows liberally from science fiction and noir. Later adapted into a TV series by Oliver Stone, the comic depicts the trials of lawyer Harry Wyckoff as he discovers his family and friends are part of a wealthy secret society seeking to control the masses via virtual reality. The members of this “Wild Palms” cult are prone to random outbreaks of bizarre violence, brutal acts they consider the height of sophistication. When Harry’s mother-in-law pokes out the eyes of a famous LA artist in a restaurant bathroom, her gang of friends find the whole thing hilarious.
Over his subsequent six novels, Wagner has expanded his scope, addressing not just the tribulations of struggling screenwriters and put-upon entertainment lawyers, but also those of producers, actors, lookalikes, and porn stars, alternating between Hollywood novels (I’m Losing You (1996), Still Holding (2003), The Chrysanthemum Palace (2005), and Dead Stars (2012)) and books less focused on the movie industry and perhaps best described as family sagas (I’ll Let You Go (2001) and Memorial (2006)).
The Hollywood novels share a similar structure — a group of variously successful Angelenos getting caught up in the pursuit of unlikely sounding projects. In I’m Losing You, it’s a remake of Pasolini’s Teorema with a female lead and an adaptation of Gogol’s Dead Souls. In Still Holding, it’s a Darren Aronofsky picture called Special Needs (“What would happen, he wondered, if a famous actor set out to do a film — say, a character study of a retarded man — and before shooting began, sustained injuries in an auto accident that left him ‘neurologically impaired?’”), a project that gains a grim irony when the lead actor suffers his own neurological damage; and a Spike Jonze–Charlie Kaufman movie about Hollywood lookalikes. In The Chrysanthemum Palace it’s not a movie but a novelization of a single episode of a sci-fi show — a book Thad Michelet is forced to write after his father leaves him $10 million in his will, but only if he makes it onto The New York Times bestseller list. (Only Wagner, as alert to low culture as he is to high art, could come up with something so fiendish.) In Dead Souls, Wagner ups the stakes still further: a fictionalized Michael Douglas spends his time in remission obsessed with remaking Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz.
Though still studded with industry talk, the family sagas are more self-consciously literary. I’ll Let You Go opens with a dramatis personae and features a voice-of-God narrator who tells the reader early on that it is “a book of houses.” (Dickens’s Bleak House is the obvious influence here.) Deliberately overheated and airless, it contrasts two dramatically different environments in slightly too schematic a fashion. Half the novel takes place in a Bel Air mansion filled with an eccentric gang of rich but sickly kids, who seem like prepubescent versions of Thomas Love Peacock characters transplanted to contemporary Los Angeles. The other half is set in a series of shelters, and follows Amaryllis Kornfeld, a homeless orphan who begins the novel at the bedside of her mother — a woman who has abused her so badly that she’s left her with “one ruined nipple chronically leaking clear fluid” — and ends it enrolled in Pitzer College, rescued from a life of horror. The most gnomic of Wagner’s novels, I’ll Let You Go is filled with his usual conspiracies and ironic reversals, but without the bitter energy of his best work.
Memorial is no less concerned with creative striving than the rest of Wagner’s fiction, but the canvas is expanded to include, along with the world of film and TV, that of architecture, where the distance between winners and losers is arguably even more pronounced. After all, a writer can always self-publish, but there’s not a huge market in blueprints. In this book, the frustrated artist is 37-year-old Joan Herlihy, who is determined to win a commission for a Tsunami memorial from billionaire Lew Freiberg (and as jealous of Zaha Hadid as Wiggins is of Joyce Carol Oates). Her brother, Chester, is equally desperate for money and grabs his chance to make it quick after being injured by a gang of pretend criminals on a bizarre prank show called Friday Night Frights. It’s a karmic wheel of fortune story, in which the striving of the main characters is rendered meaningless when their mother wins $93 million in the lottery. Without the fictional film projects to tie it together, it feels a little less coherent than the Hollywood novels, the moments of black comedy and profound seriousness sitting awkwardly together.
His most recent Hollywood book, Dead Stars, is Wagner’s best. While not significantly different in style or content than his previous variations on the theme, it is deeper, darker, and more expansive. Unlike Wagner’s previous novels, he doesn’t concentrate on a self-contained, tight little world of ambitious failures, but instead takes on the whole of American culture — as accurate and bleak a reflection of our era as one will find. Yes, there is a focus on the lurid, but perhaps this is the only way of recording a period when tropes from pornography appear in all forms of pop culture, from music videos to art movies.
While many of his contemporaries’ commentaries on pop music are still limited to baby boomer household names or the punk and indie bands they grew up with, Wagner has a teenage girl fantasizing about “getting fucked by Drake/Dre & Fiddy, and that freak Yelawolf too, DP’n til dawn,” and a porn obsessive titillating himself by imagining teen favorites One Direction and Bruno Mars extracting violent revenge on Odd Future’s bad boy Tyler the Creator. His ventriloquism in this novel is utterly extraordinary, a mix of text-speak, message-board ranting, emoji, and Perez Hilton–style blog-jabber, all the more startling for being placed alongside pages of his usual elegant literary prose.
This time the characters are united mainly by sex, aspiration, or disease. Telma is a 13-year-old breast cancer survivor, jealously watching out for any younger sufferers who might steal her minor celebrity; Reeyonna is an aspiring actress, sexualized at an early age due to her artist mother’s explicit nude photographs of her and convinced pregnancy porn is her only route to genuine celebrity. Rikki is addicted to the darkest side of the internet, delighting in the sort of material delivered by paparazzo Jerzy, self-proclaimed king of celeb upskirts and snuff shots; Tom-Tom is a reality show star determined to build a career on the slenderest of talents; and, in the novel’s most audacious section, Michael Douglas attempts to rebuild his career after recovering from cancer.
There’s also a returning Bud Wiggins, now 59 years old and $200,000 in debt, addicted to pills, and living with his mother. He’s abandoned screenwriting and has turned his attentions back to the novel, believing that in a world where anyone can make a low-budget movie, novels are the new screenplays. (A somewhat unlikely premise, but Wiggins has always been on the edge of insanity.) Before he can get anywhere with the novel for which he has no real ideas, his friend the real-life novelist (and author of The Player) Michael Tolkin recommends him for a TV drama set in Hollywood.
The Wiggins of Force Majeure got angry whenever his mother suggested he write for TV, but times have changed. Wagner has great fun with the new respect writers, audiences, and critics have for this form, mocking real-life literary novelists’ hyperbolic essays about shows such as Friday Night Lights. Again using fictionalized versions of real people, Wagner depicts David Simon insisting that The Wire be referred to as a novel instead of a show; and in a running joke, Glee’s Ryan Murphy is always referred to as “Ryan Murphy, Creator.” To compensate for putting him through 40 years of fictional suffering, Wagner gives Wiggins a happy ending, albeit an ironic one. When Simon uses material from one of Wiggins’s Force Majeure stories for his new TV “novel,” he at long last gets a fresh credit for his IMDb page, prompting Tolkin to tell Wiggins that, as Simon considers his TV shows to be novels, he can finally call himself a published novelist without embarrassment.
As if in recompense for the excess of Dead Stars, Wagner’s most recent book, The Empty Chair (2013), addresses spiritual yearning with a newfound sincerity. The book contains two novellas, each of which is supposedly the result of a series of lengthy interviews with a spiritual traveler. A fictionalized “Bruce Wagner” claims to have spent the past 15 years going round the world listening to people’s stories, intending to tie them all into a “proverbial American quilt.” It’s perfectly possible that he has been doing this, but it seems more likely that he is spoofing the sort of project often taken on by literary authors when they look to refresh the well midway through a creative career, as in the case of Paul Auster’s NPR project, True Tales of American Life.
The “Bruce Wagner” of the book has abandoned this overambitious mission to focus instead on stories about two different gurus, the first told by Charley, a 50-year-old man traveling in a mobile library with all his favorite books; the second by a woman named Queenie, described as half Zaha Hadid (her again), half Stevie Nicks. Given how sharp he can be about celebrity foibles, the obvious question is how seriously we should take this. Is Wagner satirizing New Age beliefs? It does not seem to be that simple. After all, Wagner once had a guru of his own, having changed his name to Lorenzo Drake and spent years with Carlos Castaneda after interviewing him for Details in the mid-1990s. His feelings about gurus, or indeed any form of transcendence, are ambivalent, as they are for the narrators of these two stories.
As its title suggests, The Empty Chair is a meditation on absence. Charley attempts to impress “Bruce” with an autodidact’s passionate blather, throwing out seemingly random observations about his favorite authors — mostly the Beats — before eventually revealing that his obsessive reading is a way of dealing with deep psychological pain. Describing himself as a “gay man who happens to have had a handful of relationships — ‘serious’ ones — with women,” Charley is still trying to come to terms with the suicide of his son, Ryder. As he tells “Bruce” his story, it emerges that he believes his son’s death was connected to his wife’s interest in Buddhism.
The guru in this novella is named Dharmabud, and at first his influence on Charley’s wife seems positive. Another in Wagner’s long line of frustrated artists, Kelly’s life is transformed when a publisher gives her $20,000 for a book on “Buddhist thought, practice and doctrine.” Kelly decides to call the book Impermanence Rocks, a title that gains an unwelcome irony when homeschooled Ryder hangs himself and leaves behind a note that seems to indicate that he is in some way testing Buddhist teachings in doing so. Charley attempts to find significance in this moment through theology, philosophy, mythology, and Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, but his story ultimately comes across as one long howl of psychic suffering.
Queenie is in a similarly dark place at the beginning of the second novella, fantasizing about killing herself in the same way as the piano player in Pasolini’s Salò. (This reference alone should be enough to tip-off even the most gullible reader that these accounts are the product of Wagner’s imagination.) This second novella is a combination of locked-room mystery and tale of succession. Its moral is oblique, but Wagner seems to be questioning the wisdom of following anyone. Queenie’s guru, Kura, is obsessed with yet another guru, “the Great Guru.” When they go to New Delhi to join his satsang, they discover he is dead. As debate continues about who should take his place — an American adept or his son — his devotees begin to worship the empty chair the Guru left behind instead.
Kura spends many years following “the American,” but is driven into insane fury when he believes “the American” has made this empty chair his second guru. Misunderstanding his teacher’s message that the pupil has become the teacher, and it’s actually Kura himself who’s his second guru, Kura steals the chair and runs away. When the true meaning of the American’s words are made clear to him, he tries to return the chair before collapsing and dying.
Wagner’s final twist of the knife brings the two tales together, as promised in the introduction. In the end, the pursuit of enlightenment seems to have caused nothing but death, madness, and misery. While it’s hard to see this as an endorsement of spirituality, the book feels curiously upbeat, as if the mere fact that Charley and Queenie have survived to share their stories gives value to all they’ve gone through. Wagner gives his own guru, Carlos Castaneda, a walk-on to suggest that there is much to learn from death, and it seems the book is not merely a nihilist joke. Wagner instead wants us to appreciate the beauty of a universe that continues no matter what happens and to remain alert even when life (or fiction) appears nothing more than a series of macabre coincidences, whose meaning is lost to all but the most observant.
Next up from Wagner: another Hollywood story, Maps to the Stars, a long-gestating movie that appears to have its origins in his earliest work. Wagner’s own directorial efforts to date — I’m Losing You (1998) and Women in Film (2001) — haven’t made it far beyond the festival circuit, but with David Cronenberg directing and Robert Pattinson starring, it seems likely that Maps to the Stars will bring him to his biggest audience since the heyday of Wild Palms. Perhaps the Hollywood insider so obsessed with the life of the outsider will finally move beyond the adoration of the cognoscenti into the blessed circle he depicts Wiggins dreaming “of one day belonging,” a group of “tenured, critically sun-kissed topnotchers: Auster, Vollman & McEwan, Cormac McC & Lorrie Moore.” For all the mischievousness in the name-check, it’s a roll call of authors Wagner easily equals and, at his best, transcends.