Novelist and screenwriter Bruce Wagner has made a career out of eviscerating Hollywood absurdity and pretension. Since his “cellphone trilogy,” novels with perhaps the cleverest titles in recent memory (“Still Holding,” “I’ll Let You Go” and “I’m Losing You”), Wagner has been the barker for a circus of freaky poseurs and hangers-on, all of them hustling and delusional. With “Dead Stars,” his sometimes exhilarating, often exasperating seventh novel, the dyspeptic provocateur is back in the hood, trying to up his own snarkiness ante.
Reality, Wagner would have you know, is not what it used to be. All reality is merely “scripted reality.” The have-nots don’t aspire to Oscars anymore. They’ll settle for roles on reality TV shows. “All America was looking for someplace to compete and to win and be famous, or famously fail,” he writes. “There were only two groups left in AmericaWorld: The billionaires and the singing show contestants.” In the meantime, they can always pick up drug money moonlighting in porn — “all the little kids watched porn now.”
Kids are, in fact, at the heart of “Dead Stars” — kids and their screwed-up families. Reeyonna and Jerzy (not their real names) are the sorry progeny of photographer Jacquie, who enjoyed a brief moment of stardom taking nude art photographs of prepubescent Reeyonna but now works in the portrait department at Sears. Jerzy keeps himself in crack as a celebrity photographer, specializing in stars about to die of cancer, with the occasional sideline capturing close-ups of female stars exiting their cars, preferably without underwear. Middle-schooler Reeyonna is pregnant by boyfriend Rikki, an abused foster child longing for a role in a movie that happens to be about an abused foster child. Rikki lives with an addict, porn star and former “American Idol” contestant and also — it’s-a-small-world style — Jerzy’s drug dealer.
Only one of the kid-kharacters is actually famous: Telma, who at 9 became the youngest person to have a double mastectomy and at 13, as a proud, kourageous Kancer survivor (the “K” is her trademark — yes she Kan!), is still milking her notoriety to connect with other Kancer Survivors, such as Michael Douglas.
And that’s just the major through line.
Douglas dreams of remaking “All That Jazz” before he dies. But first, he must finish shooting a movie being financed by Biggie, a rich, motherless Asperger’s kid who now chums with Telma. Biggie’s dream is to remake “Antigone,” so he takes a meeting with Bud, a washed-up screenwriter and novelist still living with his ancient, nasty mother. Bud’s role in the book is mainly to mock all novelists who dare to pretend that their books make the world “a better, more perfect place”: Lorrie Moore, Jonathan Franzen, even the non-household-name Lydia Davis are treated to set pieces exposing their art as empty, mere scam, literature with a very small L.
Wagner’s prose reads like the lovechild of Hunter S. Thompson and David Foster Wallace (complete with DFW-style footnotes). Only partially tongue-in-cheek, “Dead Stars” is presented as “some kind of wild theatrical poem, some messy, perfectly imperfect masterpiece.” We don’t stay with any character or situation for long because, as drug-addled Jerzy explains to his mom, “The attention span of the public ain even short anymore, it don’t exist.”
“Dead Stars” certainly captures the cacophonous, jittery run-on of the Internet celebrity-stalking world, complete with &s and lots of italics and MANY MANY CAPITAL LETTERS (some, OMG, even in bigger fonts) and emoticons, and “star” is always * and heart is always ♥. At more than 600 pages, including a long list of acknowledgments to celebrities whom Wagner may or may not know, many of them dead, the book definitely hammers the point. Hard. Relentlessly hard. Wagner is most decidedly not sold on less is more.
The most enjoyable riffs in “Dead Stars” display Wagner’s up-to-the-nanosecond insider’s knowledge of the L.A. scene. With anthropological precision, he can parse the shopping habits of rich divorcees or the status messages encoded in how agents’ assistants answer the phone. He also writes some clean, mean, glittery dialogue; his dioramas of stoned teenaged “gossip girls” dissecting celebrity rags are particularly delicious. But like L.A. itself, this sprawling novel often seems to have no there there.
That’s a shame because the central story — Jacquie, Reeyonna and Jerzy and their ever-more-desperate attempts to achieve fame — is a compelling one. And Jacquie’s new art gambit (taking photos of dead children) is queasily fascinating. Despite the page count, though, Wagner doesn’t really stand still long enough to develop any of that. In the balance of sarcasm and sentiment, sarcasm triumphs. Failed mother Jacquie especially has the potential here to be a full and complex character — dare one suggest even a sympathetic one. But it’s hard for Wagner to let the pathos of his people grow when he’s so busy making sure we get the point that they’re pathetic.
Zeidner directs the MFA program in creative writing at Rutgers University in Camden. N.J. Her fifth novel, “Love Bomb,” is forthcoming.