Blue Rider Press: 656 pp., $35
It starts with Telma, a plucky adolescent who's not only the youngest breast-
Wagner has said he does not like to be called a satirist, but the scabrous point of view fits. "Dead Stars" is a manic, hypersexualized take-down of Hollywood wannabes and strivers, a relentless, wickedly funny, pornographic flash on the eddies of fame in the present moment. Before we even get to Telma, there are pages with just a few bits of text typically found online, such as "841,294 people like this." Like reading on the Internet, the text of the novel is often jumpy, disconnected, following a character's thoughts in interruption-prone stream-of-consciousness run-on sentences.
This, for example, is Jerilynn, a pregnant teenager thinking about TV and her boyfriend, Rikki: "you watched different shows on different drugs, the drugs were your clicker. Rikki watched old 'Dexters' & 'Walking Deads' & weird
The book is built on a series of internal narrations, character snapshots that fall into a swift narrative line. There is Jerilynn's brother Jerzy, a paparazzo in his 20s; his sort-of girlfriend Tom-Tom, a disgraced
The text is splattered with font changes, profanity, emoticons and sex acts so vividly described that many chapters are marked with the warning "EXPLICIT." Wagner throws us in teenagers-first, where we are confronted by a terrifying world of short attention spans, casual drug-taking and readily available porn. Jerzy, when not shooting typical celebrity shots, is on the hunt for panty-less photos of underage stars (best bet: climbing out of limos), which his pun-happy porn-site boss keeps to himself but may put online when the girls turn 18.
Jerzy's quest is obscene, but it's the world he was born into. Jacquie's success as a photographer came from her Sally Mann-like photos, prompted by her mentor, Helmut Newton: "Do you know what you need, Jacquie dear? To be banned....But the field is too crowded, cheri... You've got to go one better. Jerilynn – horrid name! – she's just turned 5, no? Little Jerilynn? Take courage! Take heart! The pre-prepubescent playing field is wide open!"
It's funny, and his perspective is not untrue, but objectifying naked 5-year-old Jerilynn leads to the world of hypersexualized youth, easily-accessed extreme porn, unplanned pregnancy, cancer victims seeking to be an object in fame's lens, and reality TV.
The book is divided into sections based on Jerilynn's trimesters, labeled with the offices of high-powered Hollywood agents and quietly alluding to Dante. There is a lot going on. At high volume. Packed in close.
There are places where this book bogs down — the drugged-out voices start to blur, one character's mad rantings are uninterestingly bonkers, and sometimes jumping from one storyline to another disrupts the book's considerable momentum. Yet overall the book is a total leap, a stylistic satiric attack, a XXX accomplishment.
Wagner is often called a Hollywood writer; I'm not sure that's fair. Fame, craven desire, sexuality, art, pornography, literature, envy, disappointment, greed — are these things limited to Hollywood?