Circling the Drain : FORCE MAJEURE, <i> By Bruce Wagner (Random House: $23; 474 pp.)</i>
Thousands of people are coming to Los Angeles in a new gold rush.
Seven-Eleven clerk sells a screenplay for half a million dollars.
Frustrated writer chucks a screenplay out of his car on the freeway, but it’s found and sells for $700,000.
Twenty-three-year-old film student sells her first screenplay, something called “The Cheese Stands Alone,” for 1 million dollars.
As befits boom-town lore, fact and fiction merge. The 23-year-old film student, for example, turned out to be a moderately successful 28-year-old working writer. Her agent lied to better sell the script. The part about the million dollars is true.
In a sign of our times, the screen trade is being mythologized as never before, and one of the storied screenwriters of the moment is Bud Wiggins, the protagonist of Bruce Wagner’s novel, “Force Majeure.” (The title refers to the standard contractual clause that releases studios from their side of the bargain in the event of unforeseen disaster.)
Wiggins first appeared on the scene when “Force Majeure” was a collection of privately published stories, given as Christmas gifts to people in the industry and available at the Book Soup bookstore.
Eventually these stories were adapted into a screenplay by Wagner. According to PMK, the powerful publicity agency promoting “Force Majeure,” the script is being made with Jim Belushi as Bud Wiggins.
Now “Force Majeure” also is a novel, in seven stories, or chapters. The first begins with Wiggins daydreaming in his mother’s house, where he’s been living while he works as a limousine driver. Bud is called by a reporter doing a piece on screenwriting and an agent who wants to set up a pitch meeting for a possible job at Universal. Bud brings the reporter along to the meeting. Everyone appears impressed, and Bud is elated. Later, driving his limousine, he picks up a producer and an actor who are in hysterics about a writer--Bud--who made a fool of himself in a meeting they set up for research on a movie about a loser screenwriter.
Each of the chapters is a further exercise in failure, humiliation and degradation for Bud Wiggins. Wagner has pointedly forsaken structure and story. He uses coincidence to set up his comedy and piles on random events for effect. The what-happens-next in this book is a question of what can go wrong for Wiggins as he “circles the drain.”
So why do bad things happen to Bud Wiggins?
Here is a writing sample of Bud’s:
“But the real source of his trembling was the recognition of a fountain, a deep spring at the root of his soul’s garden, water, water, human water, and like an eternal pond in a living park his eyes overflowed when like a grade school boy it came to him that the light dusting his companions, the cliffs, the beach, the birds, the aging asphalt highway, the waves of water and the littered sand--the awesome sunlight basting and tangling the world was millions of years old.”
Bud, who has a collection of stolen novels he hasn’t read, does not see a connection between lack of success and lack of writerly discipline or skill. This is not an unusual or even unfounded view in Hollywood. Bud thinks what he needs is to promote himself better.
He spends a lot of time in reverie:
“Bud shifted on the sheets and thought about the park across from that school and the boy-created bramble labyrinth there--a natural playhouse and combat games habitat--another fetish, a fetish of space and branches, secrets and burrows, the wet brows and musculature of little boys.”
Wagner himself has an adjective fetish. His writing lacks control and subtlety. He writes like a screenwriter rebelling against the rigorous structure of his prior trade. Still, whatever his shortcomings as a prose stylist, he fearlessly lampoons Hollywood. He’s an insider with good aim. (The only person who will want to have lunch with him now is Julia Phillips.) He knows the details that make key sentences ring with accuracy, and he’s often hilarious.
A particularly dark sequence concerns Perry Bravo, an ex-con who is invited to The Writers’ Guild to read from his new play, “Go, Van Gogh”:
“He paused to sip from his beer, and the audience, led by the stouthearted Funt, began to clap. Servility and sexual tension filled the air. Bravo turned his finished bottle upside down and mimed a bear trying to extract the last drop of honey from the jar. The mob was in love.”
Wagner’s most effective technique is to accumulate the mildly amusing until it’s painfully funny, and then not funny at all:
After the reading, Bravo visits the house of the producer who organized the reading. He dislocates the man’s arms, ties him to a chair, rapes his model friend, burns her face, and then sodomizes the producer before murdering them both.
There are uglier and sicker things in this book; yet none of it will seem unreal or shocking to anyone who has survived in Los Angeles for any length of time.
Wagner’s characters are cartoons, the kind you may actually know. The ambitious and the amoral, the dumb and the deluded, the hucksters masquerading as artists; they’re all here. In fact, many of them bear strong resemblance to well-known Hollywood personalities, and Wagner has an eye for their most ridiculous traits.
Missing is the beauty and allure of Los Angeles. And certainly, not all the people who work in Hollywood are superficial, evil or insane. Still, Wagner has to cover the beat as he sees it, and besides humor and truth, which ought to be enough to recommend any book, “Force Majeure” possesses a sadness that is oddly moving.