Bruce Wagner's published long-form oeuvre, a near-hysterical skewering of Hollywood in over-the-top, satirical prose, reads like a study of the banality of celebrity.
His new novel, "I Met Someone," follows the career of Dusty Wilding, a Meryl Streep-like mega-actress, and her wife, Allegra, on their quest to find the daughter Dusty gave up for adoption as a teenager. Against the backdrop of contemporary Hollywood at its worst, "I Met Someone" is written as a thriller — although it takes about 100 pages for the plot to gain steam — with a Hitchcock-meets-Ellroy reveal.
Where Bret Easton Ellis' much-slimmer novels of the '80s and '90s read like dark, sometimes Lynchian misadventures in La-La Land or New York — with the right amount of humor thrown in for measured crack-up moments every few pages — Wagner's novels, including his most recent, feel like doorstopper-length vendettas against all the studio dolts he's tangled with when writing screenplays or directing.
There is no doubt Wagner is versed in the inner workings of Hollywood, and his knock-down descriptions of his characters (and their endless faults) are spot-on.
Wagner's prose feels like a thinking man's exhaustive response to the meaningless nonsense of our vainglorious age of social networks, E! "news" and the gotcha-styled candid-camera tomfoolery of TMZ.
Wagner's text is littered with Twitter-inspired quips, Tom Wolfe-like hyperbole and snarky Internet-troll missives, rooted in insider-baseball style industry gossip, know-it-all pontifications and "Hollywood Babylon"-esque revelations, which in this celebrity-drenched culture feels like a wasted opportunity to write about something else.
Saul Bellow — another famous crank who used his novels to get back at people he couldn't stand — was able, with flawed characters like Moses Herzog, to eventually spark some sympathy.
But there are painfully few shards of humility in "I Met Someone." Dusty "yearned to be Frances McDormand [an] unglamorously formidable workaday actor's actor, but was marooned in the body of [the] fabled Dusty Wilding instead, no more able to deny her showy iconic heft than the condemned could their crimes. Like the story she once dramatized on NPR about a torture machine that etched the transgressions of convicts into their flesh, she could never escape her glorious star chamber; its hidden walls graffitied with the classy New Yorker profile cant of her lies and unworthiness."
Wagner's past works — especially his sprawling last novel, "Dead Stars" — have brought up comparisons to Nathanael West's "Day of the Locust," one of the best novelistic takedowns of Hollywood. But in "I Met Someone" I can't find a trace of West's beneath-the-surface satirical stirrings that surgically honed in on the ominous strangeness and twisted beauty of Tinseltown. Instead, Wagner's book strikes one as a manifesto-like blog post, in shock-value novel form, written about the lives of people we love to hate (or are maybe tired of hating).
David Cronenberg's 2014 film "Maps to the Stars" was an adaptation of Wagner's debut novel, "Force Majeure" — Wagner wrote the screenplay. In the film, his comedic chops come through better than this novel. "Goddammit! This happened to me too!" a character says, referring to a stillborn child. "It's … selfish, Allegra! And it's mean! Do you think you can get over yourself? For, like, ten seconds? Because the line between grieving mom and narcissistic … is really thin."
It's conceivable I just don't care enough about the A-listers or — separate category — the Kardashians and their ilk, with their frivolous lives and publicity mongering contrivances, to enjoy a straightforward satire of them.
But after finishing "I Met Someone," I felt like Wagner might need to take a weeklong, meditative retreat in Ojai to reflect on his life and line of work in Hollywood — if nothing else, just to decompress.
Gabel is a writer, editor and small publisher living in Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter @jc_gabel or Instagram @mrjcgabel.
I Met Someone