“Nicki Minaj just got Punk’d, which confused and surprised him because he didn’t think the show was even on anymore. Maybe at this point it was self-generating.”
— Dead Stars
It’s actually possible to think, upon finishing Bruce Wagner’s Dead Stars — his first novel since 2006’s majestic Memorial — that things have somehow managed to get worse in Hollywood over the past few years, vis a vis the human soul. Wagner’s writing has always worked that seam of grandiosely disaffected Tinseltown ennui pioneered so darkly by Nathaniel West.
His vision was grand satire in which overindulged artistes, hyper neurotics, and power-mad players threw daggers and sharp elbows at each other when not delivering sloppy kisses. All of it was played out against the louche, smoggy, money-dazzled Lotusland entertainment-complex scene where everything is tilted about 45 degrees from reality.
But as crepuscular as Wagner’s view of humanity and the modern world had been in the past, little compares to his new novel’s phantasmagoria of pain and desire, where if it isn’t Tweeted, isn’t YouTubed, isn’t continually riding the wave of the eternally cresting Now, then it isn’t worth a damn. To wit:
“Telma just found out she was no longer the world’s youngest breast cancer survivor (now 13, she had a radical mastectomy at 9, beating out Hannah Powell-Auslam who was diagnosed at age 10. They took out the lymph nodes from under her arms too). Now here comes Mom saying there’s a 4-year-old somewhere in Canada as we speak wearing the crazy uncoveted laurel of youngest juvie breast carcinoma vic. The news left Telma a little at sea, lil Telma with her little big C, wondering if her demoted standing might affect the awesome amazing cornucopia of pink-tie charity events … she was asked to participate in all year round in LA, and points north, south and east. She was actually famous.”
The irony in this introduction to one of the book’s more damaged characters (which is saying something) is in the narrator’s reference to the new youngest breast cancer survivor as wearing an “uncoveted laurel”. Because the barely teenaged Telma has been defined by her victim- and celebrity-hood for so long now that this laurel of pitiable disease is the pole star of her existence, and she would do literally anything to get that status back. After being feted for her bravery for so long that her life has become a neverending loop of survivors’ events and charity balls, Telma reads as hollow, the jumped-up symbol of accessorized and fully consumerized pink-ribbon illness — without her “C” she is nothing.
Thusly her newfound obsession with getting a cameo on Glee: Gotta stay on top, regardless.
As much as anything else, the channel-surfing impatience and of-the-moment glint of Ryan Murphy’s musical mash-up soap opera provides the spine to Wagner’s narrative. Dead Stars pivots from one character to the next without much consideration for anything but using its team of celebrity, celebrity-transfixed, and celebrity-adjacent characters to show precisely how far down the rabbit hole of status- and fame-obsession our society has greasily slid.
To that end, Wagner has the culture dead to rights. His antennae are up and out, feeding on the granular details of today’s fervid reality-show atmosphere and how the crumbs of fame that drop off of it are snapped up with greedy relief by the worshipers at the throne of Kardashian. The book is so of the moment with its references, in fact, that it could very likely feel dated by the time the paperback edition comes out.
Some of the other characters standing next to Telma in this grim lineup are: Reeyonna, a monumentally clueless pregnant teen whose boyfriend Rikki barely has time for anything but watching sadistic porn; Jerzy, a drugged-out paparazzi whose mother made her name in photography by taking controversial unclothed shots of his sister when she was young; Tom-Tom, another drug casualty, who is trying to turn her being tossed off American Idol into another reality show about fellow reality show rejects; and Michael Douglas (yes, that Michael Douglas), whose internal narrative bounces around some generally ruminative thoughts on his life while contemplating a remake of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz.
Some of their lives overlap — Douglas makes Telma’s acquaintance, Rikki gets put up for an acting gig by a greedy Tom-Tom — but in the main, Wagner’s story is about all these individual whirlpools of narcissism and desperation spinning themselves faster and faster into the void. That is, except for Douglas, who having achieved a bulletproof level of fame and financial comfort, comes off as the only happy human of the lot. He just wants to get in one more great role, preferably one where he can dance.
The spitting fury of Wagner’s prose is as alive as ever, with churning pools of id spilling across the page in a barely contained manner. But whereas he has previously reveled in the decadent grandeur of the Hollywood scene, now the atmosphere feels cold and raw. Instead of being continually illuminating, though, his style this time feels increasingly repetitive, like being stuck in an over-long chain of flame-war comments. (To enhance the online feel of the book, Wagner labels each of his chapters “Clean” or “Explicit”.)
There are a lot of dead ends here, not just for his characters but the readers as well. The vile stink of his Rikki and Jerzy passages in particular, with their ribboning loops of Web-enhanced depravity, quickly turn enervating. An initially brilliant segment set at a reality star convention gets cut off before it can really build up steam. And while Wagner is pitch-perfect in nailing the TMZ-fuzzed sub-literate slurry that passes for thought in his Rikki chapters (“all her friends basically wanted to become pornstars or CSI forenz detectives”), sometimes the satire is several degrees too easy (“she’d learned a lot from Nike ads/affirmations”).
There are many times, especially in its deadening final third, when Dead Stars veers too close to the repetitive clanging of Bret Easton Ellis. Once Wagner has shown that he has this cheapened and soulless outlook down, that he understands this drug fiend-like need for fame and the wreckage which that quest leaves in its wake — it’s hard to think of another American novelist who gets it at such a molecular level, in fact — he doesn’t seem to know where to go with it. The characters here are left at such a remove that little is at stake by the time Wagner starts wrapping everything up with retributive punishments.
While he knocks off smart lines throughout (“Gwen’s heart broke again. It broke all day long, every beat like a bone china cup shattering against a wall”), it ultimately seems in the service of a story as pointless as the reality shows it so fiercely mocks.