By Carolyn Kellogg
Los Angeles Times
August 5, 2012
Blue Rider Press: 656 pp., $35
It starts with Telma, a plucky adolescent who's not only the youngest breast-cancer survivor ever but quite possibly the most ambitious. She is unceasingly cheerful, a supportive force on the ward, a favorite of her doctors and nurses, and writes "kancer" with a "k" as a way of taking away its power. She has taken her cancer fame as far as it can go, performing at celebrity fundraisers with the likes of Michael Douglas and Beyoncé, but she wants more: She's set her sights on a role on"Glee." Her drive seesaws between adorable and appalling — but this is Bruce Wagner, so things tip toward the untoward.
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 Netflix DVD docs and made her watch when she didn't want to watch which was tight as long as they kushed, which they always did anyway before sex or after and even during, she was actually really trying not to smoke 4ever but stop the roxys & addies til after the baby.... When Rikki made her watch porn of course they smoked & usually started out with those crazy docs, making girls watch lame scary gross stuff on the internet or wherever was such a guy thing... some there was no way she could even, like the site with different drunk women being raped & it looked like killed, Rikki said it was fake but there was no way!"
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"American Idol"contestant with prodigious drug capacity and the bisexual wherewithal to work her way back into show business; Gwen, guilt-ridden mother of Telma; Jacquie, mother of Jerzy and Jerilynn, a formerly successful photographer who has taken a job at Sears Portrait Studio; Michael Douglas (yes, that Michael Douglas) post-cancer, considerate and sage; Biggie, a 12-year-old savant whose movie ideas are fueling a new upstart studio, except something has gone wrong with his brain; and schmucky writer Bud Wiggins, back after first appearing in Wagner's 1991 debut "Force Majeure," his career in doldrums for 30 years, living on his 92-year-old mother's couch and off the good graces of Michael Tolkin ("The Player").
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?
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