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Wagner’s Inferno

Dead Stars
by Bruce Wagner
Blue Rider Press, 2012

Bruce Wagner opens each section of his witty, weepy, fearful, and emetic novel Dead Stars with a quotation from Dante. The quotations themselves—aside from containing the lexeme stars—aren’t meaningful to the story which follows, but Dante is. The characters in this novel take the idea of Paradiso to be terrestrial, meaning fame and the doors fame opens (for a sixteen-year-old girl, it’s yacht trips with the Kardashians; for her fine-arts mother it’s a solo show at the Gagosian, noted collector Steve Martin on her arm). Inferno, of course, is the farthest point possible from the reach of fame, from the love that moves the stars. Dead Stars is as much a tragedy as comedy, and so we’re given guided tours of both extremes—Fame is a land of pure extended dream and creativity; non-Fame is seething and despair. As the Inferno-bound teenager Reeyonna laments: “Lady Gaga should have written a song not about people who were born different but about people who were born to remain nothing until they died.” She has no language with which to understand her life absent dreams of paradise.

Just as Dante dragoons the real men and women of Florence—the celebrities of their day—into his poem, so too does Bruce Wagner make life arduous for his future annotators by roping celebrities like Michael Douglas, Steve Martin, and Helmut Newton into his world and making them as real to us as any of his wholly fictional creations. Rather than using them as a shortcut to engage the reader on a familiar level (the kind Kinky Friedman takes when he casts Willie Nelson as the detective in a string of paperback mysteries), Wagner describes Michael Douglas the character with such feeling and delicacy that he defeats our skepticism—we may as well be reading about a different man with the same name, one who happens to have all the same connections, the same résumé. Douglas was born into fame, but he frets about it just as much as any of the characters. He’s recovered from his recent case of cancer and understands now that “the span of human life was cloud graffiti”; it’s time to explore his creative side, to unpack what needs unpacking. His new enterprise is a proposed restaging of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, about which he has many searching conversations. If the idea seems corny to us and his language overheated (see below), the reality of his emotions never does:

The cancer war had bestowed upon him strength and validation, & the spoils necessary to affect his new venture—an excavation of long-buried things. He would drag them into the moonshadows. It was time to dig for hidden codices & calendars, forgotten scriptures, scripts & sundials bearing signs & symbols written in a mother tongue he’d never bothered to learn. He would need to draw on that same courage he had summoned in the dark public noon of his disease, and see himself at last for what he was: either artist or quixotic fool—a brutal, delicate, holy enterprise.

Before All That Jazz can be reborn, his current project, a movie based on Ishmael Beah’s Starbucks-bestseller Long Way Gone, retitled The Treasure of Sierra Leone, must be cast. The stories of nine narrators cross and re-cross through the novel, but I’ll unstring one plotline to show a bit of the pattern, and how the viscous texture of fame is explored.

We’ll begin with Rikki, a clever but aimless teenager who has few interests besides sleeping with his girlfriend, getting high (“going up in the trees”) and watching porn online. In writing these passages, Bruce Wagner presumably had to watch scads of the most degrading sort of porn and then report on it clinically. Porn, for Rikki—and, as Wagner clearly implies, for the millions of kids like Rikki—is not just an introduction to sex, but to life. His stream-of-consciousness is in the same hyperactive pun-happy mode as most of the books’ younger characters:

The Sasha Grey tape he liked most was the one with the guy laying on the floor on his back and her on top trademark-screaming fuck yeah! Fuckyeah! The greased otherhole but-up in its devilish pillow, ready for the ass-jacking, the xxxxxtreme home invasion, & when it came each bum’s turn, the sorry-looking dude took his dick and sort of almost politely placed it in her bunghole, something almost rather civil about it, suddenly they were in, up & running, ruin-fucking the apple-sized void that was really just the deadmouth end of SG’s large intestine …

During the longer strings of obscene puns (they go for pages) the book can feel like one of those evenings with friends when somebody starts off with an off-color joke and everyone at the table races to top them. But Wagner’s idea is that our culture can sound that way as well, and that its most shameful parts of live side-by-side with its most exalted, and that children, the world’s biggest imitators, mistake it for the only voice there is.

Sasha Grey is, of course, a mainstream actress now, and one of the major tropes of Wagner’s world is how porn, movies, literature, and fine art trade off and recombine (and possess similarly structured hierarchies and similarly embittered failures)—the heroes and victims of one become the victims and heroes of another. They’re all on one screen now, a pocket-sized screen, and if we as smartphone operators can bookmark smut, major flicks, and quality books alongside one another, why shouldn’t a novel be orchestrated in the same way? Seen so, the composition of Dead Stars must have been a revelation to Wagner, a satirical grab-bag into which he could stuff any bit of grim gossip or obscenity provided it was cleverly described.

Among these obscenities is the story of Reeyonna, Rikki’s girlfriend, who began life as an unwitting model for his mother’s Sally-Mann-style photographs. Said mother, Jacquie, had long desired to achieve fame via art but, as she guiltily confessed to Helmut Newton, she had no point of view. In a long and scabrous passage, the now-dead-and-unable-to-sue Newton advises her to artistically photograph her pre-pubescent daughter’s vagina, and so cause the sort of controversy and the kinds of legal troubles that will make her art both commercially successful and critically acclaimed. She takes his advice and does achieve brief fame, but it’s a short ride. When we meet her she is reduced to working at a Sears portrait studio (a financial necessity she hopes will chrysalis into a new, ironic project that can put her back on top), and hanging around Steve Martin’s book signings, hoping he’ll remember her from her better days and renew his interest in collecting her (nonexistent) new work.

When Rikki knocks up Reeyonna, they flee their parents’ houses and move in with Reeyonna’s brother and his sometime-girlfriend, a disgraced reality TV star, in a house on a hill which technically belongs to Betty White. Like a kind of Real World, they spend their days swearing at each other, hooking up, dreaming impossible dreams. Everything in Dead Stars is a bitter satire of something, but it is often satire in name only. In fact, no real exaggeration has been required to reveal the depths to which souls such as these will go to try and taste paradise.

Intellectuals, you’ll be pleased to hear, receive no free-pass, and the loathsome Bud Wiggins from Wagner’s first novel Force Majeure, is reincarnated in several chapters here to profane the literary world and to dream of the novel he will never write and the success that will never be his. He does not lift a finger to type; such action would be useless anyhow as “now there were only aging wonderboys like Do-Gooder Eggers, Vegemitey Mouse Foer, & Franzen. The King Rat who preened about spreading Big Brain’s ashes in some bandana republic before snitching off his BFF’s minuscule frauds of reportage.”

But there are those who still buy into the scam. Fed an image of easy success, (what’s unspoken is that success is most easily attained, cf. Kim Kardashian and Michael Douglas, by those to the manner born) Rikki decides to support his new baby by winning the open casting call for the part of Treasure of Sierra Leone’s boy soldier. Reeyonna begins planning what sort of house they will buy with his earnings. Of course he doesn’t get the part and instead becomes addicted to crystal meth, winding up as one of the extras in a porn movie, this one starting Montana Fishburne, daughter of Larry Fishburne (who, along with Michael Douglas, is producing Treasure.)

The crystal meth came from Jerzy, Reeyonna’s half-brother and another luckless resident at casa Betty White. Although the casual reader may mistake frustrated novelist Bud Wiggins for Bruce Wagner’s alter-ego, it is Jerzy whose interior confabulations are the most obviously fussed-over. A paparazzi photographer specializing in snapping the crotches of barely-legal actresses, Jerzy’s eventual goal is to land a show at Gagosian, a show filled only with the underdeveloped groins of the famous and children of the famous, and so shame his mother by transgressing further than she into the realm of bad taste.

Because Jerzy’s long chapters of drugged-out paranoia do nothing to advance the plot, I suspect they were Wagner’s favorite to write. Jerzy’s altered mental state combined with his native intelligence gives Wagner the perfect canvas to indulge in wordplay, to the point where Wagner’s own voice (as in the Norman Mailer pun below) emerges through the noise. Here Jerzy wishes he’d caught a picture of the dying Steve Jobs while he had the chance (death in this book is every bit as pornographic as sex):

Apple might even have bought it directly, just so it wouldn’t be out there. Jesus, he hadn’t thought of that until now, they’d probably pay tens of mill—————————–he was coming on to another speed biscuit, & it was as if it had been laced with regret. He said to himself, Jobs would have been the show-stopper, the centerpiece of my Gagosian. Jobs’d have been the draw. If I’da got Jobs; my name’d have been made. I’da done a mash-up/mixtape of the sorrowsful Job poisoned ap Gaze & my coven of barely legal papsnatch, called the show The Naked & The Dead…

But Jerzy is a part of Dead Stars for arbitrary rather than narrative design. The camera—moving or still—is the major agent of both beatification and damnation in the Wagner’s Inferno, and those who wield it are a kind of Minos. Images have a permanence that life itself lacks, and once photographed in the digital age, you can never disappear. As soon as a celebrity’s child is born, Jerzy begins planning for the day she’s old enough to photograph up-skirt. As his boss, a fecal publisher named Harry coos, “Here comes Vida McConaughey, and Charlotte Gellar-Prinze Jr—here comes Britney’s sister’s fucking kid—a girl, right? And Haven Cashwarren Alba—thank heaven for little girls ...” Harry’s whole game is the shock photograph, the pornographic equivalent of US magazine: where do the stars shop? Who does their hair? What have they got between their legs? It’s a way of robbing them of power, of making the viewer or reader a kind of despoiler. Indeed, much of the pleasure the characters in Dead Stars experience is the pleasure of watching others fail. For those far removed from the heavenly spheres, it’s their sole means of joy.

In the end, Reeyonna’s mother does find a new project to attract collectors like Steve Martin and Larry Gagosian. She begins photographing dead babies (a clear cut at Sally Mann’s career-revival move of photographing decaying corpses). When one of her own children dies, her photograph of the corpse becomes the centerpiece of her new exhibit. Celebrities come calling. Her child ends like Marilyn Monroe, who Michael Douglas reflects, “was molested as a child & she’d be molested in the afterlife.” Has Jacquie come to paradise by casting her child down, or is she after all the means of that child’s ascent into the high world art? Of fame?

In a 1986 preface to A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess confessed: “It seems priggish or Pollyannaish to deny that my intention in writing the work was to titillate the nastier propensities of my readers. My own healthy inheritance of original sin comes out in the book and I enjoyed raping and ripping by proxy.” The obvious pleasure Wagner takes in fashioning his hyper-language (complete, as so many critics have noted, with emoticons and soon-to-be-d8ed txt speak) with which to guide us through his atrocity exhibition is telling; and oddly, like Burgess’ own nadsat, it makes the reader more rather than less concentrated on the crimes at hand—the effort to decipher what is being said gets our faces in it.

Wagner well knows that we are divided selves who fear and admonish violence but who equally revel in its commission. As the Jim Belushi character admits in the Wagner-penned miniseries Wild Palms, set in a dystopian Los Angeles, “Something strange happened at lunch. These men came into the restaurant and carried this guy out … and everyone just went right back to their meals like it was all staged or something … I identified with the men … I was rooting for the attackers.” There are innumerable victims in Dead Stars but who, or what, are the attackers? Permissive liberal society? Monster Capitalism? Either way, all of the readers of the novel are implicated, and so are the characters themselves. Because it is so absorbing to read, Dead Stars is a novel that roots for both angels of our natures.

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John Cotter 
is a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly. His criticism has appeared  in The Quarterly ConversationBrooklyn Rail, and Bookforum.  His novel Under the Small Lights is available from Miami University Press and his short fiction will be featured in the next issues of New Genre and Puerto Del Sol.