There is a certain sort of person, often a Hollywood sort of person, for whom obscenity goes beyond metaphor to be a kind of truth-telling—the producer who loses his erection for a deal, another who boasts of overwhelming his adversary with “one of my weakest farts.” Men like these know the degradations that go into creating anything, the losers and dreamers and narcissists and bed wetters and weak-willed human flotsam that people have to shove aside and climb over to get anything done in this world.
In his six novels, Bruce Wagner has explored every dark corner of Hollywood’s secret life, and scatology is definitely a part of his worldview. The aspirations of Wagner’s characters tend to begin at the level of bodily function, shame inseparable from the joy of creation—orifice beget edifice. Wagner’s first novel, Force Majeure, began hilariously but ended up an overlong, distressing wallow in this terrain, his character trapped in his infantile imaginings. Memorial, a sweeping, hilarious family melodrama that is his most ambitious novel yet, is also obsessively obscene, The Aristocrats between hard covers. There are trouser shits and fistulas and an uncontrollably flatulent Larry King interviewing Petra Nemcova, the model who, bones broken, was left clinging to a tree after the tsunami. Farting all the while, King gets hot asking about what she was wearing while in the tree—of course, she was naked. It’s incredibly funny, and Wagner (this is an achievement nowadays) makes it seem transgressive, working blue at a funeral.
But if the obscene is Memorial’s yin, beauty is its yang. The book, with epigraphs from Walt Whitman and Gerard Manley Hopkins, is filled with stunning sentences, a kind of wild pop-culture music, though Wagner seems to pipe them in a mock-poetic voice, as if he doesn’t want to fully possess them. There’s an underlying question, in this book more than any of his others, as to whether poetry is appropriate in such a world, and whether the sublime can transcend the conflicted circumstances of its birth.
Though Los Angeles is at the center of this book, Wagner has moved far beyond it. Partly, this is a novel about architecture, with all its jargon and pretensions and cultural preeminence. The memorial in the title, around which Wagner’s inventions revolve, is a private monument that a billionaire wants to build on 200 acres in Big Sur, for a pair of relatives killed in the tsunami. The modern idea of the sacred often involves a well-known architect—one of those names spoken with a hush and ascribed almost godlike power. Wagner supplies the laugh track, disrupting the quiet around these chapel-builders. Richard Meier looks to one of the characters “like a well-heeled dentist, the type with something questionable on his hard drive.” Later, she riffs about Zaha Hadid branding opportunities: “ZH dildoes, ZH super-absorbent adult diapers.”
Wagner has installed these themes in a dysfunctional-family drama, an intricate tabloid picaresque built with a watchmaker’s zeal. There’s an LAPD drug raid on the wrong house, in which a nasty West Highland terrier named Friar Tuck gets shot and an old man has a heart attack. Meanwhile, the old man’s son, a location scout (he hasn’t seen his father for decades), is punked on a reality show—this is where the aforementioned trouser shit figures in—leaving him bitter and pill-popping, hungry for revenge on a producer friend who’d set him up, which he finally attempts to achieve with a practical joke involving Viagra and a masseur. The location scout’s sister, the character who ties the book together, is an architect who is trying to get the commission for the memorial by sleeping with the billionaire. She recognizes early on that “her own egoistic need to win said competition was unclean,” a thought elaborated with near-pornographic vividness. Their mother, an optimist against all reason, is set upon by a vicious group of grifters. Money is the unmoved mover here, the cleanest thing in the book. Everyone is pulling themselves through the muck to get it, while suffering torments of self-loathing and wondering what kind of payoff they deserve.
One wants to ask, “Where does he get these people?”—and then one thinks about someone like John Mark Karr and realizes that the world can be as weird, and as distorted by media obsessions, as Wagner imagines. The gossip and references and their valences—who’s up, who’s down—are exact, “Page Six” as great literature. Names and movie titles flash by on a brilliant flood of playful verbiage—Bastard out of Northern California, for a child of questionable pedigree; Leuk Skywalker, for a cancer sufferer. The jags are so exciting they barely need a plot.
Memorial is an infinitely detailed, completely engrossing picture of modern America, and Wagner is a kind of genius—but it’s not a fully human world. One senses, as Wagner yanks his characters around on their tracks or crushes them beneath his cruel wheels, a certain authorial sadism. Often—this is possibly a trait he shares with his city—he’s cruelest to the weakest. Watching them suffer can be almost unbearable, but Wagner doesn’t turn away. In the end, Wagner tweaks his karmic system (the Hindu and Buddhist themes Wagner has explored in previous books are developed further here) to give everyone what he or she deserves.
It’s hard not to think of Wagner’s work as a kind of power game, this knowing and sharing of secrets, the gleeful trading in human weakness. Wagner famously drove a limousine at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Now the driver has punked them all: The shat-upon has become the shitter. Finally in Hollywood, the writer comes out on top.