In today’s world, we cannot escape the tentacles of celebrity. From our Twitter feeds to our not-quite-highbrow news sources to our grocery store checkout lines come gossip-mongering, photo shop-abusing, gasp-inducing headlines and graphics, all telling you about Kim’s latest alleged sex scandal or which slighted young Hollywood actor is refusing to speak to his cheating ex.
The fact most of us know which young Hollywood actor I’m referring to is evidence enough we’ve become enmeshed in a world where we won’t take a phone call in favor of texting but we’ll eagerly address on a first-name basis a Tom and Katie we’ve never met but everyone knows. That’s what Bruce Wagner thinks, anyway.
In his latest novel Dead Stars, the author of Memorial and The Chrysanthemum Palace tears Hollywood a new one, painting a lurid portrait of a Tinseltown decorated with drug-laced tin foil and shiny condom wrappers. Using a socially grotesque cast of characters, Wagner touches on everything from the lure of reality television to child pornography to drug abuse to cancer to death. And he uses such familiar names as Rihanna, Dakota Fanning and Michael Douglas to do so.
Chapters are named for their stars and shuffled about, with the 16-and-pregnant Reeyonna (real name Jerilynn) wedged between her porn-loving foster child baby daddy Rikki, her junkie paparazzi brother Jerzy, and her has-been art photographer mother Jacquie. Actor Michael Douglas, the world’s youngest breast cancer survivor Telma, reality TV dropout Tom-Tom and failed author Bud also take their place in Wagner’s motley crew. The challenge isn’t keeping their stories straight over the 600-odd pages but deciding whose story is more depressing.
With more pop culture name drops than a VH1 show and more drug references than Urban Dictionary, Wagner at once invites you to connect with his characters while shamelessly presenting them for ridicule.
He uses misspellings and ampersands for his star-struck teen characters, reveals Michael Douglas’s deepest issues in his therapy sessions and exposes Bud’s tendency to read book reviews instead of books themselves. Wagner also rips open a horrifying world of readily available hidden-camera/underage/rape/fill-in-the-depraved-blank pornography, introduces readers to the upskirt-shooting “snatcherazzi” and makes his characters booty bump meth between snorting roxies. Yet somehow you don’t want to stop reading.
You’re strangely compelled to find out if Reeyonna will ever live her fantasy of seeing her picture in Us with her baby in tow, to see just what brave and bratty Telma will do next in her quest to use her “kancervivor” status to get on “Glee,” and to follow Jacquie’s tale as she seeks to restart the 15 minutes of fame she attained from taking nude pictures of 8-year-old Jerilynn. The fact you have to read through Rikki’s porn selections and adventures, Jerzy’s paranoid theory on an Eminem-led race revolution and Tom-Tom’s attempts to film a reality show about failed reality stars in Betty White’s home is part of Wagner’s genius; you’re not getting through his book without eating a fair amount of venom.
Finishing the book leaves you more unsettled than satisfied, with an undeniable “what just happened” lingering long after the back cover is closed. Wagner’s scathing critique of what is wrong with Hollywood — the idolization of celebrity, the confusion of attention with merit, the acceptability of the pornography industry, the drive to out-shock and the reward that comes from doing so — paints what we can only hope is a skewed portrait of our culture at this moment in time.
His catharsis does not make for light reading material, and his vocabulary calls for some cringe-worthy definitions, but while “Dead Stars” immortalizes our disgusting celebrity habit, it also ironically guarantees the Dakotas, Emmas, Elles, Nickis, Chris’s and Rihannas that our universe orbits around are kept alive forever in print. Perhaps in a gesture of defeat, Wagner writes into his sad sordid story the fact even dead stars give off light. Unfortunately, his book’s spite will likely prove to burn itself alive before getting into the hands of those who could most benefit from a look in the fun house mirror found in its pages.