By Bruce Wagner
Blue Rider Press. 656 pp. $35
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Reviewed by Carolyn Kellog
It starts with Telma, a plucky teen who's not only the youngest breast-cancer survivor ever but possibly the most ambitious.
Telma 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 fame as far as it can go, performing at celebrity fund-raisers with the likes of Michael Douglas and Beyoncé, but she wants more: She has 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 takedown 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 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."
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, Telma's guilt-ridden mother; 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 fuel 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."
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 uninteresting and bonkers, and sometimes jumping from one story line to another disrupts the book's considerable momentum. Yet overall the book is a total leap, a stylistic satiric attack, an 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?