Down On Your Knees, Slave

A twinkly Holocaust survivor buttonholes a misfit screenwriter on some lazy afternoon, then blankets him in stories of the camps. The stories are astounding, almost literally incredible--like the one about the beautiful inmate on whose inviolate lips the Nazis had tattooed, "Walk In, Dance Out": a prelude to their ravishments. The cockeyed writer is blown sideways by these tales...until the day he notices a sign outside a Santa Monica dance studio: Walk out....

Bruce Wagner's Force Majeure, the 1991 novel from which the above story was born, is the all-time home-run champ of Hollywood fiction. Its trajectory is kaleidoscopic but simple: It follows a Wagnerian screenwriter whose life is cursed by the title malady--a cloud of bad luck that follows him like God's frown from pillar to post. Wagner turns every artist's plaint--Why did God make me brilliant, so I could perceive my suffering so clearly?--into a grand opera of humiliation: first the show-biz, then the cosmic variety. You grow attached to the bedragglement of Wagner's alter ego Bud Wiggins, and so the terrifyingly bleak ending has a potent force.

And the author's epic fit of self-pity is allied with another powerful force: a love of movies and literature. In one of the nerviest and best-sustained virtuoso moves in recent fiction, Wagner switches the narrative focus, like a panning camera, from his hero receiving an unwanted BJ from a studio exec, to the movie on the exec's VCR: William Wyler's heartbreaking The Best Years of Our Lives. As the hummer grinds on and on, Wagner just reprints verbatim the Wyler movie dialogue. The effect is at once horrifying and touchingly fannish.

Wagner directed a superb movie, I'm Losing You, based on his own novel, and has scored with several pieces of exquisite lowbrow screenwriting which he probably would disown--such as his uncredited writing for Mortuary Academy, a grade-Z comedy starring Wagner's early patron, Paul Bartel. But things started to go wrong with Wagner's 1996 novel, I'm Losing You. A toxic Short Cuts, Losing established a recipe that would become a grim Wagner formula: Take hot, happening, A-list characters (a switch-hitting ICM agent; a Sandra Bullock type who sullenly feels it's time for indie cred; a perky, upbeat casting director) and assault them with strokes, cancer, HIV, locked-in syndrome. (That's the one where you can think and feel but you can't move a muscle.)

Wagner would make a killing if he ever descended to write a horror movie; his narrative style is predicated on Take the worst, most claustrophobic, most embarrassing thing you can imagine--then double it. What are we to think when a Scott Rudin-like producer's put-upon assistant endures the boss's favorite fetish--tying up his flunky naked in a bathtub and covering him in puke? And what are we to think when the vomitus-spattered assistant keeps it together by thinking of the nice making-up gift the Rudinoid will give him tomorrow? Is it supposed to be funny? Horrifying? Sad?

I think none of the above. Wagner has become like an S&M "top," tiredly addicted to his work. Every few years, he drags us to the basement on a leash and turns out the lights. Picking up a new Wagner has become a grim business. Somewhere in Wagner's latest, Still Holding, the author offers an attempt at leavening the mood. There are, in fact, two happy endings--that is, for the two youngest and prettiest major characters. As if he were forcing himself against his will to "humanize," Wagner exacts payback for those reader rewards by concocting two other characters' unhappy endings--and they are among the most ghastly and inhuman of a far-too-inhuman career.

The Wagner formula works overtime here, zapping readers long since inured to their standard pain thresholds. So there's this unhappy fattie who finally meets a nice guy, stepfather to her child, and gets a nice house. What's the other shoe dropping? How about a plane ride with Sharon Stone, Robin Williams, and Quincy Jones in which a bumpy ride causes her to--stop, you're killing me--shit her pants! If a thinly veiled Jennifer Aniston is going to cheat on a thinly veiled Brad Pitt after he's incapacitated by a brain-damaging affliction, it's not enough just to have her fuck his best friend. No, she has to be fucked in the ass by that best friend--in front of her personal assistant! Every time a glimmer of happiness beckons, there's Wagner in his leather thong and chaps, dryly intoning, "You thought you would escape... but there is no escape..."

Some critics have surmised that Wagner places Hollywood horror shows side by side with scenes of transcendent religious practice as a way of showing what we could become versus what we are. I think the intent is just the opposite. The gods in Wagner's books are the impervious celebs, rendered as woodenly as the deities in a Euripides play. (As recompense for using their names, Wagner generally depicts them favorably--except for his onetime friend Paul Schrader, who, in a shocking display of bad sportsmanship, is drawn in the novel's sole funny scene as a bellicose, pontificating drunk.) The stratum of the Real People in Hollywood--Premiere's "Power 100," let's say--is as imperturbably mighty as Athena or Zeus.

But the spiritual texts Wagner stitches into his seamy books--Jewish in Force Majeure, New Age-y in I'm Losing You, and Buddhist in Still Holding--are pretty, purple-prose jokes. There is no fount of compassion, no white light emerging from the top chakra in Wagner's L.A., only bodies grieving, diseased, and dead. Maybe if Wagner turned his sensibility to new subject matter, his punitive style would have some real force. But, like most of my friends, I don't think I will pick up another Wagner novel. His mausoleum has grown too starved for daylight.

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