By Hillel Aron
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By Jill Stewart
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"I can work on a lot of things at once," Wagner said. "It’s the one gift that I have, and I only say it’s a gift because it affords me a certain ease. I can set down a book I’ve been working on, and then come back to it two years later without rereading what I’ve done. I can do a lot of things at one time, and I don’t have to disappear into a woodshed — yet!"
Notes for various novels and scripts, written in black felt pen in big capital letters, were pinned to panels of cork that ran along the walls: TORTURE, POVERTY, MOLESTATION, ADDICTION, DEGRADATION. Newspaper clippings: OPERATION GOES WELL ON SHAQ’S TOE. JORDANIAN MOTHER DENIES SON HAS TIES TO TERRORISM. Different projected books (Wagner is an extravagant planner) took up different sections of the room. There was a place for Bud Wiggins, who will return in a forthcoming sequel titled Grand Mal, part of an eventual Bud Wiggins Quartet to be called Scriptures. Another area was laid aside for two other projected novels, Memorial and Inferno.
Then there was the film-and-television area. Wagner has a blind script deal with Sony, meaning he doesn’t have to pitch projects but can hand in whatever he wants. In the last year he’s written four pilot scripts, two of which are based on his own novels. He has adapted I’ll Let You Go (his own favorite among his books, and one that has very little to do with Hollywood) for Fox, and Still Holding for Showtime. He’s also writing an original show for Sony and another for FX. "I’m very fast when it comes to scripts," he told me. "Once you get the hang of writing for TV, it’s fun, like a jigsaw puzzle."
The director David Cronenberg, another friend, wants to direct Wagner's screenplay Maps to the Stars, which Wagner describes as "an operatic ghost story." It’s about a young boy who is the biggest TV star in America — and also a heroin addict. As with a lot of Wagner’s projects, its seeds can be found in earlier works, in this case Wild Palms, the phantasmagoric comic strip about a cabal of Hollywood Fascists Wagner created for Details magazine in 1990 and later turned into an overhyped television miniseries produced by Oliver Stone in 1993.
It was Wagner’s comic strip — an early example of the "graphic novel," perhaps — that first brought him to the attention of the New York Observer’s cultural critic, Ron Rosenbaum, who told me he found Wild Palms "addictively fascinating" when he first read it and decided to check out Force Majeure as a result. "I’m a big, big fan of Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West, that whole dark L.A. thing, but I think he has transcended localism, because L.A. has transcended locale. It’s the global nerve center of the culture, not an exotic colony anymore," Rosenbaum said. "There aren’t many contemporary novelists whose work I look forward to more than his. I find myself surprised, impressed, by his willingness to go way out on a limb in various ways, and keep me reading. I thought you couldn’t get any darker than I’m Losing You, but Still Holding was his summa of darkness. It’s also a challenging book, because he’s so courageously deadpan. He gives you these monsters talking in their own heads, and doesn’t comment on them. You don’t know how to react to the spiritual content. Is it sincerity, satire or both?"
A much harsher view comes from the novelist Gary Indiana, who thinks Wagner may be a little too close to Hollywood for his own good. "It’s always tricky to be a screenwriter and novelist at the same time," he told me over the phone. "When you pick up a novel, you expect to be told the truth about things, and not just the gossip about things. ‘Thin’ is the word that comes to mind when I think about his work, and that’s not to say he doesn’t have tremendous talent, because he does. But it’s a little facile. I think he should take a sabbatical from Hollywood and get out in the real world."
Asked whether he thought Wagner’s novels had any merit as satires of Hollywood and the movie industry in general, Indiana replied that they did to a degree, but that the satire was marred by a surreptitious pandering. "He’s cruel to people it’s safe to be cruel to, but he’s happy to let us know he’s friends with Carrie Fisher and Diane Keaton. If he had real guts as a writer he’d satirize those people, because I don’t think anyone survives in that business without a few hairs on them. It’s so easy to attack David Geffen and other people who are thinly disguised. Make some real enemies if you want to be a satirist. I have!"
"The idea that I’m pandering — it’s an interesting notion," Wagner said when I brought this up with him. "In other words, how have I benefited? In my mind — and I may be delusional — I don’t write about Hollywood. I write coincidentally about Hollywood because it’s the place I physically inhabit. But I’m not a player. Producers don’t say, ‘Get me Bruce Wagner!’"