Eric Bogosian’s in town to promote Wasted Beauty,his second novel, a tale of clashing internals and externals told in a deft pulse of third- and first-person narratives. Bogosian has done many things, sometimes with cameras aimed at him. He’s world-famous, sort of. So it may be his semi-celebrity status, or there may be a more powerful force at work, for here at the base of UCLA’s sorority row, at the unfortunately named W Hotel, where the poolside towel guy is supposed to charge all patrons a ridiculous hourly rate to occupy the canvas mini-cabanas at patio’s edge, we’re allowed an hour’s asylum forfree.
And it’s noon and it’s hot, and we’re Bogosian on a book tour and me at work, sitting comfortably, fully clothed in the shade, facing a swimming pool populated almost exclusively by young, beautiful, tall, bikini-clad white women of means, basting themselves in exotic butters and oils before our eyes. Primping, preening, lifting, separating, spraying . . .
Thank you, poolside towel guy.
WastedBeauty’sprimary focus is one Reba Cook, a young, beautiful, tall, white small-town girl whose external transition into semi-instant fame and drugs and riches in the exotically buttered world of international supermodeling leads to internal crisis and an affair with a physician of Bogosian’s approximate age and marital status.
“I did a lot of study on Gia [Carangi, model, 1960–1986] when I was writing this screenplay for Paramount, like 10 years ago,” says Bogosian. “Gia was the classic disconnect personality. Here she’s a cover girl, she’s rich, she’s doin’ it — she’s doin’ the jet-set life. But she’s miserable. I mean, she dies of AIDS at 26, she’s shooting so much dope. And I just always thought that was a story I had to go back and look at again.”
But just look at this pool. I bet none of the women here — girls, really — are serious junkies yet. I bet they’re all healthy and delicious trust-fund types with enormous European soap collections and pink teddy bears propped up on the pillows at home, at Mom and Dad’s house in Newport Beach or Scottsdale. Moderate (“I’m not political”) Republicans whose double half-caf latte is always prepared by someone else and to whom the term brokemeans gottaswingbytheATMontheway.Hanging out by swimming pools is their day job. At night, they’re brought to parties in a limo or a Mercedes-Benz. And if Bogosian hadn’t spent time in front of the cameras, they would not be looking his way, as several are, off and on.
“I think he’s that guy who was in that thing,” I may have heard one of them say.
Bogosian grew up in the role of a precocious middle-class kid ever ripe for beatings at the fists of the majority, the dull tough kids of Woburn, Massachusetts. Studied lots. Dropped out of the University of Chicago, finished up at Oberlin College, moved to New York. Assumed a corrosive character named Ricky Paul to spew confrontational bile at punk clubs. Lived through parties. Did some drugs. Founded and ran the dance program at The Kitchen, exorcised cultural demons with complex shamanistic rituals on- and offstage. Wrote and performed six full-length solo performances and five full-length plays, receiving numerous awards including three OBIEs and a 2004 Guggenheim Fellowship. Wrote screenplays and stories and acted in movies and on television, recorded with Frank Zappa, married, produced children and now lives in urban and rural environments at the same time.
“About two hours outside of New York,” he says. “Part of the time. And that’s where a lot of the people I grabbed for [Wasted Beauty]come from. It’s a town that’s just lacking any grace. And what’s great about writing a book, is that I can explore places more fully — almost the way I do as an actor; where I can be the guy, without the consequences of being the guy. So if I’m feeling homicidal or I’m feeling crazy, I can put all that craziness into that guy.”
“When I wrote [my first novel] Mall,I was so clear on what I was gonna do: I was gonna create an arc, the arc was gonna be about this lunatic who goes to the shopping mall, shoots the place up, lights the place on fire and eventually gets hunted down and killed. And then I was gonna just latch on all these different people who were there and get inside their heads, and that’s what the book’ll be. And I followed that right through. But with [Wasted Beauty],I knew I was gonna have these two stories, and that they were gonna basically clash into each other. It was very difficult, structurally.”
We talk structure and patterns and the joys of experimenting with language versus keeping the reader’s focus.
“I just don’t want to be clever for clever’s sake,” says Bogosian. “I don’t want to wear anybody out who’s reading it. Generally, my heroes are guys who just tell the story. Just the facts.”
“I like the way Kundera put it,” I say. “Something like, ‘Once you’re brought inside the dream, nothing should take you out of it.’ Sometimes fucking around with language will ruin the reader’s dream.” And I go off on the simple beauty of Bellow’s HendersontheRainKing.
“Saul Bellow is the pinnacle,” says Bogosian. “Or McEwan or Naipaul. When they describe something, it’s perfect,and you get it.”
And we talk about the disconnect, about the demands of the internal being at odds with the demands of the external, especially when one’s job is full-time mass-media product.
“One of the fun things about being an actor — and nobody wants to admit it — but people pretty much relate to you in terms of the persona you are onscreen, or the collective persona that you are onscreen. So people think of me as sort of this cynical, edgy cool guy, when in real life I’m nothing like that. I’m not edgy, I’m not cool, and I’m not . . . I’m not real.”
“And you’re not a guy.”
“And I’m not even a guy. But, you know, in the case of somebody who’s a movie star, they can walk into a room and everyone deals with them that way — whatever the last role is that they played. For a model, this all comes out of the blue. You don’t work on anything to become a model. It’s not like you have any control over your skin or your height or something. Somebody takes your picture, and if things are right . . . I think that’s a frightening thing for models. And I think it’s kind of true with actors, too, except they don’t want to admit it.
“Like, I come from a very middle-class, suburban family. And there are members of my family who I don’t know that well who treat me differently because they’ve seen me on TV. I haven’t changed, but my situation vis-à-vis them has changed. And if you’re somebody who’s getting this a lot, then you’re really . . . You just go, ‘Wow, I must be different.’ But then you look inside, and you’re not different. And that’s where the disconnect happens, whether it’s John Belushi splayed out in his room at the Château Marmont, OD’d, or a model or whoever. I mean, what exactly are they getting out of this?”
“This is such a perfect place to be sitting and talking about this book,” says Bogosian as we prepare, emotionally, to leave. “All we’re doing is, we’re surrounded by beautiful women in bikinis who are grooming and preening. The whole time we’ve been here, all they’ve been doing is playing with their hair, re-fixing their straps and things on their bikinis, smoking cigarettes. And all I have is this ongoing fantasy as I’m sitting here, of getting all of them naked and saying, ‘If I give you 20 grand, can we all just go up to my room, and we’ll just do one of those really complex, superfuck things?’ ”
“You mean the pyramid clusterfuck?”
“Yeah. But then I wouldn’t know what to do with it. ‘Come on — couldn’t you use ten thousand dollars right now? Come on, let’s go!’ Don’t you think that, like, Saudi Arabian princes must do that stuff all the time, right? ‘Million dollars! Do what I tell you to do!’ That’s legal here in L.A., right?”
WASTEDBEAUTY| By ERIC BOGOSIAN | Simon & Schuster | 272 pages | $24 hardcover