The rest of America may believe Manhattan is the modern equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah (all recent protestations of sympathy aside), but New Yorkers know better: They point the finger at Hollywood, the glittery city with the supersweet Tootsie Roll center. Six years ago, Updike and the East Coast literati christened Bruce Wagner the bard of L.A. after he published I’m Losing You. A savage novel in the lineage of Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust and Michael Tolkin’s The Player, it featured a huge cast of characters too busy with their own careers to go in search of a narrative; in Altman-esque quick cuts, they e-mailed, fucked, exploited, and dumped each other. Wagner had confirmed for us that—surprise!—L.A. is a venomous cesspit of ambition and idiocy in which everyone is complicit, from the most powerful mega-agent to the lowliest masseuse.
Hollywood is all about extravagance, and Wagner apparently decided he needed to reflect this in the very structure of his new novel. I’ll Let You Go drowns in excess of every kind—a hyperabundance of characters, plotlines, wealth, emotions, words. Every page is a promiscuous showcase for erudition queasily mixed with a litany of brand names. As in I’m Losing You, the details make the man. Of pretentious would-be screenwriter Ralph, Wagner writes that his “hollowed cheeks and tormented eyes reminded Tull of a monk in flight from a monastery—never mind, Trinnie had decked him out in Dries and motocross Menichetti and in six scant weeks addicted him to Keratase emulsions . . . and the arcane almond pastes of Santa Maria Novella.” A footnote later apologizes for the book’s “catalogue des excès,” but argues that it is “of ethnographic interest.” That it is, and Wagner’s mordant flashes of Hollywood are hilarious as ever.
No slouch in the ambition department, Wagner has taken Proust’s In Search of Lost Time as his model. Although not quite of Proustian length, I’ll Let You Go runs well over 500 pages; Wagner clearly hopes to secure a place in the contemporary canon of doorstoppers like The Corrections, Underworld, and Infinite Jest. But since the literary world isn’t like the movie business—sheer size isn’t all that matters—he has set himself up for failure. (Back in the early ’90s, Wagner created the post-Twin Peaks miniseries Wild Palms, so he knows a little something about flopping with a flourish.)
It’s a shame, because at its best I’ll Let You Go twists the old cliché that “there isn’t any there there” and offers a glimpse of contemporary L.A. as a spectral, gothic, and sometimes wondrous city. Ferocious wealth and narcissism coexist with delicate rumblings of love and loss; it’s a place where a little boy of great sensitivity can come of age against a backdrop of dissolution and moral decay.
Tull (born Toulouse) Trotter is the sensitive boy at the heart of this novel’s convoluted plot. Scion of one of America’s richest families (their wealth was earned from waste disposal, in a DeLillo-esque touch), Tull spends most of his time with his two cousins on their Bel-Air estate. Although way too precocious to be taken seriously, these kids amplify the novel’s sense of fairy-tale-ish reality. Lucy is a smartass girl detective who’s already formulating the marketing plan for her unwritten mystery novel; theatrical and brilliant brother Edward, grossly disfigured by an obscure disease, disguises himself in “hand-sewn hoods . . . that on occasion sported papier-mâché prosthetics: a beak, an ear, or some such excrescence.” When the cousins uncover information suggesting that Tull’s father is not dead, as they’d been led to believe, they launch into sleuth mode.
Aside from the sweet but placid Tull, the book’s characters are larger than life, endowed with something close to real, pulsing hearts. The most moving relationships are the awkward bonds between the boys and their moms. Tull’s mother, Trinnie, is a glamorous landscape artist and recovering addict whose life was shattered, Miss Havisham-style, by the disappearance of her mentally unstable husband on the day after their wedding. When we first meet Trinnie she registers as a type: the neglectful, globe-trotting mother who has traded maternal instincts for hedonistic pleasures. But the narrator soon gives us access to her regrets: “Tull!—small living thing, with scrunchy bones and soft smelly feet, who loved her, a wizardly child she made, then abandoned. That kind of cruelty was like a dissolution sidebar; she felt like a pervert. When he needed her, when he cried and hated and wet his bed for her, she lay in the arms of jackals with pleasure palaces . . . ”
I’ll Let You Go might have worked as a family saga (Dynasty by way of David Lynch) if Wagner had not woven in an overripe counterplot: the tale of Amaryllis Kornfeld, a starry-eyed 12-year-old whose mother’s murder has left her alone with two young siblings. Fate throws her together with William, a hulking melancholic itinerant who believes himself to be the eminent Victorian designer William Morris and longs to avenge the loss of his wife. Eventually, Amaryllis and her protector are separated and she descends into the cruel foster-care system, which Wagner depicts with great brio. Her first “placement” is a horrifying orphan sweatshop; the narrator coolly admits that “the aftertaste of beggar’s banquet, nauseating closeness of room, stench of unconscious boy . . . has done her no real good.” In keeping with Amaryllis’s dreamy nature, she later mythologizes her distressing experiences, recounting tales of “canyons and witches, and deaf-and-dumb supergirls . . . of her father held prisoner in the forbidden Valley of Carceration . . . ”
The neatness of the plot symmetry—Tull and Amaryllis as literal or figurative orphans searching for a parent, Trinnie and William mourning lost loves—isn’t fatal on its own. But the book can’t resist even the most gratuitous opportunity to make connections, and the narrative clots and loses momentum as the disparate characters are compulsively thrust together. Wagner trades social satire for cliché and sentimentality, all the while making uncomfortable, self-referential quips about the dangers of cliché and sentimentality.
In the same way, he makes uncomfortable, winking references to Proust. (While landscaping a garden that reminds her of Illiers-Combray, for instance, Trinnie confesses that she once stole a butter dish from the Proust Museum.) Enjoyable in small doses, Wagner’s prose frequently wows the reader with its neo-goth grandeur and aerodynamics. But it’s not the least bit like Monsieur Marcel’s—not unless you can envision Proust on crystal meth.
The novel ultimately founders because, unlike In Search of Lost Time, I’ll Let You Go is not a true bildungsroman. Tull is a young man and he does come of age eventually, but his character never deepens or expands through his experiences. The perfect Hollywood hero, there’s less to him than meets the eye.