Reading The Chrysanthemum Palace, Bruce Wagner’s latest novel, is like watching a drunk pretending to walk a straight line all the while knowing he’s heading for a nasty spill. In this case the drunk is Thad Michelet, the self-loathing son of a great American novelist, and the drinks are mixed with Percodan and Klonopin, which creates some wincingly funny moments on the set of the long-running TV series Starwatch: The Navigators, where he plays a noble Vorbalidian alien and his evil twin brother. Telling the story is actor-screenwriter Bertie Krohn, the self-loathing son of the celebrated creator of Starwatch. And bringing the two men closer is Clea Freemantle, another almost famous child of a Hollywood legend, who crosses paths with Bertie, a childhood romantic interest, at an AA meeting in Brentwood before falling hard for Thad. The players mesmerize, flaunting their end-of-the-line and end-of-the-road decadence (if they’re not hugging the curves of Mulholland Drive, they’re on a Vegas roller coaster version of it), but the book’s strength is not exactly character depiction.
And certainly not character delineation. The leads think and speak remarkably alike—exchanging a casually witty, industry-savvy banter that’s the linguistic equivalent of having drinks at the Chateau Marmont. Thus Thad is the more dissolute version of Clea, who may ultimately be the lapsed version of Bertie. This may all sound hard to stomach, but it’s not as bad as you think. For The Chrysanthemum Palace has a moral core, showing how cynicism is the adult child of idealism. While critics sniped at Wagner’s “Cellular Trilogy” for its crushing pessimism, this novel is colored by the memory of Bertie and Clea’s fumbling teenage romance and haunted by the ghost of great artistic expectations, reminding us why “hopeful” so often goes with “Hollywood.” In tone, anyway, The Chrysanthemum Palace is The Great Gatsby for an Entertainment Weekly age.