The Chrysanthemum Palace: A Novel
by Bruce Wagner
A review by Anna Godbersen
Bertie Krohn, Clea Fremantle, and Thad Michelet, the principal characters in Bruce Wagner's dry and absorbing fifth novel, are bonded by a unique blessing-slash-curse in their personal histories: They are the children of stars. Bertie's father is the creator of the long running TV show Starwatch: The Navigators (which you can doubtless imagine); Clea's mother was the beautiful and doomed actress Roos Chandler; and "Black Jack" Michelet was a literary giant along the lines of Roth or Mailer or Updike. With ghosts like that (as Bertie notes), their "burgeoning threesome provided more than enough material to bring psychoanalysis back into vogue."
While none of these characters are children any longer, they have a child-like neediness that draws them together (says Bertie, "Clea and I were contentious, harmlessly amorous siblings"). And they are still struggling against that main psychological fact of their childhood -- the myth of their parents -- to do something creative of their own. Clea is a sometime actress, while Thad is an out-of-print novelist, and they have all met with mixed success in the movies and on the stage. Sooner or later the forces of nepotism and insiderism and mid-life crises converge to make them cast mates on Starwatch. There, the attention hungry, self-destructive Thad plays the prodigal son of the "Vorbalidian" king, in disguise as a lowly officer. Wagner's title refers both to the seat of Thad's fictional father ("the Chrysanthemum Palace"), and to one of his real father's novels, the cruelly autobiographical Chrysanthemum. (The book within the book features that flower as metaphor in a particularly Updikean passage.) Thad is the one with the authorial ambitions, but it is Bertie who is writing the thinly-veiled The Chrysanthemum Palace, which tells the fate of their middle-aged clique. He will excuse his footnotes, and awkward introductions of new characters, as the vices of a newbie writer, as he might as easily excuse using the Starwatch scenario as a rather clumsy metaphor for their lives. Yet it is an apt one, in spite of its cheesiness, and even more poignant coming from Bertie the Author: These are the children of stars, but they are from another planet.
Fictionalizing Hollywood can't be easy -- the subject matter is trashy to begin with, and on the other end of the spectrum, the satire practically writes itself. The Chrysanthemum Palace has elements of trash and satire, but it happily avoids being too much of either. And it isn't needlessly elegiac, either. This is a very up to the moment Hollywood, where people pitch shows to HBO about themselves and IMDB each other, where Sharon Stone can make a cameo. But for all the name dropping and narcissism, all the pill popping and chaining of Diet Cokes, Wagner evokes his la-la land with a curiously human touch.
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