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Wednesday, September 27th, 2006
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Memorial: A Novel

by Bruce Wagner

The California Pileup

A review by Anna Godbersen

For a writer who made his name satirizing celebrity-sick Los Angeles circa now, Bruce Wagner's latest work -- the rhapsodic, potty-mouthed family saga Memorial -- has a lot of nineteenth-century novelistic turns. There is sprawl to match the setting. There are wild coincidences and omniscient intrusions. There are long-lost family members living, unawares, in the same metropolis. There are involved legal maneuverings, multiple pregnancies, extremes of wealth and poverty, and, particularly toward the end, the risk of broad strokes and melodrama. When a character comments, "That's what America was about: a horrorfilm rapeathon pileup," he could also be talking about this novel.

The family in question is a middle-class family of four: Marjorie Herlihy, a lonely matriarch widowed by her second husband; Raymond Rausch, her estranged but geographically close first love; their middle-aged children Joan, a not-quite-famous architect, and Chester, a pill-popping location scout. They will all be brought low in some sense, and by very modern dangers. A reality show prank gone awry figures prominently, as does a sadistic, elder-abusing, identity-thieving scam. This is a world where prescription drugs come easy online, and the LAPD is always good for a fuckup. Wagner's voice is big and roving and of-the-moment; he spews obscenities and puns and free associations, conjuring a farting Larry King, the Christmas tsunami, the cult of Zaha Hadid, and any number of LA restaurants currently frequented by famous people.

But for all that, Memorial is a redemptive book. The references to Eastern spirituality become ever less sarcastic, for one thing, an India of the American imagination becoming ever more tangible. But more satisfying is the portrait Wagner offers -- funny and dirty and expansive and compassionate -- of the messy, broken way we live now. It is as convincing as any we are likely to get.

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