Dead Stars, the latest novel from the longtime Hollywood satirist Bruce Wagner, might just be the author's masterpiece. It's certainly his most disturbing novel yet. (Bret Easton Ellis, no stranger to extreme literature, calls it "One of the most exhilaratingly obscene things I've read.") Its pages are populated with fame-hungry prepubescent cancer survivors, a speed-freak paparazzo, and an Internet-porn mogul—not to mention twisted versions of numerous real-life celebrities. Here, Wagner speaks to Details about online depravity, using real celebrities as major characters, and the value of humiliation.
DETAILS: What inspired you to write Dead Stars?
WAGNER: A few years ago, I had been working on a very large book. People would ask me what I was working on, and I'd say it was the book of my life. But, in a sense, that book became the book of my death. It was so ambitious—I'd written 4,000 pages—that it buried me. There was actually a moment when I went into the hospital. I had to get sober. I've been sober for two years, and Dead Stars was written in that first year. I found myself surrounded by a digital forest, that hypervigilant ADD thicket that is America today. I used Dead Stars as a way to catapult myself out of that forest and into a clearing.
DETAILS: Is Dead Stars your darkest book?
WAGNER: I actually think it might be. Apart from the book being strong or poetic—which I hope it is—there are prolonged sections of depravity. But it might seem darker because of what I call porn culture. I'm talking about sex tapes, Chatroulette, and all the Internet tubes that allow one to access the kind of depravity that even in my generation was only spoken of in anecdotes about our grandparents going to Tijuana to see live bestiality. It's all so accessible now, so I made it very accessible in the book. But I've certainly been a bit shy about recommending [the book] to my loved ones.
DETAILS: Don't know how extensive your research was, but were you ever worried about any kind of potential Pete Townshend situation?
WAGNER: No, not at all, because I never went to illicit sites. The New York Times has done articles on the sites that I went to. I was just scanning what's in the culture—and that includes good things as well, not just teens sexting teens. I certainly didn't want to portray the Internet as a den of iniquity. I hate to even call attention to this, because it sounds like a horrible, gimmicky, post-Empire move, but the chapters that are written about the young—the ADD chapters, many of the explicit chapters—are written in a style that is carefully reckless. That's in opposition to the chapters about adults—like the ones about Michael Douglas—who are struggling through their lives in a way that, let's say, predates digital culture. I didn't want to write a book about the Internet, but about a culture where, for example, Michael Douglas, in a weak moment, can visit a site where his cancer is being discussed and he's getting disparaged in the most vicious and horrendous ways.
DETAILS: You use a lot of real figures as characters in this book. Not just Michael Douglas, but Helmut Newton, Steve Martin, Laurence Fishburne, and his daughter, Montana. What made you choose these particular celebrities?
WAGNER: I was listening to Montana Fishburne on Eminem's satellite channel. She was being interviewed about her career as a porn star. The idea of this younger person who seriously believes that what she's doing is art, who considers it another path—that used to be quite different. Before, when a sex tape or something like that came out, it was instant death for a career. But then things changed with Traci Lords, and then things really changed with Sasha Grey. Now, of course, Kim Kardashian has a sex tape, and it's of no consequence whatsoever. It's a little bit different with Montana Fishburne, because she actually has a career as a porn star and doesn't have another kind of career at this time. But there was a kind of poignancy to that interview, and I wondered what kind of special agony a parent might have in knowing about this, or even perhaps tuning in to listen. With Michael Douglas, I thought it would be interesting to have this man of great reputation and dignity, who has just, in a very dignified and courageous fashion, survived the latest round with his nemesis [cancer]. When he was going on talk shows, I think he joked that there must be an easier way to get a standing ovation—but it was genuine. At that point, I think he became part of the American family, just as the Kardashians are part of the American family.
DETAILS: Did you ever consider making it not Michael Douglas himself but using a Michael Douglas-like figure with a different name?
WAGNER: No, because I never liked that kind of thing. That's why the characters in my books are not based on people. They're completely fictional characters. It's my attempt, as many writers have done throughout time, to get inside the head of someone who is, at this point, a historical person. In the sixties or the seventies, back in the time of Jackie Susann, you would invent [a character] and give him "piercing blue eyes" and people would say, "Oh! That's Paul Newman!" But that bores and distresses me.
DETAILS: Well, speaking from the vantage of a reader, the real names definitely create an interesting effect.
WAGNER: I want my book to have an intense whiff of reality. People often ask me, "Do you consider yourself a satirist?" Some have had the kindness to say that what I do is Swiftian. But I don't resort to giants or little people. Life is far crueler and stranger. I feel that my books are an attempt to uncover or illuminate a truth that is lying in the middle of the street, like a body or the wreckage of a car, which for some reason people are either speeding past or averting their eyes from. Christopher Hitchens once said that he would wake up angry, and I can understand that. It's a healthy anger, not embittered or put-upon. It's not constant, but I have that same reaction towards something that's pretentious or false or cruel, and hopefully I have the narrative chops to then build from that sense of enormous anger at one hypocrisy or another. But having said that, there's really nothing in Dead Stars that is an exaggeration. One of the things that I have on my wall is a photo of a spotted eagle ray, basically a stingray in a boat, and the headline is STINGRAY LEAPS FROM WATER, KILLING A BOATER IN THE FLORIDA KEYS. This is just a tourist, and she's enjoying the day, and the next moment there's an 80-pound stingray jumping from the water and knocking her out, and the ray itself dies from the impact. You know you can't make it up, so why try?
—Timothy Hodler, research director at Details