The Chrysanthemum Palace introduces Bertie Krohn, the only child of Perry Krohn, creator of TV's longest running space opera, Starwatch: The Navigators (which counts Jennifer Aniston and Donald Rumsfeld among its obsessed fans). Bertie recounts the story of the last months in the lives of his two companions: Thad Michelet, author, actor, and son of a literary titan; and Clea Freemantle, emotionally fragile daughter of a legendary movie star, long dead. Scions of entertainment greatness, they call themselves the Three Musketeers; between them, as Bertie says, "there was more than enough material to bring psychoanalysis back into vogue." As the incestuous clique attempts to scale the peaks claimed by their sacred yet monstrous parents over a two-week filming of a Starwatch episode in which they costar, Bertie scrupulously chronicles their highs and lows -- as well as their futile struggles against the ravenous, narcissistic, Convulsive and poignant, The Chrysanthemum Palace is a tragic tale of friendship and fate writ large -- a tour de force by a major writer whose narrative delivers devastating emotional impact.
In his Cellular Trilogy, novelist Wagner gleefully excoriated Hollywood vanity and pretense. Obviously his hunger for butchering Tinseltown's sacred cows was not sated because in his latest work he continues to carve them up. His uproarious new satire focuses on a trio of psychologically and emotionally fragile actors, each of whom carries the added baggage of a very famous and successful parent. The story is told from the perspective of Bertie Krohn, the soon-to-be-middle-aged son of the "creator-producer in perpetua of TV's longest-running syndicated space opera, Starwatch: The Navigators." After several attempts to make it on his own artistically, Bertie succumbs to nepotism and joins the cast of Starwatch. The book revolves around his interactions with two other actors who are appearing on the series. The first is Clea Fremantle, his childhood crush and the daughter of a "legendary film actress." The other is Thad Michelet, the 50-something son of a universally revered, award-winning author. Much as Jeffrey Frank did in his excellent novel The Columnist, Wagner crafts a savage meditation on contemporary self-involvement his characters are vacuous, name-dropping black holes of self-absorption. The writing itself is wonderfully bad, as Bertie the hapless hack attempts to chronicle his melodramatic tale with 25-cent words ("commodious," "numinous," etc.) and wickedly overwrought metaphors ("Thad's hungry eyes surveyed the topography of human detail unfolding before him like a jet devouring a runway during takeoff"). It's a short, sharp book that puts a dagger right in the heart of Hollywood.