If you get a thrill watching bad things happen to people, and then seeing how the bad things deepen, giving way to further bad things—then a surprise hole in the basement is broken through and you see characters fall into even worse fortunes that you didn’t even think about, and you can’t look away from what’s there, The Marvel Universe: Origin Stories and many other Bruce Wagner novels are for you.
The tale of how this un-PC novel came to be published on Wagner’s website brucewagner.la and put into the public domain has been recounted elsewhere on the web, including on his Wikipedia site, in YouTube interviews, and podcasts such as The Unspeakable Podcast, and will not be rehashed here.
The novel is a sort of tripartite anthology of linked stories regarding people both rich and poor in LA all dealing with the triple-Mammon (or is it Moloch?) of celebrity, wealth and drugs in our time. Wagner is well-known for tackling these subjects, but what he does with each novel is somehow make it fresh with further Dickensian complications and, crucially, up-to-the-millisecond cultural reference points; in this case we are dwelling in the current, ferocious cultural backwash of a country that has drunk deep from the blockbuster movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe alluded to in the title.
The first section recounts a love story between “Fat Joan” Gamma, an obese inheritrix of a fortune after her family is wiped out by a murderer, and Ali Nell, a mega-celebrity actress who has been diagnosed with ALS. Ali spends time avoiding contemplating her eventual fate as a “locked-in” husk by sedulously tending to her Instagram account, which we are treated to generous chunks of with sick, punny hashtags like #ALSnellThatEndsNell and #whynottakeALSofme. Celebrity cameos, which Wagner often deploys in his novels, multiply like a colony of hornets as the two women find their way through their lovers’ paradise in LA, which, as you might guess if you know Wagner’s prior fiction, is not a case of “all’s well that ends well.”
The second section details a set of con artists trying to rip off an auto magnate from Cleveland using sex and a cleverly-deployed Elon Musk-lookalike. The point-woman of the con is mother to a disturbed young girl unable to separate reality from fantasy, who thinks she is living in the MCU and that her father behind bars is Wolverine. This section was pitch-black Hollywood crime fiction peppered with outrageous, laugh-out-loud comedy, while managing to also be heartbreaking and punishingly sad.
The third and final section is about Garry Gabe Vicker, a famous and successful show runner of the Chuck Lorre ilk who finds himself in the path of the #MeToo juggernaut as he is accused of sexual harassment. His fate is entwined with that of Adele Cobain, a raunchy stand-up comedienne trying to make it big. Adele jokes that “I named myself that because after I lose a bunch of weight, I can do what I’ve wanted to since I was a kid: blow my brains out.” The contortions of celebrities trapped in the crosshairs of cancel culture artillery makes for some of the most trenchant and poisonous reading in the novel. The hidden linkages between Garry and Adele and her family are revealed in awful ways; coincidental interconnections between individuals a la Charles Dickens abound in the sprawling LA of Wagner’s dark imagination, and for me these linkages only occasionally strained credulity to the detriment of the novel.
Somewhere there exists a chart showing the exact distance between Bret Easton Ellis and Bruce Wagner. The distance is not especially far but crosses some crucial gradient: Wagner is more ornate, maximalist, sympathetic to humanity, and informed by the 19th century than Ellis is.
Wagner gets under my skin more than Ellis does. I’m not bothered by Ellis’s violence and affectless anomie. Ellis wrote about another planet of stupendous wealth and fame and another species of human. Wagner is writing about the same people, same area code. But Wagner’s bad vibes hit closer to home, perhaps because the inner lives of his characters, what they share with the hapless reader (who will never be in this stratosphere of fame), are encoded in a way that Ellis at least so far has never be capable of.
One wealthy real estate man and philanthropist privately scorns the naive efforts of those in his tax bracket to raise money fighting diseases like ALS which are “zero-hopers,” and hope is hard to find in a Bruce Wagner creation. Much is made in press about Wagner that he is trying to describe both the despair of current days—in America and specifically Hollywood—and the transcendence hiding between the blocks of despair like persistent vegetable life seeking the light. Wagner often invokes Buddhist teachings which stress impermanence and difficult extractions from the world of material being and suffering. Death, disease, greed, and perversion are ever present but somewhere there is meaning for the reader who is graciously given a panoramic view over all the wreckage and vanity. It might be found, oddly and obliquely, in the laughter and lapidary linguistic playfulness that Wagner injects into the stories. But like all things, the laughter and play are as temporary as the mandala.