Reviewed by Kurt Andersen
Like Wagner's previous books, Memorial is set in a Los Angeles descended from Nathaniel West's and Joan Didion's but played for laughs as well as existential dread. It's an L.A. novel the way Short Cuts and Crash are L.A. movies: a set of loosely connected stories rather than a tight single narrative. Like Wagner's other books, too, it refers frequently—compulsively, even—to celebrities and includes passages of breathtaking viciousness about some of them.
But because the heroine (and authorial stand-in), Joan Herlihy, is a high-end architect angling for a commission to design a billionaire's memorial to two American victims of the 2004 tsunami, the insidery trash talk is mainly about the stars of architecture and art. Richard Meier resembles "a well-heeled dentist, the type with something questionable on his hard drive," Daniel Libeskind is "a relentless pussywhipped kike in python boots and a Yohji trench," and Zaha Hadid has an "unkempt Fat Actress kohl-smeared gypsy-soprano" look that works for her.
Despite the customary Wagnerian savagery and ultra-knowingness, however, Memorial is also earnest and even life-affirming, more like I'll Let You Go (2002) than his purely comic novels. The main characters are the members of an ordinary middle-class family—Joan, her feckless older brother, their sweet mother and sweet runaway father.
Three of the four are spectacularly victimized, but every one is also the recipient of a financial windfall, and achieves redemption—which amounts either to slightly overdetermined coincidence, or karma. India is a major leitmotif in Memorial , and although Wagner satirizes InStyle Buddhism (like he did in 2003's Still Holding ), he seems also to be taking Eastern religion seriously, as if to say: modern life is grotesque and funny as ever, but tenderness, honor and glimmers of wisdom are possible as well.
Wagner is a very good writer, and Memorial is filled with beautifully observed turns of phrase ("a big-voltage desexed smile like a nun gone to rut"). His deconstruction of newscasters' special disingenuousness is virtuosic: "Wolf Blitzer talking about a plane that just went down... all necro'd out, breathy and methy and cockstiff for Death, a husky-voiced fratboy Peeper...." But the stylistic fanciness can also mask imprecision (an architectural design "grafting failed skinsketch onto gauzy somnambulist constructions"), and sometimes simply goes over the top—such as a 238-word-long sentence ("ambient absence, sounds and swellings, screams and shadows") about sex. His weakness for puns ("natal attractions," "Restoril in peace," "Hello, Dalai!") is... a weakness.
But this is an ambitious, engaging, satisfying book. While his fans will find all the demonic intelligence and fun they expect, Memorial might also attract a new cohort of readers who want more than all-dark-comedy-all-the-time. (Sept.)
Kurt Andersen's new novel, Heyday, will be published by Random House in March.