The Chrysanthemum Palace describes the giddy joys and private envies of the self-absorbed fast-track Hollywood crowd. Writer, actor, director, and producer Bruce Wagner’s latest novel, a bit autobiographical, wallows happily in the domain of drugs, famous people and also-rans, and the tectonically moving culture of Hollywood’s celebrity families. It offers a clip taken from the underachieving lives of three children of the rich and famous and their supporting cast of dysfunctional characters.
Bertram Valentine (an allusion to the hero of the 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein) Krohn narrates the book. He is the thirty-eight-year-old son of a multitalented and megasuccessful television producer. The father’s current series in production is the long-running Starwatch: The Navigators, an enterprise on which Bertie has long resisted sailing. His hope has been to become successful without resorting to nepotism. In the shadow of his larger-than-life dad, Bertie has come to realize that he will never achieve significant greatness as long as he continues to ply his trade as an actor. He revises his dream to a more manageable and possibly more attainable one: life as a writer. In the verisimilitude of fiction, The Chrysanthemum Palace is presented as the product of this new career direction. It is Bertie Krohn’s work. To support himself while he writes, he accepts an acting role in his father’s television series and climbs aboard the starship Demeter. In the episodes currently being filmed, Demeter and its crew will be drawn into the political exigencies of an alien culture whose governmental structures resembling a circular white flower are deemed “Chrysanthemum Palaces.” At least that is the image that Krohn’s character sees.
The story is engaging, if somewhat predictable. The reader is introduced to a troika of friends. There is Bertie’s longtime buddy and sometime lover, Clea Freemantle. Clea’s advantaged youth has been compromised by the suicide of her mother, a famous actress. Clea engages in partying, extravagance, and over-the-top sex. The trajectory of her life seems pointed toward self-destruction. Nevertheless, like many of her star-crossed Hollywood contemporaries, she eventually stumbles into recovery and into the inevitable round of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. It is at one of these gatherings that she becomes reacquainted with Bertie, whom she had not seen in years, since the death of a high school friend in a Pacific Coast Highway accident. During the intervening years Clea has been working as an actress and at an unsatisfying relationship with Thad Michelet.
Thad Michelet, like Clea and Bertie, is the child of a Hollywood legend. Perhaps he is related to the grandest and deadliest icon of them all. The overarching shadow of Thad’s famous father, whose funeral is detailed in the book, seems more menacing than that of the others: “Black Jack Michelet who most definitely didn’t end with a bang or a whimper but instead lingered in bodystink and agonized ill health so as to take pleasure in maiming and brutalizing whomsoever loved him.” As the story unfolds, it comes to light that the elder Michelet has extended his abusive control of his son beyond the grave by placing a harsh stipulation in his will. Thad may inherit some of the millions from daddy’s estate only if he can write a book that makes The New York Times best-seller list. This paternal goal seems out of reach. Nevertheless, the urgency of Thad’s significant debt and the fact that he is being questioned by the Internal Revenue Service motivates him to try. Miriam Levine, his enterprising literary agent, has...
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