I’m Losing You

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In his first novel, FORCE MAJEURE (1991), Bruce Wagner depicts Los Angeles as hell on earth from the point of view of a young, unsuccessful screenwriter on his way to mental breakdown. I’M LOSING YOU escapes any tinge of sentimentality by avoiding a protagonist with whom the reader might identify. This time, Wagner alternates between the stories of twenty or so agents, writers, producers, physicians, pornographers, and would-be Hollywood players, all desperate or despicable or both.

These characters interact with real-life celebrities such as Alec Baldwin, Laura Dern, Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, and Harry Dean Stanton to create a vivid vision of a show business community considerably nastier than the one depicted in Robert Altman’s THE PLAYER (1992). Wagner’s world consists of mental instability, murder, suicide, child molestation, drug abuse, homelessness, AIDS, insurance scams, kidnapping, kinky sex, and various other forms of humiliation and one-upmanship.

Wagner, best know for writing the television miniseries WILD PALMS (1993), is a deeply moral writer without being didactic. He remonstrates against his characters’ excesses but suggests that such behavior is simply standard for the time. More amused than outraged, Wagner does, however, imply that traditional spiritual values, particularly those found in Judaism, may offer a respite from this cesspool. With a hallucinatory vision of Los Angeles recalling that of James Ellroy, the satirical bite of Martin Amis, and the moral concerns of Saul Bellow, Wagner is a distinctive commentator on his rotten times.

Sources for Further Study

The Advocate. July 23, 1996, p. 55.

Booklist. XCII, July, 1996, p. 1805.

Chicago Tribune. September 5, 1996, V, p. 3.

Entertainment Weekly. July 26, 1996, p. 49.

Library Journal. CXXI, June 15, 1996, p. 94.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 4, 1996, p. 6.

The New York Times. July 30, 1996, p. C15.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, August 18, 1996, p. 11.

The New Yorker. LXXII, August 5, 1996, p. 74.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, May 6, 1996, p. 67.

San Francisco Chronicle. August 14, 1996, p. E5.

Time. CXLVIII, October 7, 1996, p. 96.

Variety. CCCLXIV, September 16, 1996, p. 8.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, December 1, 1996, p. 6.

I’m Losing You

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In Force Majeure (1991), Bruce Wagner presents contemporary Hollywood as an only slightly exaggerated version of hell on earth. While Wagner’s first novel focuses on one character’s slow descent into madness, his second, I’m Losing You, shows a cross-section of people connected directly or indirectly with the film and television business engulfed in varying degrees of decadence. Much like Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939), invoked several times by Wagner, I’m Losing You uses the impersonality and desperation of Hollywood as metaphors for moral decline in general. Far from being didactic, however, the novel is satirical, often hilariously so, displaying as much glee as censure in the excesses of its characters.

Unlike with Force Majeure, because of the inevitable identification with its woebegone protagonist, Wagner achieves considerably greater ironic distance through having no main character and no conventional plot, the novel consisting of a series of vignettes. I’m Losing You is told from the points of view, sometimes first-person, usually omniscient, of about twenty characters, all despicable or pathetic in widely varying degrees, whose lives interact, often to the detriment of all concerned.

Wagner’s subject and aggressively hip style recall such contemporary novelists as Martin Amis, T. Coraghessan Boyle, James Ellroy, and Thomas Pynchon, but his narrative strategy, with the alternating focuses, resembles that of another master satirist, Evelyn Waugh, whose Vile Bodies (1930) could easily be a model for I’m Losing You.

Donny Ribkin is a powerful agent whose father, Bernie, produced a series of popular horror films twenty-five years earlier but has gone downhill since. In a drunken-driving accident, Bernie killed the mother of Pierre Rubidoux who became an agent only to have Donny outshine him. Rubidoux plays a cruel trick on Bernie to get revenge on them all, leading to Bernie’s death. Donny has never gotten over his former wife, Katherine Grosseck. Wagner fittingly describes this obsession in terms of decay, a central metaphorical conceit in the novel: “Their love continued to grow the way nails were said to grow on a corpse.” Katherine is a screenwriter who expects to be nominated for an Academy Award for her film biography of the suicidal poet Anne Sexton. After Donny, Katherine turns to lesbianism, becoming the lover of the hot director Pargita Snow, stealing her from the producer Phylliss Wolfe. Katherine is much happier in her new life and is amused at news of Donny’s homosexual activity.

Bernie has long been separated from his wife, Serena, now dying of cancer. (Most of the characters are physically or spiritually ill or both.) Years earlier, Bernie passed his syphilis on to Serena, who infected her lover, cantor Sy Krohn, whose wife also contracted the ailment, all becoming “characters in a Preston Sturges nightmare.” (Wagner shares with his creations the cinema as a constant point of reference.) Sy’s subsequent suicide was covered up as a random murder. Serena is befriended by Simon Krohn, not knowing he is Sy’s son. Simon, a would-be screenwriter, meets her when he investigates a suspicious odor in her house. Calling himself “the Dead Animal Guy,” Simon removes squirrels, raccoons, and other creatures he calls “Fluffy” that have died beneath houses or inside their walls. Simon’s mother is psychiatrist Calliope Krohn- Markowitz, whose patients include Donny and several other characters. Calliope kicks Simon out of her house for trying to interest her famous clients in his script ideas.

Simon’s sister, Rachel, is personal assistant to Perry Needham Howe, a successful television producer. Perry’s young son has died of cancer, and now he has the disease himself. Seeing himself near the end, Perry becomes obsessed with intricate watches costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Since some such timepieces are capable of registering the end of the millennium, Perry’s concern with time becomes suggestive not only of approaching death but also of apocalypse. Perry is friends with Jeremy Stein, whose infant son is blind. Jeremy’s wife, Sara, a casting director, knows he is having an affair, and becomes more and more wrapped up in her son. The letters in which she pours out her emotions to Samson are published and optioned for the big screen with Sara’s dear friend Holly Hunter, with whom she and the baby move in after she leaves Jeremy, to play her. Perry’s mistress Tovah Bruchner, an agent and Rachel’s best friend, wants Perry to produce the film with Jane Campion to direct. (Hunter and Campion are only...

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