Pacific Tremors is a large-hearted narrative concerned with the human foundation beneath the glittering Hollywood facade. Stern explores the drive for success and the narcissism of the movie kingdom, while also considering the timeless verities of human experience. His creations are always more than they appear and their capacities for tenderness and sympathy dispel Hollywood stereotypes.
The novel begins in Fiji, where sixtyish Ezra Keneret, a director en route from a failed attempt to secure financing for a film, believes he has found cinema’s newest sensation, Leet de Loor, a young French woman. Keneret is so taken with her, he develops a script treatment and begins shopping around Hollywood for cast, crew, and financing. His choices, necessitated by his flagging career, are an assemblage of over-the-hill prospects, long on talent but short on other offers.
A month into the shoot the project unravels when it is discovered that de Loor cannot act, Keneret’s cameraman is injured filming the Rodney King riots, and the producer withdraws financing. Keneret is left without his moorings, while his friend and confidant, Wendell Spear, lives a reclusive life in the Malibu hills as his career begins its decline. Suddenly displaced and without a job, Leet de Loor works as a stenographer and before long establishes a multimillion dollar business writing vanity biographies for the rich and famous. Jennifer Abarbanel, Spear’s granddaughter, rises on the corporate ladder, is abruptly “downsized” and left at loose ends, and later revives her career by joining de Loor’s thriving enterprise.
On the surface, Pacific Tremors would seem to be another in long line of Hollywood novels, and indeed Stern plows some familiar ground by satirizing the shallowness and vanity of the film industry. Keneret’s interviews with actors and crew members are hilarious profiles in self-absorption, as each of these hacks imagines himself vital to the industry and Keneret finds himself massaging their fragile egos.
In a certain respect, Keneret finds comfort in the business, delighting, for instance, in being back at a studio where all human needs are miraculously attended to. In explaining filmmaking to the novice de Loor, he tells her that films cannot handle much complexity and that their job is “to make [people ] fall in love with the characters, the shadows.” Keneret is awed by the subtle power of cinema and aims to exploit its powerful influence on an audience.
What was he after? Some heightened yet simplified, at least clarified, depiction of decisive encounters set in artful spaces arranged to speed the pulse of thought, of being, human being, so that the result would be and perhaps stay part of every viewer’s own interior book, a guide to and transfiguration of existence. And this for a few dollars, and without—at least physical—risk.
This world of illusion, however, is littered with failure, and like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West before him, Stern concentrates on the human wreckage.
His Hollywood is as much prison and asylum as it is dream factory, a place that thrives on failure as much as success. In many ways it is a quintessential small town, where people know each other’s business, and Keneret despairs of his new status: “Tomorrow everybody here will know I’m out. Every face will look different. They’ll look through me. I’m not there anymore. Transparent. Empty. A nothing. What that writer Ellison said blacks felt in white streets. The visibility so threatening it has to be unseen. Oh, we’re a species, we are.”
Throughout the novel the integrity and cohesiveness of individual selfhood dissolves under the pressures of professional failure. Before his project is aborted, Keneret accidentally catches a stray glimpse of himself in a mirror and is shocked to find his reflection that of his own grandfather. Age and status “shadow” him, but these reflected images and shadows suggest Keneret’s growing dissociation from himself.
His project is an act of personal reclamation; therefore, when the money vanishes the sense of defeat is all the more acute. “Duggan [the producer] had brought him back from film exile, from the grave of not working....
(The entire section is 1732 words.)