Picks and Pans Review: The Chrysanthemum Palace

UPDATED 03/07/2005 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/07/2005 at 01:00 AM EST

By Bruce Wagner

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The Chrysanthemum Palace is full of daring language that veers between being wickedly funny and just plain wicked. Nobody writes more knowingly about Hollywood than Wagner, a Beverly Hills High alum who was once married to actress Rebecca De Mornay. Wagner is a multitasker—scripts, TV pilots and novels—whose career took off after Wild Palms, his noir-ish cartoon strip, appeared in Details magazine. Here he flaunts his insider status in off-the-cuff wordplay (L.A. has "a great sense of rumor") and extended riffs on screen-writing and a monster television series called Starwatch. The book is narrated by Bertie Kohn, the 38-year-old son of Starwatch's creator; he floats around the edges of "the industry" both exploiting and disdaining his father's lowbrow success. So when Bertie's childhood friend Clea, the daughter of a famous actress, hooks up with Thad, son of a celebrated novelist, Bertie observes the ensuing train wreck with the empathy of a fellow celebrity child. All three offspring have parlayed their name recognition into minor acting careers, which have devolved into roles on Starwatch, and the scenes on the set are delicious Trekkie satires. The Oedipal plot turns are sometimes overwrought, but the book sustains its catty energy with an endless string of hip cultural asides about everyone from Primo Levi to Charlie Rose. Some of the swipes at bestselling authors—Alice Sebold in particular—cross the line from clever to cruel. Like Thad, its most magnetic character, Chrysanthemum Palace is "raw and cultured, cultivated and kitschy" and great fun.

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