Mr. Famous (New York: Riverhead, 2004, $24.95,
260 pages, ISBN 1-57322-272-0)—Charles Holdefer,
Université de Poitiers
Wolper's first two novels (The Cigarette Girl
and Secret Celebrity) staked out Hollywood
as her territory, and in Mr. Famous she continues
to explore a world of entertainment industry players,
wannabes, and people behind the scenes. Most of the
story is narrated by Lucinda, the erstwhile chef/nutritionist
and later "development executive" for aging
action movie star named Victor, otherwise referred to
as Mr. Famous. Victor's career and personal life are
falling apart, and include embarrassments recounted
in the tabloids; he hides in his Bel Air mansion and
appears on the verge of a break-down. Lucinda offers
an insider's view of how he got there and how he recovered,
and in the process tells her own story of coming to
terms with a life adrift, in an insecure world of fleeting
attachments, where the only certainty is that people
will move on.
If some of this sounds familiar, that is partly the
point. The very title, Mr. Famous, advertises
a certain self-consciousness and desire to play with
conventions. Wolper’s Lucinda is the grand-daughter
of Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, even the
great-grand-daughter of Tod Hackett in The Day of
the Locust. The ephemeral, it seems, is a lasting
theme. Other influences include Ross Macdonald and his
P.I. Lew Archer (mentioned explicitly and repeatedly)
as well as more current trends of glitz and "chick
lit." There are also occasional glimmers of satire.
These conventions are potentially rich, and in a sense
Mr. Famous is symptomatic, because it illustrates
both the pleasures and pitfalls of mainstream American
fiction. It is willfully eclectic yet voluntarily constricted.
It wants to be taken seriously while seeking to avoid
the appearance of being excessively "literary."
By the beginning of this century it was already received
wisdom that the "literary" novel was in trouble.
Associated with writing that was nerdy, solipsistic
or just plain dull, it was the kiss of death in the
publishing industry. Though exaggerated, this view exerted
considerable influence. Editors, agents and writers
scrambled for the exits. Nowadays most novels target
specific genres, masquerade as non-fiction or memoir,
or embrace a reassuringly ecumenical label like "contemporary,"
which promises something for everyone.
This is not necessarily a bad thing: certainly not,
as some of the gloomier observers would have it, the
death of "literary" culture as we know it.
One of the positive developments of the last 30 years
is a greater readiness to question who "we"
are, and what we mean when we say that we "know"
(if such questions are sometimes clumsily put or politically
naive or careerist, those are problems of another order).
Moreover, there is more continuity with the past than
is sometimes acknowledged. The better examples of plot-driven
fiction offer the rewards of the 19th century yarn-spinners;
good "chick lit" is where a reader can find
satisfying comedy of manners. If a book, for whatever
reason, avoids being nerdy, solipsistic or dull, one
can hardly complain.
At her best, Mr. Famous's Lucinda is bracing
and perceptive. She offers a number of pithy observations
about human foibles, about people who "have told
so many lies about their past, reality was not an option"
. In her own case, a semblance of honesty is maintained
by a rhetorical strategy: "the non-answer answer
was becoming my specialty" . On occasion, her
comments give way to playful flights of fancy: "You
can end up living so far out on a limb, the tree you
climbed to get there is in another zip code" .
Structured in short chapters, the narrative is breezy
and generally assured.
The overriding premise of a novel set in Hollywood (or
Washington or a version of Manhattan) is that the reader
will enjoy a glimpse of the inner workings of a rarefied
world. It promises a peek behind the curtain. For her
part, Lucinda announces her credentials: "I'd been
in the world of celebrities long enough to realize what
was going on" . Elsewhere she holds forth about
the four kinds of liars in Hollywood , and she
underlines the contrast between how things might appear
to "the uneducated eye," and how they look
to "insiders," such as herself . At any
given moment, she implies, she can dish out the dirt.
This knowing tone is reinforced by a stylistic tic dear
to glitz fiction: name-dropping. Along with Gwyneth
and J.Lo and Pamela Anderson and, yes, Alan Greenspan,
one finds more labored allusions, such as "Anthony
Pellicano, the detective to the stars"  or
"Gavin de Becker […] you know who he is,
right? The guy who's the expert on how to deal with
obsessed admirers" . Jennifer Beals and Michael
Hutchence arrive on the page with capsule biographies,
too. Interestingly, such asides do not occur in the
references to brand names. Their claim to importance
requires no explanation.
In Mr. Famous, there are none of the drab trappings
of what used to be called "K-Mart realism."
Many of the products alluded to here are ostensibly
luxurious or at least modish but, revealingly, they
are never recondite. In this way the novel embodies
a kind of American earnestness about making oneself
special, but with a socially ingratiating code. This
code should not be too far removed from others' recognition,
which is the means by which one's specialness is validated.
The result is a fetishistic mall porn (with extras from
Neiman's) which seeks to gratify with distinctions less
of class or of culture than of the more straightforward
appeal of money. At bottom it is very democratic. Occasional
attempts at more old-fashioned forms of snobbery (e.g.,
"he looked like a handyman and I doubted he had
ever heard the word 'concierge'" ) are unconvincing
and fall flat.
Lucinda defines herself as "a twenty-first century
girl wearing a J.Crew bikini and Gucci sunglasses"
. In a moment of turmoil, she observes that "the
only two linchpins that ever kept my wheel on the road
were sex and shopping" . In Mr. Famous,
there is more evidence of the latter. In direct
allusions to La Perla underwear, or to a "Bottega
Veneta wallet" , or to "fabulous garnet
and gold Anthony Nak earrings" , (to cite
but a few examples), the name obviously counts for as
much as the object. Or rather, the name is the
object. Mr. Famous does not merely hold Lucinda's cell
phone, he has a "grip on my Nokia" .
There is even an allusion to the proverbial detergent
product, "the super-sized Cheer" .
Does this matter? My purpose here is not to make some
tired, didactic point about the evils of American consumerism
(of course the detergent is "super-sized").
One could just as well concoct a defense against such
criticism (which can easily fall into its own kind of
snobbery) by claiming an aesthetic continuity between
Wolper's celebration of shopping and an example of early
20th century realism like Theodore Dreiser's Jennie
Gerhardt, which earnestly alludes to the glories
of indoor plumbing. In this light, one could argue that
Wolper is retranslating a tradition, by depicting the
persuasive force of material realities in configuring
desire. This force has in no way dissipated. It has
simply taken other forms. Why get puritanical about
mall porn, anyway? Why begrudge its gratifications?
By the same token, Victor's individualistic triumph
at the end of Mr. Famous is not so far removed
from the success of a Dreiserian "Titan."
Have the world and literary motifs really changed that
But those are sweeping comparisons, and involve, in
my estimation, an excess of special pleading. It remains
more fruitful to concentrate on more "local"
issues, which are central to the novel's art and can
be grouped around simple questions: what does this fiction
know? What pleasures of language does
This is a book that wants to be hip. Again, there is
nothing wrong with that; it is consistent with the novel's
"insider" premise. But there are problems
here with credibility, of discernment, which show how
a hip pose can actually limit perceptions; it is the
opposite of "liberating." Lucinda is supposedly
a chef, but the "knowing" allusions to food
and cooking are formulaic and barely credible. Or, to
return to the question of name-dropping, consider the
following sentence: "Dressed in black pants and
a Prada shirt, Mr. F went into the kitchen to get a
drink" . One can note that "Prada,"
in effect, replaces a description of the shirt's color.
It is deemed the pertinent detail. Or, to put it another
way, the name-dropping is more than a stylistic tic:
it becomes a way of seeing.
The implications of this are far-reaching, definitely
more than consumerist. In fact, the more the narrator
insists (an "expensive address" ; "a
very expensive silk scarf" ; "a pricey
fifty thousand dollars" , "three-hundred-dollar
Pumas ; etc.), the more the concept of materiality
is drained of its force. The piling-up of adjectives
begins to seem a desperate attempt to buttress the name-dropping
technique ("a very famous Magritte" ;
"his very expensive Frank Lloyd Wright desk ).
At its worst, the writing simply gives up, and no longer
attempts description: "There was expensive art
on the walls" .
Lucinda observes, "I couldn't afford to
live the examined life" [114, my emphasis]. And
that is the most telling abdication. Of course, a fictional
character is not obliged to be introspective; a novel
has many other means at its disposal to express its
truths and dispense its pleasures. But unfortunately,
Lucinda's statement seems representative of the limitations
of Mr. Famous, a moment where style merges
with thought, with sensibility, even. The displacement
of desire, which could have been interesting—that
is the fun of fetishes, after all—dribbles away
into an absence of desire.
Despite referring to her own rebelliousness, to her
political incorrectness and to her fanciful ideas, it
eventually emerges that what is really at stake for
Lucinda is "a life that offers no security"
or "safety net" . There is something
almost touching in the modesty of this formulation,
and again, nothing "wrong" with the sentiment.
In itself, it is no impediment to art. But any sense
of pain or fear is submerged by plot hijinks revolving
around Victor's career. Lucinda's stalker ex-boyfriend
is more of a concept than a character, a pretext for
Victor to act like a real action hero. There are plenty
of allusions to blow-jobs and to purportedly skanky
behavior, but the attitude toward sex and to pleasure
in general is rather reserved, even squeamish. Not much
is committed to language. A more convincing description
of feeling occurs at the end, in the final exchange
between Lucinda and Victor, but it comes too late to
salvage the formulaic events that preceded it. Ultimately,
Mr. Famous is a novel without news, and this
compromises its ability to please.