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Carol Wolper, Mr. Famous (New York: Riverhead, 2004, $24.95, 260 pages, ISBN 1-57322-272-0)—Charles Holdefer, Université de Poitiers


Carol 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" [94]. In her own case, a semblance of honesty is maintained by a rhetorical strategy: "the non-answer answer was becoming my specialty" [17]. 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" [184]. 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" [91]. Elsewhere she holds forth about the four kinds of liars in Hollywood [134], and she underlines the contrast between how things might appear to "the uneducated eye," and how they look to "insiders," such as herself [150]. 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" [144] or "Gavin de Becker […] you know who he is, right? The guy who's the expert on how to deal with obsessed admirers" [40]. 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'" [81]) are unconvincing and fall flat.

Lucinda defines herself as "a twenty-first century girl wearing a J.Crew bikini and Gucci sunglasses" [168]. In a moment of turmoil, she observes that "the only two linchpins that ever kept my wheel on the road were sex and shopping" [163]. In Mr. Famous, there is more evidence of the latter. In direct allusions to La Perla underwear, or to a "Bottega Veneta wallet" [31], or to "fabulous garnet and gold Anthony Nak earrings" [140], (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" [122]. There is even an allusion to the proverbial detergent product, "the super-sized Cheer" [128].

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 much?

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 it offer?

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" [116]. 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" [8]; "a very expensive silk scarf" [35]; "a pricey fifty thousand dollars" [31], "three-hundred-dollar Pumas [234]; 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" [112]; "his very expensive Frank Lloyd Wright desk [211]). At its worst, the writing simply gives up, and no longer attempts description: "There was expensive art on the walls" [207].

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" [200]. 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.

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