Back in my days as a bookseller, a very gruff customer with a mustache that could harvest krill approached the information counter. He gave me an author's last name and informed me, "He writes poetry." Easy enough—I guided the customer back to the poetry section, and we browsed the stacks around the author's last name. Nothing. I went back to my computer and typed in the name and a title the customer gave me. I explained that the only books by that author in the store must have been misfiled, because the computer told me that they were in the true crime section. I apologetically led him there, and I handed him a paperback with a lurid cover and back cover text describing a policeman's search for a serial killer with a predilection for fresh-faced young women. "That's him!" the man quavered, a smile of honest bliss spreading somewhere behind his mustache as he held the book to his heart. "It's poetry. He writes poetry."
The only reason I'm telling you this story is so you don't get the wrong idea when I tell you that Bruce Wagner is a poet. His new book, Dead Stars, is technically a novel, and all of Wagner's other seven books are novels, too. Just looking at them, you'd think they're novels. They have chapters and prose that stretches from one margin to the next, broken into paragraphs and dialogue and all the other stuff Cervantes taught us to expect in a novel. Dead Stars looks a little less novel-ish than all the rest—there are occasional bursts of red type, and font variations, and even Google-looking search bars integrated into the text—but those differences are hardly any more disruptive to the book's novel-ishness than, say, a heavily illustrated text by Kurt Vonnegut.
It's not until you start reading that you understand something different is going on here. Wagner is writing a narrative—poetry!—in the brutish language of the internet. It's as if someone assembled all the text on TMZ and a free porn video site and BuzzFeed into an epic Hollywood novel with a cast of characters including a teenager named Reeyonna (no relation to Rihanna), a paparazzo, a few celebrity worshippers, and Michael Douglas.
In many ways, this language is more familiar to us now than the traditional language of fiction. (An epigraph for Dead Stars reads, simply, "adding comments has been disabled for this video.") The book opens with a girl named Telma finding out that, at the ripe old age of 13, "she was no longer the world's youngest breast cancer survivor," because a brave 4-year-old Canadian had stripped her of the title. Telma, desperate to retain the fame her disease has given her, writes a letter to Douglas in an elaborate (but childishly simple) plot to wind up as a permanent cast member on Glee:
I am 13 years old and a Kansurvivor. (YES I KAN!)... by the way, if you're wondering why I spell this terrible disease with a "K" it is NOT to be kute but rather because I think we HEROES can take some of its power away. By not even respecting it enough to spell it rightly (correctly?), we thumb our noses in its face ;D and also, it's not as scary with a "K."
Everything in Dead Stars feels like it launched into existence within the last five years: Laurence Fishburne's porn-star daughter, Montana; Jersey Shore; Glee fatigue; starlet crotch shots. Hell, even Telma is basically Honey Boo Boo with a slightly modified past. Even as you marvel at Wagner's ability to shove the entire internet into six hundred pages written in various breathless, surface-deep styles, you can't help but worry about the fact that the whole endeavor will be indecipherable by 2017.
It would be easy for a novelist to sit on a lifeguard's perch of High Culture and send tut-tuts reverberating down to the masses, but there's no way Wagner could stare this deep into the clenching iris of popular culture without becoming something of an adoring pop-culture junkie himself. It's not a love letter by any means, but just as Homer couldn't have written The Iliad without a love of war burning somewhere deep in his torso, Wagner has to feel love for the puke and drugs and superficiality and ignorance and heartbreak and longing and loathing and terror of America right now, to coax everything about us into a book this size and come up with something like this, a malicious, glittering book of pure poetry.