Bruce Wagner
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006
507 pp.; $26.00 (cloth)

Anyone doubting that Buddhism has become mainstream in America—or at least on our coasts—need only read the recent novels of author, screenwriter, and director Bruce Wagner. Take, for instance, his description of the guests at an imagined celebrity get-together in Brentwood, as recounted in his newest novel,Memorial: “the screenwriter Melissa Mathison, the architect Steven Ehrlich, the gardener Nancy Jones, the actress Phoebe Cates, the editor of Tricycle, the editor of the Jewish magazine Tikkun . . . ” Wagner has to explain Tikkunto his readers, but Tricycle apparently needs no introduction.

Memorial follows four principal characters: Joan, a struggling architect obsessed with the far more successful Zaha Hadid; her brother, Chester, a small-time film location scout; her aging mother, Marjorie; and her estranged father, Ray. Set in and around the often seedy outskirts of Los Angeles, Memorial brims with the pressing issues of email spam, reality TV, and the peculiarities of the ridiculously rich, along with more serious topics like elder abuse, drug dependency, and heart-wrenching loneliness. As he did in his five other novels, Wagner liberally blends real-world characters into a wonderfully multifaceted story. In addition to Joan’s nemesis, Hadid (an actual Iraqi-born architect living in Britain who had a show this summer at the Guggenheim), the daughter of comedian Don Knotts has a minor role as Chester’s landlord.

Wagner is first and foremost a keen chronicler of Hollywood and its sordid bit players, but in his fictional explorations of the unique subcultures of southern California, references to Buddhism and the mystical East abound. His characters are “Zen humble” or feel “woozily Zen.” They meditate now and then, and can quote the Lotus Sutra. They may not be Buddhists per se, but they inhabit a modern America clearly shaped by Buddhist influences.

The novel’s title comes from a memorial commissioned by the California billionaire Lew Freiburg in honor of his brother, who drowned with his girlfriend in the 2004 South Asian tsunami, the “Big Wave.” Joan is bidding to design this cenotaph, for which Freiburg has set aside four hundred luxuriant acres in Napa County. Her increasingly desperate efforts to win the project, and her eventual romantic entanglement with Freiburg, form the basic narrative glue for the book. But at the same time, and largely unbeknownst to Joan, the lives of the other three main characters are in turmoil: Chester is injured in a Candid Camera–style prank gone wrong, Marjorie may have won the lottery, and Ray has a frightening run-in with the local police. One of the great joys of this often very funny novel is watching these characters gradually rediscover each other as their stories begin to intersect in very unexpected ways.

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