What is it about Charles Dickens that holds such sway over today's fiction writers? There's something about the Great Bearded One that makes many a writer go ga-ga with plot, character and metaphor.
Shout the word "Dickensian" in a crowded shopping mall (especially around Yuletide) and you'll have hundreds of people conjuring images of cherub-cheeked uncles, fortunes lost, fortunes gained, wizened misers, lovelorn old maids, grime-cheeked orphans and whip-wielding schoolmasters.
Say "Dickensian" at a literary soiree and you'll get two out of three authors thinking, "Hey, he's talking about me."
Among them, Bruce Wagner.
Unlike some modern novelists who distance themselves from Chuck D. by saying the resemblance is purely coincidental, Wagner (Force Majeure, I'm Losing You) goes full-out with Pickwickian gusto in I'll Let You Go, a 549-page saga chock-full of characters that would make Mr. Dickens proud as Pumblechook. Wagner not only wears Dickens on his sleeve, he had a portrait of the author taped to the wall above his desk as he was writing this novel.
"Years ago, I bought one of his letters and had it hanging on the wall while I wrote," he said in a recent interview. "It was framed along with an etching of him gazing out. When I finally finished the book, I thanked Mr. Dickens, then promptly sold it. His stare became too intimidating!"
Daunting or not, the Ghost of Victorian Writers Past clots every sentence of I'll Let You Go. The plot and its cast of characters is big -- make that, BIG -- and busy. At its center is 12-year-old Toulouse "Tull" Trotter who lives on his grandfather's Bel-Air estate with his mother, Katrina, a topiary designer strung-out on drugs and despair. Like Great Expectations' Miss Havisham, Katrina was abandoned on her wedding night shortly after Tull was conceived (or so the young lad has been led to believe). Tull has spent much of his life pondering his long-lost father (who, according to Katrina, was killed in a snowmobile accident).
His paternal search is about to reach closure, thanks to the huge cast of characters Wagner throws into this labyrinthine book -- all of them crashing into each other, bumping and spinning off into a dizzying series of coincidence and that old standby, deus ex machina. He even includes a cast list of "principal characters" just prior to the book's first, jet-propelled paragraph. For starters, there are Tull's close friends, his cousins Lucy and Edward. Lucy, in typical L.A. ambition, is determined to be a published author before she hits puberty (current project: The Mystery of the Blue Maze); Edward, suffering from the disfiguring Apert's disease, is a tragic figure á la a young Paul Dombey (apropos of nothing, but yet everything, his name, Edward Aurelius Trotter, spells EAT).
Also vying for ink-space in I'll Let You Go: patriarch Louis Aherne Trotter, who collects anything associated with his Christian name (as in, Louis XIV furniture) and who is obsessed with designing his grave site; his Alzheimer-afflicted wife Bluey who is equally obsessed with clipping obituaries from the daily newspaper; Katrina's brother Dodd, the 18th-richest man in the world and who is about to have a school named after him; his wife Joyce, currently obsessed with rescuing unwanted babies from dumpsters; Amaryllis Kornfeld, the most Dickensian of orphans, who is shuttled between foster homes and eventually intersects Tull's life; and, last but certainly not least, an eccentric vagrant named Topsy, a.k.a. William Morris, the Victorian poet (Topsy believes he is the long-dead author of News From Nowhere, though in point of fact, he is a former employee of the William Morris talent agency whose brain was long ago scrambled). There are, of course, many other characters large and small (Diane Keaton makes a cameo and screenwriter Ron Bass is the butt of a long-running joke), but I can sense that your head is spinning and your eyes have unnaturally crossed, so I'll stop.
However, if you decide to take on this Wagnerian liter-aria, you might want to have a bottle of aspirin handy and schedule an appointment with the optometrist. Referring to the Trotters, Amaryllis muses, "This family worked in God-like scale!" The same could be said for the author.
I'll Let You Go is big, archaic and ambitious. Metafiction? Heck, this is megafiction, filled with the kind of writing that wrestles readers into submission -- readers already sweaty and panting from similar bouts with the likes of Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace. Like those writers, Wagner injects his sentences with an intelligent complexity which always keeps you wondering if you've really absorbed everything he's trying to pack onto the page. Wagner goes his peers one better by dousing those pages with liberal amounts of Victorian perfume. Witness, if you dare, this one paragraph from Topsy's sojourn in Santa Monica:
He spent hours atop a Macy's bath towel, burning his skin at the shore. The waves lapped relentlessly as is their wont; sunbathers lazed and sortied in pointillist ballet; dusk ushered in the nebulae. He imagined himself illustrated, a hero on a dead world that was tentatively beginning to flower again--saw himself standing tall under empyrean tempera of cloud-scudded sky, replete with William Morris's beloved Arthurian garb, a gleaming, high-crested morion stuffed onto thickened head, with smoky visor and bentail, fat thighs squeezed into cuisses, wearing epaulieres of rubies plucked from Saturn's rings, sword and escutcheon raised against bottomless heavens filled with vessels of improbable size disgorging a-hundred-thousand-score armies of desperate, adventuresome men: celestial warriors! Will'm lay on the sand with his recumbent DNA and bore minuscule, magisterial witness to the wonder-book of yawping cosmological eye.
There are plenty of tongue-lapping delights to be had here ("empyrean tempera"!), and for the most part Wagner is up to the task of delivering something on the order of David Copperfield Will Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again. The tongue-tangling style -- thick and brooding black on the page -- is nicely juxtaposed with the shallow, surface-skimming world of Hollywood. The author has as much satiric fun skewering the cell-phone set as Robert Altman did in his movie The Player.
Trouble is, Wagner doesn't know when to bring the fun to a close. The book is too long by even the most generous of Dickensian standards (at least ole Dickens knew how to bring all the players back on stage for one final bow before we started checking our watches). Wagner reaches for much; but in so doing, grabs hold of less than he'd hoped. I'll Let You Go loses much of its steam in the third act. What should have been a coda or an epilogue -- or one of those noisy chapters crowded with coincidence, mistaken-identities revealed, and happy fortune of which Dickens was so fond -- drags out into a 100-page chore of denouement. The baleful gaze of the Bearded One hanging over his desk should have been warning enough for Wagner to more quickly wrap up what is otherwise a near-masterpiece.
Draggy finish aside, I'll Let You Go is well worth the reader's time and patience. From here, one can only have great expectations for Bruce Wagner's career. | May 2002
David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.