The Chrysanthemum Palace

Overview

Bertie Krohn, only child of Perry Krohn -- creator of TV's longest running space opera, Starwatch: The Navigators -- recounts the story of the last months in the lives of his two friends: Thad Michelet, author, actor, and son of a literary titan; and Clea

Freemantle, emotionally fragile daughter of a legendary movie star. Scions of entertainment greatness, they call themselves the Three Musketeers. As the incestuous clique attempts to scale the peaks claimed by their sacred yet ...

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The Chrysanthemum Palace

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Overview

Bertie Krohn, only child of Perry Krohn -- creator of TV's longest running space opera, Starwatch: The Navigators -- recounts the story of the last months in the lives of his two friends: Thad Michelet, author, actor, and son of a literary titan; and Clea

Freemantle, emotionally fragile daughter of a legendary movie star. Scions of entertainment greatness, they call themselves the Three Musketeers. As the incestuous clique attempts to scale the peaks claimed by their sacred yet monstrous parents during the filming of a Starwatch episode, Bertie scrupulously chronicles their futile struggles against the ravenous, narcissistic, and addicted Hollywood that claims them.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[Wagner's] ability to eviscerate the absurdities of Hollywood, while occasionally hinting at its basic humanity, remains undiminished."
-- The New Yorker

"The Chrysanthemum Palace is full of daring language that veers between being wickedly funny and just plain wicked. Nobody writes more knowingly about Hollywood than Wagner....Like Thad, its most magnetic character, Chrysanthemum Palace is 'raw and cultured, cultivated and kitschy' and great fun."
-- Lee Aitken, People

"The Chrysanthemum Palace is both tender and tenderhearted. Also, and unexpectedly, this is a very funny book.... If The Great Gatsby were set in contemporary Hollywood, it might look a lot like The Chrysanthemum Palace. These are Americans, ensnared by their fate but gallant and brave to the end."
-- Carolyn See, The Washington Post

"Wagner marries his dagger-sharp, lapidary wit to an emotionally arresting narrative whose phaser is set on scorch.... I couldn't read fast enough."
-- Henry Alford, The New York Times Book Review

Henry Alford
Wagner marries his dagger-sharp, lapidary wit to an emotionally arresting narrative whose phaser is set on scorch. The more over-the-top the proceedings were, the more they enthralled me. Consider the scene in which the irascible, pretentious character actor Thad, his neck ringed with Pan-Cake, receives a ''migraine cocktail'' -- a shot of Demerol and Vistaril -- at the Chateau Marmont while citing Chekhov and T. S. Eliot. Or the one in which Thad wrestles his ''soul-killing ice queen'' mother in his trailer, begging her to take his photograph for a book she's working on, only to have her call his girlfriend, Clea, a ''slut'' who sleeps with men ''for dope, like her mother did.'' I couldn't read fast enough; I had all four feet in the trough. The experience could have been better only if I'd been lying on a beach, heavily oiled.
— The New York Times Sunday Book Review
Carolyn See
… this is a very funny book. The scenes on the set are marvelous. Parts of this novel convey pure, winsome charm, which makes the tragedy that much harder to bear. If The Great Gatsby were set in contemporary Hollywood, it might look a lot like The Chrysanthemum Palace. These are Americans, ensnared by their fate but gallant and brave to the end.
— The Washington Post
The New Yorker
On the set of a schlocky TV space opera called “Starwatch,” three children of wealthy and talented parents struggle to attain success of their own. The narrator, Bertie, is the son of the show’s creator, and his current acting job is the nadir in a career of ever-shrinking ambition. His companions are Clea, the pill-popping daughter of a sexy actress who died young, and Thad, who is plagued by a personality disorder and the outsized legend of his father, an award-winning author. Suffering in the shadow of parental fame is a familiar trope of tabloid pathos, and the parents here are predictably malevolent. This slender novel lacks the kaleidoscopic frenzy of Wagner’s “cell-phone” trilogy, and its more limited range gives his relentlessly up-to-the-minute pop-trivia references a somewhat airless feel. Still, his ability to eviscerate the absurdities of Hollywood, while occasionally hinting at its basic humanity, remains undiminished.
MIchiko Kakutani
With the author's latest novel, The Chrysanthemum Palace, we are back in this familiar territory, but Mr. Wagner demonstrates - as he did in his dazzling 2002 novel, I'll Let You Go - that he can do the lyrical and tender with as much panache as the outrageous and corrosive. "Chrysanthemum" isn't a major work like that earlier novel - it doesn't create a Wellesian family epic or aspire to give the reader a wide-angled, Dickensian look at the whole messy sprawl of Los Angeles - but it showcases the author's kinder, gentler side while attesting to his ever wicked eye for hypocrisy and self-deception.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In his Cellular Trilogy, novelist Wagner gleefully excoriated Hollywood vanity and pretense. Obviously his hunger for butchering Tinseltown's sacred cows was not sated because in his latest work he continues to carve them up. His uproarious new satire focuses on a trio of psychologically and emotionally fragile actors, each of whom carries the added baggage of a very famous and successful parent. The story is told from the perspective of Bertie Krohn, the soon-to-be-middle-aged son of the "creator-producer in perpetua of TV's longest-running syndicated space opera, Starwatch: The Navigators." After several attempts to make it on his own artistically, Bertie succumbs to nepotism and joins the cast of Starwatch. The book revolves around his interactions with two other actors who are appearing on the series. The first is Clea Fremantle, his childhood crush and the daughter of a "legendary film actress." The other is Thad Michelet, the 50-something son of a universally revered, award-winning author. Much as Jeffrey Frank did in his excellent novel The Columnist, Wagner crafts a savage meditation on contemporary self-involvement-his characters are vacuous, name-dropping black holes of self-absorption. The writing itself is wonderfully bad, as Bertie the hapless hack attempts to chronicle his melodramatic tale with 25-cent words ("commodious," "numinous," etc.) and wickedly overwrought metaphors ("Thad's hungry eyes surveyed the topography of human detail unfolding before him like a jet devouring a runway during takeoff"). It's a short, sharp book that puts a dagger right in the heart of Hollywood. Agent, Andrew Wylie. (Feb.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The publisher hopes to break out Wagner (Force Majeure) with this poignant tale of three friends, all anxious children of Hollywood royalty, whose lives threaten to crash and burn. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A recovering addict, an egomaniacal actor with daddy issues, and an underperforming wannabe make for a particularly LA dysfunctional trio. At some point soon, we'll be seeing Wagner (Still Holding, 2003, etc.) writing sitcoms for the WB, but they'll be the smartest sitcoms that network will have ever seen. Although they share a love/hate of Tinseltown, Wagner's novels have been slimming down and toning up as their prose evolves from expressing a densely layered and fantastic sensibility to broadcasting on a more realistic and accessible wavelength. Here, the writer has set up a fairly conventional (for him) cast of characters: Bertie Krohn, an actor on a Star Trek-like TV/film franchise created by his dad who dreams of running his own show someday; Clea Freemantle, a once and future druggie and childhood friend of Bertie's, who finagles her a spot on the show; and Thad Michelet, a manic sort of Robin Williams comic actor oppressed by the fame of his father, literary lion "Black Jack" Michelet. Good and bad intentions alike get badly misconstrued, and some rather ugly family secrets get dragged out into the open against a backdrop of quintessentially Wagnerian Hollywood, rife with hypocritical self-absorption. All the characters are straining to better themselves: narrator Bertie tries to bang out some semblance of a show to pitch to HBO, that mecca of popular quality product; Clea just wants to keep her life from falling into a druggy pit; and Thad fights his way out of Jack's shadow by publishing some poorly received novels. Thad is an impressively obnoxious character, a pun-spewing ADD pit of insecurity who whips everyone around him into his self-destructive frenzy. All that Bertie,Clea, and the reader can do is hang on and try to make sense of it all. Although Wagner is smart enough to keep the enjoyably soapy story short, the inevitable high-drama conclusion does prompt some longing for the apocalyptic surrealism of his earlier fiction. Smart, high-gloss slur of fame, drugs and the fateful weight of family. Agent: Andrew Wylie/Wylie Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743243407
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 1/28/2006
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 1,427,261
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Bruce Wagner is the author of The Chrysanthemum Palace (a PEN Faulkner fiction award finalist); Still Holding; I'll Let You Go (a PEN USA fiction award finalist); I'm Losing You; and Force Majeure. He lives in Los Angeles.
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Read an Excerpt

I am an actor.

Not long ago, and right on schedule, I had the hair-raising epiphany which inevitably occurs to most who ply my craft: Time is running out. At such a moment, tough-minded players can elect to soldier into denial, turning a cheek to the cooler side of their pillow toward pleasanter dreams of sudden, freakish, breakthrough stardom. One may file through a mental inventory of all those stage and screen personages who remained relatively untouched by fame until, say, the age of fifty, or even supertriumphed at sixty-five. If the lotto fantasia doesn't excite, a more humdrum (still serviceable) idyll might present itself: retirement to a Carmel-by-the-Sea bed-and-breakfast, purchased with a never-ending stream of residuals generated by TV commercials and radio voice-overs where one may live out his or her days in legendary local bonhomie and embroidered remembrance of roles past. On the other hand, if the actor is of weaker or even neurotic disposition, he may choose to put on a dignified face and set his nautical cap on that course dreadfully referred to as "reinvention." Meaning, he decides to try his hand at screenwriting.

There — I've said it.

Among such metamorphoses, enough unlikely success stories abound to either raise or sink our adventurers' spirits, depending on their mood. So: it was with a cultist's coltish energy that I spent nearly twenty-four months in solemn pursuit of the right story to apply my as-yet-untried skills, likewise the formula in which the whole shebang might be crammed for maximal artistic, commercial effect. The fact that I was completely convinced I'd create a blockbuster did not at all preclude, in my humble opinion, the deliverance of an authentic work of art — I would have my cake and screen it too. In service of this shamanic storyquest, I downloaded and Web-surfed, culled obscure regional newspapers, watched bad films from the thirties, shamelessly trolled for plotty treasures amid a flotsam of anecdotes wrung from friends and loved ones, and even went so far as to examine my own life, loves, and adolescent stirrings. I became a diner solitaire, a fisherman for dialogue, the better to eavesdrop on shadowy couples ensconced in contentious steakhouse booths. After much labored, almost scientific contemplation, I lit upon one scenario or another, imbuing each with the suitable grandiosity required to sustain propulsion for proper launch. My stamina was enviable — for even though my heart wasn't wholly in it (it never really was), once I committed to protagonist or theme, I behaved as if I'd found the message in a bottle that not only would make the world a profoundly more intelligent, amazing place, but as if that very message was one which only I, chosen by God Herself, could decode. I excitedly embarked on a series of false starts and even falser stops before the bottle, corkless and forlorn, its damp square of scratchy, smeary hieroglyphs outsourced, the bottle that only days before seemed to promise so much yet deliver so little, was tossed with a shrug to reloiter the sea.

After licking my wounds, I cheerily regarded each misstep as part of an elaborate, fateful hazing, a rite of passage inexorably moving me closer to my goal, eventually to become part of a legendary behind-the-scenes story of great and stubborn conquest. Like a novice Buddhist thrown from his meditative horse, I remounted with cool alacrity. In order to achieve the intended transformation from loser to Oscar winner (always pragmatically set two years in the future, a figure that encompassed completion of script, said script's discovery by dynamo agent or producer, production of said script through the offices of a major film studio or indie consortium, and subsequent arthouse-platform or 4,000-theater release), I shunned the Silverlake social circuit and even declined a few — well, very few — industry functions in which my profile as fledgling film and television actor could quite possibly have been enhanced. I kept recreational drug use (and romantic entanglements) to a minimum, employing the leash of AA meetings to keep myself in line.

I cocooned for the sake of my inchoate art. I was patient, I was disciplined, and I was proud, waiting diligently in the wings for my wings.

Now while it's true such endeavors require a different sort of perseverance than that required of an actor, the happiest screenplay alchemy can still be elusive, particularly when operating without guide or mentor, notwithstanding sundry software programs or annoying how-to-write-a-film manuals. Unfortunately, it became clear early on that I was not to the three acts born and whatever I conjured would be the product of erring not on the side of talent but on that of blood, sweat, and fear (fear of outright plagiarism too). By coincidence, my acting-class confederates were engaged in their own similarly secretive, feckless attempts. Looking back, we seemed like wanna-be witches and warlocks, scouring the countryside for toadstool and tongue of Charlie Kaufman without the faintest idea of what was toxic or edible, let alone a clue to which ingredients would combine to make that magical Sundance stew — in short, we were kids straddling branches for broomsticks. Sadly, the mystical blush of childhood was long gone from our fashionably stubbled, sun-damaged cheeks; one by one, sojourns into Storyland came to their anticlimactic ends, leaving only shredded three-hole punched Hammermill paper and a sour taste in the mouth.

Still, I must admit that with the failure of each effort I always felt a shrug and gladdened shiver, as if having quit a job in some dispiriting, faraway mall, grateful not to have been recognized at the register by a wayward relation or fellow delusional traveler.

That period thankfully ended, though my ambitions did not. Then one morning I awakened as if from deep sleep with the notion that the story of all stories had unfolded unwittingly beneath my very nose. Of course, I immediately set headlong upon "sorting it out" (as my Brit friends and budding warlock hyphenates would say), said phrase being really just a euphemism for the careful process of planning, staging, and micromanaging a royal fuckup. The faux sorting went on for several weeks; but it wasn't until a certain Thursday afternoon, sitting at the Sugar Plum Bakery on Beverly Boulevard awaiting my soy latte, that something decisive happened — I had a happier epiphany, this one imperious enough to allow no further procrastination. I was suddenly forced, as if by legal summons, to abandon the project at hand (a nasty little novel which I was actually being paid to adapt; more about this later) and march home to transcribe my tale.

To my chagrin, the words poured out not in script form but through the unskilled medium of prose (I'd "journaled" awhile some years ago but abandoned my entries as being too precious. I was always a bit stiff, and hope the reader will exercise patience as I limber up). In this case, I told myself all along that once I got it down I would be able, like a singer transposing keys, to convert the melody to whichever form was most ideal. I only knew the important thing was to capture as much of my saga as possible, now, at full gallop. It was lightning first and "message" second that needed to be bottled.

This slim book is the result.

As I said: I was at the bakery awaiting my latte when a young father came in, holding a babe in arms. Now we all warm to a doting, youthful man and his infant when no mother is in sight — it gives a kind of genial, beneficent balance to the world, sunnily deflating the notion men can't be nurturers too. I should add that I'm almost forty, so lately there's a twinkle in my eye when presented with such a scene, and a smug awareness that while at such an age a woman's time clock is approaching its final hours, my own mechanism is there to be polished if not wound. I've always been a magnet for babies' eyes. Whether it's self-love or something about my aura, ever since I can remember I've attracted a nearly embarrassing focus, to the puzzled amusement of parent or caretaker. As if on cue, the boy pivoted toward me, squirming in his bib. Cockily preparing myself for the usual prolonged mesmeric reaction, his stare defied experience, and instead froze at some point above my own. He began to chortle, not with the stagy too-cute laugh that humankind seems to already master only weeks out of the womb but with a beguiling, joyful, unbridled music of sheer wonder. Dad and I tried to find what it was that captivated him, to no avail — he'd left the world far behind, fixated on something transcendent and beautiful, that even now does not seem an exaggeration to say encompassed the cosmos itself.

His laughter burbled on, without ever striking a false note.

"What do you see?" said his father, tenderly attentive. "What do you see?"

The little seer smiled, monitoring the ineffable of the blueness beyond. For a moment, I smiled too — and saw.

That was when I gathered my things in tearful tumult and raced out the door, on a mission.

But i didn't properly introduce myself.

My name is Bertram Valentine Krohn (Valentine being the hero of Stranger in a Strange Land, and Henry Miller's middle name too. Dad baptized me thus, and really showed his hand). I'm thirty-eight years old but most everyone calls me Bertie. The valentine-giving father is Perry Needham Krohn, creator-producer in perpetua of TV's longest-running syndicated space opera, Starwatch: The Navigators. You may have heard of him — he continues, after many years, to be a staple of Variety, the Times, the Beverly Hills Courier and 213 — not so much for his deal-making activities but in conjunction with whatever organization happens to be paying tribute (I should say he's paying them), which seems to occur on a bimonthly basis. You see, Dad likes lending his name to good causes, attracting old/new money to new/old diseases, relishing the hubbub of silent auctions and black-tie balls — says it keeps him young. Mom hates all that, but I think vanity prevents her from attending the galas. More about her later.

I was raised, as you might have guessed, in a world of great privilege. In fact, sad as it may sound, I've always considered "Bertie Krohn: The Early Years" to be among the happiest of my life. And while this document tilts more toward reportage than memoir, the thought occurred it might be ideal to recount a few personal anecdotes from that era of my youth. As earlier alluded, it will help warm the muscles (I already feel a writer's cramp coming on), and besides, it's my opinion — and that of at least two critics, one biographer and a New Yorker short-story contributor, all friends of Dad's who've been obliquely interrogated by yours truly — that the closer one is to the storyteller, the likelier one is to embrace what is told.

Like most of us, I failed to escape the minor joys, major heartbreaks, and brushes with mortality that apply to any youth's rightful passage; so let me begin with Death and work my way back to Ecstasy. Remember that amazing show, Tales from the Crypt? It was actually a comic book before that. (Dad has a leather-bound set.) Well, allow me to flip through a few of my own illustrated panels — what Clea used to call the "not-so-funnies." They're a bit macabre but pertinent to my own tale, I assure.

I'm an only child. No one in the immediate family perished during my impressionable years (as opposed to the later, "depressionable years" — Clea, again). That said, there was an artistic cousin who died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma who lived somewhere in the Midwest and would be buried too in that same region of my mind. A few miles from our house in Benedict Canyon, the baby sister of a friend was struck by a car and killed, but, owing to my never having seen much of her before the event, the wraith became more ghoulish abstraction than cautionary tale. Upon entering high school, a bookish junior became trapped in a second-floor house fire on South Roxbury Drive and got the fingers of her hand burnt off; she returned in the second semester of the next year and was treated by the student body as if she'd joined an Indian caste in the interim:

a mixture of Brahman and Untouchable, a kind of Mother Teresa horror-show saint. Then there was Aaron, whose folks owned the town pharmacy. He only lasted till the sixth grade, dying of a cerebral hemorrhage one summer near Indian Wells.

But the highest reading on the Richter Mortality Scale by far was the death of Leif Farragon, the handsomest boy I'd ever known and the funniest too. He was tall, tousled and fatherless, with a dimpled chin and a gorgeous mom who taught second grade at Horace Mann. I can still summon the smell of his skin through the velour turtlenecks then in vogue, evoking the gregarious, gemütlich, goyish life force that was irresistibly, quintessentially Leif. Every kid I knew had money except for him. Instead of going to El Rodeo or Hawthorne, he attended the very school where his mother worked, the poorest, fringiest, farthest flung of the four Beverly Hills publics, yet by virtue of bawdy sarcasm, athletic grace, and generosity of spirit, the charismatic boy had literally crossed over (Wilshire Boulevard) to join the upper echelon of the district's social strata.

I remember being with him at a party on North Rodeo Drive. My girlfriend at the time — we were all of us nearing thirteen — was the aforementioned Clea Fremantle, daughter of legendary film actress Roosevelt Chandler née Delia LeMay Chaiken. I doubt that things have much changed but back then, rich kids began having serious parties at a fairly tender age, facilitated not only by the handy venue of mansions' shadowy acreage and multiple trysting zones but the inept, well-meaning agenda of absentee parents zealously contriving to watch over scions through the indulgent, lackadaisical eyes of long-time live-in help. We young royals did plenty of frenching and groping and cupping of half-breasts; I can still remember Clea's smells, less familiar than Leif's and sometimes immobilizing in mysterious ways — like a fearful hunter, time and again I froze in my tracks while hand, heart, and gland gamely soldiered on, shaky finger on hairy triggers. We commandeered various guest rooms for musky, R-rated kisses under the benign gaze of Mom, in movie poster form. While suffocating ourselves with cavorting tongues that slo-mo fenced like thick forest slugs, I occasionally opened a wandering eye to take in the epic, voluptuous Roos Chandler, she of the requisite small-town transformation to deathless American icon, she of the self-anointed film noir nom de ciné, she of the occasional madcap nude night swim during bashful daughter's fledgling soirée sleepovers, she of the three husbands before the age of thirty, she of the consecutive Academy Awards — Best Supporting, Best Actress, Best Actress.

Here's what happened when lanky Leif, eight months older than Clea and I, and more than a little stoned, stumbled into that borrowed love nest one warm Santa Ana-scoured night. He brought a bottle of scotch and that high-pitched, infectious laugh that would have sounded silly coming from the throat of anyone else. Startled by the intrusive bright light of the hall, Clea and I, fashionably mussed, awkwardly disengaged. Closing the door behind him, Leif passed us the amber bottle. I swigged first — it took all the macho I could muster not to vomit — then handed it off to Clea, whose face wore a rosy, newborn look on account of our aborted petting session. (At the time, I wondered why she was so introverted though now the Family Ties syndrome seems obvious: knowing she couldn't outwild her mother, she instinctively went the other way. That was probably what attracted me — had she been crazy like Roos, it would have been too much to handle.) Before I knew it, Leif was kissing her and somehow that was all right, though it didn't exactly feel all right...more like some casual rehearsal for future heartbreak and generic grief. Yet because I loved Leif in a way as much as I did Clea, I was forced to let it go. I knew she must have loved him too, perhaps even more for the sheer boldness I was incapable of. I'll admit at the time the subtleties were lost upon me; my immediate concerns were more primitive. I hoped and prayed the night wouldn't end with the two of them going "steadily" — these tide turnings weren't all that uncommon and in such cases, the prescient student body already knew of the cuckold's infamy when he arrived at school the next morning, head hung low. Nothing to do but wear one's scarlet letter jacket and get on with it.

At that age, friends come and go in superheated fashion. After the kiss, for reasons both simple and complex, Leif and I managed not to lay eyes on each other for almost a few months. In the end, we were friendly, though never like before. One could say we fell out over betrayal as much as embarrassment (it was almost as if Leif and I were the ones who'd kissed) but I think the estrangement was mostly the growing pains rhythm of how things go — or went. Anyway, Leif had lots of tribes, a whole clique on the other side of Wilshire who I'd never met and I was absolutely certain were as possessive of him as the richies. Looking back, it's probably better that fate conspired to separate us before he died a year later in an accident on PCH. (Losing a friend on that highway was a Westside rite of passage.) I can't remember who told me or where I was when I heard, and never learned the exact how of it. I avoided such knowledge — he may or may not have been in a VW van, he may or may not have been on a motorcycle, he may or may not have been on the back of a chopper or hitching or even dashing across the highway with a surfboard to the beach.

At that age, fatal details are never important.

Copyright © 2005 by Bruce Wagner

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First Chapter

The Chrysanthemum Palace

A Novel
By Bruce Wagner

Simon & Schuster

Copyright © 2005 Bruce Wagner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7432-4339-0


Chapter One

I am an actor.

Not long ago, and right on schedule, I had the hair-raising epiphany which inevitably occurs to most who ply my craft: Time is running out. At such a moment, tough-minded players can elect to soldier into denial, turning a cheek to the cooler side of their pillow toward pleasanter dreams of sudden, freakish, breakthrough stardom. One may file through a mental inventory of all those stage and screen personages who remained relatively untouched by fame until, say, the age of fifty, or even supertriumphed at sixty-five. If the lotto fantasia doesn't excite, a more humdrum (still serviceable) idyll might present itself: retirement to a Carmel-by-the-Sea bed-and-breakfast, purchased with a never-ending stream of residuals generated by TV commercials and radio voice-overs where one may live out his or her days in legendary local bonhomie and embroidered remembrance of roles past. On the other hand, if the actor is of weaker or even neurotic disposition, he may choose to put on a dignified face and set his nautical cap on that course dreadfully referred to as "reinvention." Meaning, he decides to try his hand at screenwriting.

There - I've said it.

Among such metamorphoses, enough unlikely success storiesabound to either raise or sink our adventurers' spirits, depending on their mood. So: it was with a cultist's coltish energy that I spent nearly twenty-four months in solemn pursuit of the right story to apply my as-yet-untried skills, likewise the formula in which the whole shebang might be crammed for maximal artistic, commercial effect. The fact that I was completely convinced I'd create a blockbuster did not at all preclude, in my humble opinion, the deliverance of an authentic work of art - I would have my cake and screen it too. In service of this shamanic storyquest, I downloaded and Web-surfed, culled obscure regional newspapers, watched bad films from the thirties, shamelessly trolled for plotty treasures amid a flotsam of anecdotes wrung from friends and loved ones, and even went so far as to examine my own life, loves, and adolescent stirrings. I became a diner solitaire, a fisherman for dialogue, the better to eavesdrop on shadowy couples ensconced in contentious steakhouse booths. After much labored, almost scientific contemplation, I lit upon one scenario or another, imbuing each with the suitable grandiosity required to sustain propulsion for proper launch. My stamina was enviable - for even though my heart wasn't wholly in it (it never really was), once I committed to protagonist or theme, I behaved as if I'd found the message in a bottle that not only would make the world a profoundly more intelligent, amazing place, but as if that very message was one which only I, chosen by God Herself, could decode. I excitedly embarked on a series of false starts and even falser stops before the bottle, corkless and forlorn, its damp square of scratchy, smeary hieroglyphs outsourced, the bottle that only days before seemed to promise so much yet deliver so little, was tossed with a shrug to reloiter the sea.

After licking my wounds, I cheerily regarded each misstep as part of an elaborate, fateful hazing, a rite of passage inexorably moving me closer to my goal, eventually to become part of a legendary behind-the-scenes story of great and stubborn conquest. Like a novice Buddhist thrown from his meditative horse, I remounted with cool alacrity. In order to achieve the intended transformation from loser to Oscar winner (always pragmatically set two years in the future, a figure that encompassed completion of script, said script's discovery by dynamo agent or producer, production of said script through the offices of a major film studio or indie consortium, and subsequent arthouse-platform or 4,000-theater release), I shunned the Silverlake social circuit and even declined a few - well, very few - industry functions in which my profile as fledgling film and television actor could quite possibly have been enhanced. I kept recreational drug use (and romantic entanglements) to a minimum, employing the leash of AA meetings to keep myself in line.

I cocooned for the sake of my inchoate art. I was patient, I was disciplined, and I was proud, waiting diligently in the wings for my wings.

Now while it's true such endeavors require a different sort of perseverance than that required of an actor, the happiest screenplay alchemy can still be elusive, particularly when operating without guide or mentor, notwithstanding sundry software programs or annoying how-to-write-a-film manuals. Unfortunately, it became clear early on that I was not to the three acts born and whatever I conjured would be the product of erring not on the side of talent but on that of blood, sweat, and fear (fear of outright plagiarism too). By coincidence, my acting-class confederates were engaged in their own similarly secretive, feckless attempts. Looking back, we seemed like wanna-be witches and warlocks, scouring the countryside for toadstool and tongue of Charlie Kaufman without the faintest idea of what was toxic or edible, let alone a clue to which ingredients would combine to make that magical Sundance stew - in short, we were kids straddling branches for broomsticks. Sadly, the mystical blush of childhood was long gone from our fashionably stubbled, sun-damaged cheeks; one by one, sojourns into Storyland came to their anticlimactic ends, leaving only shredded three-hole punched Hammermill paper and a sour taste in the mouth.

Still, I must admit that with the failure of each effort I always felt a shrug and gladdened shiver, as if having quit a job in some dispiriting, faraway mall, grateful not to have been recognized at the register by a wayward relation or fellow delusional traveler.

That period thankfully ended, though my ambitions did not. Then one morning I awakened as if from deep sleep with the notion that the story of all stories had unfolded unwittingly beneath my very nose. Of course, I immediately set headlong upon "sorting it out" (as my Brit friends and budding warlock hyphenates would say), said phrase being really just a euphemism for the careful process of planning, staging, and micromanaging a royal fuckup. The faux sorting went on for several weeks; but it wasn't until a certain Thursday afternoon, sitting at the Sugar Plum Bakery on Beverly Boulevard awaiting my soy latte, that something decisive happened - I had a happier epiphany, this one imperious enough to allow no further procrastination. I was suddenly forced, as if by legal summons, to abandon the project at hand (a nasty little novel which I was actually being paid to adapt; more about this later) and march home to transcribe my tale.

To my chagrin, the words poured out not in script form but through the unskilled medium of prose (I'd "journaled" awhile some years ago but abandoned my entries as being too precious. I was always a bit stiff, and hope the reader will exercise patience as I limber up). In this case, I told myself all along that once I got it down I would be able, like a singer transposing keys, to convert the melody to whichever form was most ideal. I only knew the important thing was to capture as much of my saga as possible, now, at full gallop. It was lightning first and "message" second that needed to be bottled.

This slim book is the result.

As I said: I was at the bakery awaiting my latte when a young father came in, holding a babe in arms. Now we all warm to a doting, youthful man and his infant when no mother is in sight - it gives a kind of genial, beneficent balance to the world, sunnily deflating the notion men can't be nurturers too. I should add that I'm almost forty, so lately there's a twinkle in my eye when presented with such a scene, and a smug awareness that while at such an age a woman's time clock is approaching its final hours, my own mechanism is there to be polished if not wound. I've always been a magnet for babies' eyes. Whether it's self-love or something about my aura, ever since I can remember I've attracted a nearly embarrassing focus, to the puzzled amusement of parent or caretaker. As if on cue, the boy pivoted toward me, squirming in his bib. Cockily preparing myself for the usual prolonged mesmeric reaction, his stare defied experience, and instead froze at some point above my own. He began to chortle, not with the stagy too-cute laugh that humankind seems to already master only weeks out of the womb but with a beguiling, joyful, unbridled music of sheer wonder. Dad and I tried to find what it was that captivated him, to no avail - he'd left the world far behind, fixated on something transcendent and beautiful, that even now does not seem an exaggeration to say encompassed the cosmos itself.

His laughter burbled on, without ever striking a false note.

"What do you see?" said his father, tenderly attentive. "What do you see?"

The little seer smiled, monitoring the ineffable of the blueness beyond. For a moment, I smiled too - and saw.

That was when I gathered my things in tearful tumult and raced out the door, on a mission.

But i didn't properly introduce myself.

My name is Bertram Valentine Krohn (Valentine being the hero of Stranger in a Strange Land, and Henry Miller's middle name too. Dad baptized me thus, and really showed his hand). I'm thirty-eight years old but most everyone calls me Bertie. The valentine-giving father is Perry Needham Krohn, creator-producer in perpetua of TV's longest-running syndicated space opera, Starwatch: The Navigators. You may have heard of him - he continues, after many years, to be a staple of Variety, the Times, the Beverly Hills Courier and 213 - not so much for his deal-making activities but in conjunction with whatever organization happens to be paying tribute (I should say he's paying them), which seems to occur on a bimonthly basis. You see, Dad likes lending his name to good causes, attracting old/new money to new/old diseases, relishing the hubbub of silent auctions and black-tie balls - says it keeps him young. Mom hates all that, but I think vanity prevents her from attending the galas. More about her later.

I was raised, as you might have guessed, in a world of great privilege. In fact, sad as it may sound, I've always considered "Bertie Krohn: The Early Years" to be among the happiest of my life. And while this document tilts more toward reportage than memoir, the thought occurred it might be ideal to recount a few personal anecdotes from that era of my youth. As earlier alluded, it will help warm the muscles (I already feel a writer's cramp coming on), and besides, it's my opinion - and that of at least two critics, one biographer and a New Yorker short-story contributor, all friends of Dad's who've been obliquely interrogated by yours truly - that the closer one is to the storyteller, the likelier one is to embrace what is told.

Like most of us, I failed to escape the minor joys, major heartbreaks, and brushes with mortality that apply to any youth's rightful passage; so let me begin with Death and work my way back to Ecstasy. Remember that amazing show, Tales from the Crypt? It was actually a comic book before that. (Dad has a leather-bound set.) Well, allow me to flip through a few of my own illustrated panels - what Clea used to call the "not-so-funnies." They're a bit macabre but pertinent to my own tale, I assure.

I'm an only child. No one in the immediate family perished during my impressionable years (as opposed to the later, "depressionable years" - Clea, again). That said, there was an artistic cousin who died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma who lived somewhere in the Midwest and would be buried too in that same region of my mind. A few miles from our house in Benedict Canyon, the baby sister of a friend was struck by a car and killed, but, owing to my never having seen much of her before the event, the wraith became more ghoulish abstraction than cautionary tale. Upon entering high school, a bookish junior became trapped in a second-floor house fire on South Roxbury Drive and got the fingers of her hand burnt off; she returned in the second semester of the next year and was treated by the student body as if she'd joined an Indian caste in the interim:

a mixture of Brahman and Untouchable, a kind of Mother Teresa horror-show saint. Then there was Aaron, whose folks owned the town pharmacy. He only lasted till the sixth grade, dying of a cerebral hemorrhage one summer near Indian Wells.

But the highest reading on the Richter Mortality Scale by far was the death of Leif Farragon, the handsomest boy I'd ever known and the funniest too. He was tall, tousled and fatherless, with a dimpled chin and a gorgeous mom who taught second grade at Horace Mann. I can still summon the smell of his skin through the velour turtlenecks then in vogue, evoking the gregarious, gemïtlich, goyish life force that was irresistibly, quintessentially Leif. Every kid I knew had money except for him. Instead of going to El Rodeo or Hawthorne, he attended the very school where his mother worked, the poorest, fringiest, farthest flung of the four Beverly Hills publics, yet by virtue of bawdy sarcasm, athletic grace, and generosity of spirit, the charismatic boy had literally crossed over (Wilshire Boulevard) to join the upper echelon of the district's social strata.

I remember being with him at a party on North Rodeo Drive. My girlfriend at the time - we were all of us nearing thirteen - was the aforementioned Clea Fremantle, daughter of legendary film actress Roosevelt Chandler née Delia LeMay Chaiken. I doubt that things have much changed but back then, rich kids began having serious parties at a fairly tender age, facilitated not only by the handy venue of mansions' shadowy acreage and multiple trysting zones but the inept, well-meaning agenda of absentee parents zealously contriving to watch over scions through the indulgent, lackadaisical eyes of long-time live-in help. We young royals did plenty of frenching and groping and cupping of half-breasts; I can still remember Clea's smells, less familiar than Leif's and sometimes immobilizing in mysterious ways - like a fearful hunter, time and again I froze in my tracks while hand, heart, and gland gamely soldiered on, shaky finger on hairy triggers. We commandeered various guest rooms for musky, R-rated kisses under the benign gaze of Mom, in movie poster form.

Continues...


Excerpted from The Chrysanthemum Palace by Bruce Wagner Copyright © 2005 by Bruce Wagner. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide for The Chrysanthemum Palace

  1. Describe Bertie's character. How has his past as the child of a renowned television show creator and producer affected him? What do you think of the relationship he has with his parents, in particular his father? How has this essential relationship shaped his relationships throughout the book? What is your overall opinion of Bertie?
  2. "It's funny what draws us to people; funny we don't often see the design of it." What draws Bertie to Thad? What about Thad intrigues and confounds Bertie? Do the two men share anything in common? Do you think Bertie comes to understand Thad throughout the story and does he ultimately forgive Thad for his final offense against Clea? What was your initial reaction to Thad and did it change by the end of the novel?
  3. Discuss Thad's story about the time machine model. What does this story in particular reveal about Thad? Aside from the memory of playing time machine with his deceased brother, what do the time machine and Thad's subsequent belief that he imagined the whole story symbolize?
  4. Bertie says of his relationship with Clea:
    "We were like bystanders you see on television after a suicide bomb attacks, numbly clutching each other in front of splintered buses and orphaned cell phones. I get it. This is how it's always been and always would be between us."

    Discuss how this notion is illustrated throughout the book. Why do you think the bond between them was as strong as it was for as long as it was, despite the years of estrangement?

  5. Throughout the novel, we are given glimpses into the story line of Thad and Clea's episode of "Starwatch: The Navigators." What are the parallels between what is happening on the show and what is actually happening in real life? What effect do you think these similarities ultimately have on Thad?
  6. Why do you think Morgana and Jack Michelet emotionally and mentally abuse Thad? How much of their inappropriate behavior do you attribute to the loss of their young son? Bertie says of Morgana: "Sudden death expunged her rancor; at last, Thad was brought into protective arms." Do you think Morgana achieves any kind of salvation after Thad's death?
  7. Discuss the relationship between Miriam and Bertie. What initially brings them together? Do you think his feelings for her are genuine and vice versa?
  8. The final time Bertie sees Thad he says: "I watched Thad crane his neck to look at the stars, feeling a rush of sympathy and affection for the man. I was suddenly certain of his innocence." What does he mean by this? Do you agree with this perception? How does this last melancholy interaction between Bertie and Thad contradict what Bertie discovers about his death?
  9. The word denouement is mentioned twice in the story. What was your reaction to the denouement of Bertie, Thad, and Clea's story?
  10. What do chrysanthemums symbolize in the novel? What does the title mean?
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