Convulsive and poignant, THE CHRYSANTHEMUM PALACE is a tragic tale of friendship and fate writ large - a tour de force by a brilliant writer whose storytelling delivers devastating emotional impact.
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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.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 preven...
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