Of all the clichés that Hollywood movies have foisted upon their viewing public, one of the most robust is that the glamorous dream machine runs on the fuel of starlets’ blood and agents’ bile and writers’ flop sweat and all the filth that Kenneth Anger could scrape from the gutters of Sunset Boulevard and smear on the pages of his Hollywood Babylon. Anger made up his gossip when he wished, but Hollywood-inspired fiction has always had plenty of reporting on its side. James Ellroy based The Black Dahlia on a horrifying real crime. Actual adventures in the screenwriting trade illuminated Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished The Last Tycoon. The corrosive cynicism of Michael Tolkin’s The Player was lovingly matched by Robert Altman’s film adaptation, informed by Altman’s own fractious relationships with studios. Joan Didion published Play It as It Lays in 1970, not long after she moved from New York City to Los Angeles, where she diagnosed its resident clique of movie types with nihilistic anhedonia. In 1973, with screenplays to her credit and more in the works, Didion wrote the essay “In Hollywood,” a dispatch on her chosen mise-en-scène that was as compact and effective as a cyanide capsule. She opened the piece with a quotation from The Last Tycoon:
You can take Hollywood for granted, like I did, or you can dismiss it with the contempt we reserve for what we don’t understand. It can be understood, too, but only dimly and in flashes. Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads.
Fitzgerald’s speaker is Cecelia Brady, the daughter of a producer; Didion explains in “In Hollywood” that the real protagonist of The Last Tycoon is not the Irving Thalberg analogue Monroe Stahr but Cecelia and her kind. They “are the second generation,” Didion writes, “the survivors, the inheritors of a community as intricate, rigid, and deceptive in its mores as any devised on this continent.”
Those inheritor-survivors presumably include Matthew Specktor, the writer son of a powerful Hollywood agent. In his new novel, American Dream Machine, the narrator, Nate, the writer son of a powerful Hollywood agent, delivers a defense of his hometown in a spirit not far removed from Cecelia’s:
People blame Los Angeles for so many things, but my own view is tender, forgiving. I love LA with all of my heart. The story I have to tell . . . isn’t about some bored actress and her existential crises. . . . It’s not about the vacuous horror of the California dream. It’s something that could’ve happened anywhere else in the world, but instead settled, inexplicably, here. This city, with its unfortunate rap. It deserves warmer witness than dear old Joan Didion.
“Some bored actress” may or may not refer to Play It as It Lays’ Maria Wyeth, a living rag doll who wanders the wreckage of her domestic life in a fog of depression and ill health. “Vacuous horror” is certainly the theme of all the parties Maria attends. A reader should never confuse a writer with his protagonist, even in an ostensibly autobiographical setting, but it’s safe to presume that Specktor is throwing down a gauntlet here—and with Didion, no less, as close to a sacrosanct figure as can be found in contemporary letters. (In a 2011 essay on Didion published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, where Specktor is an editor, he offers by way of full disclosure that his parents once shared a household employee with the Didion-Dunnes.) A warmer, chummier, more empathic vision of Hollywood might be possible, he suggests, no matter what Didion, West, Fitzgerald, et al., may have conditioned readers to expect. American Dream Machine may be a bittersweet title, Specktor implies, but it’s not necessarily an ironic one.
During her California years, Didion had at once an insider’s and an outsider’s view of her terrain, having laid down her roots through talent, ambition, and family connections. Specktor was born inside. He is the son of Creative Artists Agency’s Fred Specktor, whose clients have included Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Irons, and Gene Hackman. The younger Specktor ran the New York City office of Fox 2000 Pictures, an offshoot of Twentieth Century Fox. The website for Specktor’s first novel, That Summertime Sound (2009), featured Freeman, Irons, Gwyneth Paltrow, and James Franco reading excerpts from the book.
Most of these actors’ names appear in American Dream Machine, attached to figures who may or may not represent their corporeal forms. The first star spotted is George Clooney, or a guy who looks like George Clooney, in a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, “puking in one of the ficuses back by the men’s room.” With all its mischievous celebrity cameos, the book seems to be staking out a middle ground between fan fiction and J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition. Soon enough, Jack Nicholson, or someone with his name, drops by; later, De Niro and Martin Scorsese, or their doppelgängers, show up, as do Laurence Olivier’s spittoon and John Belushi’s corpse. Albert Finney, or “Albert Finney,” is used as a pawn in a bit of agent-vs.-agent treachery. There’s a female secretary named Ren Myer, not to be confused with Creative Artists Agency cofounder and Universal Pictures COO Ron Meyer. One section seems to be a thinly veiled account of the founding of CAA, but then Michael Ovitz of actual CAA shows up to dissolve the mirage. For a while, the effect is uncanny and destabilizing; one of the pleasures of the novel is in trying to figure out just what Specktor is up to in mixing fictional characters and fictionalized people. But spot the celebrity is a parlor game built into many a novel; if the star cameos in Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama were a way of assembling a virtual walk-in closet of glitzy name brands, in American Dream Machine the names serve to notarize an authentic reading experience and not much else. When a colleague asks the perpetually beleaguered agent Beau Rosenwald about their client Scorsese, Beau responds with a gesture that Specktor translates as “Still Italian, still needy, still brilliant (read: nuts).” The book’s view of Scorsese and his peers is too close to render them as intriguing abstractions, but not close enough that they become real people, unburdened by platitudes.
The book’s purview of its second-generation Hollywood milieu is similarly vague, partly because most of its energies are poured into the portrait of its first-generation patriarch. Beau is the nominal protagonist of American Dream Machine, and refreshingly, he’s not a likely hero: uneducated, unattractive, rotund, charmless, yet occasionally able to summon a tanklike charisma that no one, not even his author, can manage to atomize. He talks his way into an agency job and into the bed of his future wife, Rachel, for reasons neither of them can discern. “Rachel and Beau went back to his hotel,” Nate explains, apparently having traveled back in time to watch his half brother’s conception. “I’ve tried to imagine what this was like for her, too, submitting to Beau’s blustery assault. Even if she loved him . . . it must’ve been difficult. Repulsion’s not so easily overcome.”
A lot of American Dream Machine reads like that: Jobs are gotten, movies are made, marriages come and go, repulsions are overcome, and that’s that. Likewise, the early pledge to give “warmer witness” to Los Angeles goes unfulfilled and is seemingly forgotten. (Contradicting Joan Didion is perhaps a thrill unto itself.) The narrative thread is Beau’s sad life and hectic career, more or less, as he builds a client list, falls in and out of favor with various agents and actors, jumps to the newly formed and decidedly CAA-ish agency American Dream Machine, switches coasts and wives, juggles child custody, and faces hideous tragedy (not necessarily in that order). The chronology is as propulsive as a résumé. Whenever the tale does start to gather momentum, it stalls as Specktor jumps back and forth in time between Beau and his belatedly acknowledged out-of-wedlock son, Nate, and his listless journey of the self. Instead of a bored actress and her existential crises, we have a bored Nate and his existential crises: “I was acutely aware that his blood and mine were the same, that if you cut either one of us, you’d find the same subcutaneous truth,” Nate says of Severin, his half brother. “But did it change our relation, really? Did it make Beau my dad?”
American Dream Machine does not read like a finished book: It could be significantly shortened and tightened by cleaning up some of the chronological zigzagging and scrubbing it of elephants in rooms, the dead spinning in graves, “Reader, I married her,” and other misdemeanors. (Meanwhile, the less familiar turns of phrase can veer toward the inscrutable, viz., “Forget Dolph Lundgren, forget Brigitte Nielsen’s tits, the true and original story of man is one of defeat.”) The characters’ interior lives are conjured using the language of movie-trailer voice-overs: “Maybe, just maybe, he wanted the thing that all Hollywood seems to want: a second chance.” The most vivid of the female characters is described as “the possessor of everything: husband, studio checkbook, child. . . . She only wondered why it wasn’t more satisfying.” And then: “Who knew if she loved her husband, or her job, or the movies? Sometimes she felt the only adult thing she’d ever loved was Beau.” Can women have it all? Is Beau the elephant in the room? Have we forgotten Dolph Lundgren? Who knew?
There is no doubt that Specktor has great stories to tell, and perhaps this novel will prove to be the raw material from which he can carve some of them out. There’s a tantalizing fragrance of mystery and glamour wafting up through many of the novel’s pages, which may be enough to compel a reader to keep tearing through them, especially a reader who lacks an all-access pass to the Hollywood dream machine. But in setting out to overthrow an earlier model—in this case, a standard depiction of Hollywood as bleak, hollow, a screaming void—Specktor has instead managed to mimic that model, without reflecting its merits: how clean the design, how supple the engine, how solid the internal logic. Specktor said in a recent interview that he’s never read The Last Tycoon; of Didion’s corpus, he wrote in 2011, “A good portion of it doesn’t interest me much.” Maybe the problem starts there.
Jessica Winter is a senior editor at Time magazine.