Published August 28, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Well, here comes the it book of late summer, anointed with flecks of beach water by John Updike in The New Yorker and by The New York Times, which recently featured Wagner in a rare daily author profile. For a second-time novelist -- Wagner is also the author of the cult hit "Force Majeure" (1991) -- this one-two PR whammy is the equivalent of a film star landing the covers of Vanity Fair and Newsweek.

Here's a heads-up, however, from someone who recently spent eight hours with "I'm Losing You" in his lap: Don't buy the buzz, and forgive Updike the (rare) critical misfire. "I'm Losing You" is indeed caustic and intermittently brilliant, but any stray fireworks are buried beneath mountains of gassy chat, unfiltered gossip and 100-proof psychobabble.

Wagner does have a good feel for low- and mid-level Hollywood lives. "I'm Losing You" takes its title from what the book's characters shout during fuzzy cell phone conversations, and this story is studded with tart, throw-away observations, from the shape of one former actress' "I-shit-on-you-mouth" to Hollywood's burgeoning number of "H.I.V.I.P.s" -- industry insiders with AIDS.

What the novel lacks, however, are fleshed-out characters and any sense of narrative arc; the action scrolls past as if under a microscope. Dozens of amoeba-like neurotics emerge briefly from the murk -- producers, porn directors, agents, dermatologists, aging stars -- deliver their brassy monologues, and disappear. Everyone is selling something, and the disposable dialogue is peppered with legions of bold-face names:

"Tell you one thing: Dawn Steel would not do a remake of Pasolini's Teorema. She's too smart for that ... Would still kill for Jane Campion (I BRAKE FOR BERTOLUCCI), but Saul says she's booked for like six years. (He actually suggested Amy Heckerling.) I remain adamantine about having a woman at the helm (that's Chayevskypeak -- remember Bill Holden saying that in Network?"

"I'm Losing You" is already being compared with Nathaniel West's "The Day of the Locust" and Michael Tolkin's "The Player," and Updike's review evoked the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald. But as talented as Wagner can occasionally be, "I'm Losing You" -- unlike Tolkin's shrewd and sturdy novel -- evaporates as soon as the final page flickers past. Like a Carrie Fisher book helmed by Oliver Stone, "I'm Losing You" is arch, creepy, over-the-top -- and infuriatingly static.

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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