Copyright © 1998 All Rights Reserved.
by Mike Bell
By Design: A Hollywood Novel
by Richard E. Grant
Picador, 261 pp.
As a novelist, Richard E. Grant's writing style is much like his acting. Best known for his roles in brilliantly unique films like Withnail and I and How to Get Ahead in Advertising (or the fun-with-boiled-baby-fat flick Warlock, if you're from Saskatchewan), Grant is inarguably proficient in each skill, there's just something tiresome and predictable about his delivery.
His new novel By Design is the perfect example of this dichotomy. Set in Los Angeles, it's a loving jab at the Hollywood machine and all of its players told from the perspective of a non-insider insider named Vyvian. He's an interior decorator and confidant to the Tinsel Town elite, who, with the help of his childhood friend Marga - a masseuse with a terrible case of acne who pretends to be a deaf-mute, conducting her business with a mask covering half of her pockmarked face - knows more about the lives and dealings of the movie machine's big names than anyone else.
Grant mixes real Hollywood names ("Bruce and Demi" or "Tom and Nicole") with his main cast of made-ups in a wink-wink attempt to convince us that there really are people like this in the industry: the beautiful husband-and-wife actors who (gasp!) really are in love; the neurotic fading starlet; the neurotic-faded-but-on-a-comeback starlet; the regular guy actor; the young prick director; the old nice guy director. After appearing separately on the other end of Vyvian's cell phone for the first half of the novel ("It's a phoney culture," Vyvian har-har deadpans), they all come together for the filming of the Hollywood project to end all Hollywood projects - a film called Zeitgeist.
Maybe it's because the idea that Los Angeles is filled with self-involved neurotic flakes is one that's been visited many, many times before (check out Grant in the Steve Martin film LA Story or Robert Altman's The Player), or maybe it's because our culture is so nauseatingly obsessed with the truth about celebrities that we get a daily dose of it anyway, but halfway through Grant's novel it's hard not to come down with a case of the who-cares? and start skimming and skipping. His humorous prose is sometimes engaging and very readable, but there are no new revelations about these exhausted stereotypes and very little insight into a world that many of us are weary of hearing about.
All of this might have been remedied if Grant hadn't written his narrator, Vyvian, as a character who - despite various attempts by everyone else to drag him fully into their bullshit world - was determined to remain an impartial voyeur to the lives of his clients. Even though he's given many ins (even an "and outs" with one of the actors), we're left with no one to empathize with. And so we don't.
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