Pretentious comic novel about a London doctor who can’t escape a life that’s too much like a bad movie.
Having satirized the literary world in Bedlam Burning (2002), the prolific Nicholson here turns his eye on Los Angeles and Hollywood, doing so by intertwining three narratives. The first follows William Draper through squalid 17th-century London as he seeks to mate a dodo and thus preserve an endangered species. The other two, set in present-day LA, concern, first, Rick McCartney, a would-be auteur who wants to film a screenplay about dodos, which, it eventually turns out, consists of the Draper tale. Flying into LA, McCartney has a panic attack and seeks treatment from another passenger, Dr. Henry Cadwallader, the subject of the third narrative. The doctor accompanies his daughter Dorothy, who is heading to a screen test. Cadwallader expresses a wearying disdain for just about everything and everyone, particularly movie clichés, and, unsurprisingly, he finds his experience in LA taking the shape of a tawdry B-movie. As Dorothy flunks her bid for stardom, he kills time playing the part of a house-hunter, thereby getting involved with a real-estate agent who’s really a failed actress. Cadwallader’s acting and demeanor so fascinate the talent agent who rejected Dorothy that the agent insists he go into movies. So does Rick, who casts the doctor in his film of the Draper story. A porn star, Rick, Dorothy, the real-estate agent, and a mechanical dodo end up poolside at a fake Tudor mansion, all of them running around “like headless chickens (or dodos).” The point, according to the real-estate agent: “Everybody in this town is pretending to be something they’re not.”
Nicholson’s sometimes-sharp lines don’t make up for thin characters, worn subjects, and a way-too-clever narrative construct.