At first glance, The Empty Chair might seem like a departure for Bruce Wagner, an author, director, actor and screenwriter best known for his sprawling novels of a Hollywood so decadent and caustic that the reader hopes they’re satires. Wagner’s previous novel, Dead Stars, clocked in at over 600 pages and is full of Wagner’s hallmarks: graphic sex, stream of consciousness detours, innovative narrative structure, and skewering portrayals of celebrities and celebrity worship.
The Empty Chair, on the other hand, is a slim collection of two linked novellas about Buddhism in America, focusing on characters emerging from suffering and moving toward a deeper peace. In departing from what might have been expected of him, Wagner was able to craft a deft exploration of spirituality in America. “There’s a tremendous beauty and symmetry in the world,” Wagner says. “The Empty Chair became for me a joyful exercise. To write a kind of fugue, an elegy, a cantata—to write something that was a reminder of our frailty and our courage and the extremity of what we encounter and can endure.”
This celebration of humanity’s capacity for enduring tragedy and heartbreak is enhanced by the narrative voice. Each novella takes the form of a character telling his or her story to a fictionalized version of Wagner himself. In the preface, the Wagner character explains that he travelled the country for years, collecting narratives to form an “American quilt” of stories about “seekers slouching toward spiritual redemption.” The novellas are meant to be faithful transcripts of the stories Wagner heard—complete with verbal tics, digressions and breaks for the characters to compose themselves. Wagner says the second novella even started off as a monologue he would perform for friends at holiday parties.
The whole book, according to Wagner, should be a reminder of “the sheer power of story” to captivate and enlighten. “For me, [storytelling] is my way of connecting to something outside of myself and connecting to all others,” Wagner says. “The only effort I can make is in telling a story. That’s the only thing, at this time in my life, that has given me Silence with a capital S and allows me to feel a kind of freedom.”
The Empty Chair is a book with the intimate, natural feel of sitting at someone’s feet, hearing him or her pour out his or her heart. The first novella is narrated by Charley, a gay man who lived in the closet most of his life and is still recovering from his young son’s suicide. Queenie, the second narrator, is an aging wild child who has been dragged around the world by Kura—a former lover desperate for both enlightenment and money. The fictional Wagner interviewed Charley and Queenie years apart but decided to publish the two stories together because they’re linked by “a single, religious detail” so cosmically unlikely that it serves to represent the interconnectedness of all human beings. (It’s a detail that isn’t revealed until the final pages of the book.)
Despite the importance Wagner places on spiritual pursuits, one of the The Empty Chair’s complexities is that each character’s trauma emerges from a devotion to spirituality. Charley was abused by a Catholic priest as a child, and his wife blamed her devotion to Buddhism for their son’s suicide. Queenie is abandoned by a lover who devotes his life to the service of an American guru in India. To Wagner, this trauma is related to an American obsession with celebrity culture and entertainment. “We commodify everything, and in America, we compete,” Wagner says. “It’s not enough to meditate. Slowly one begins to regard those who don’t meditate as somehow derelict or criminal. We meditate and then hold in contempt those who do not meditate as long as we do, or as consistently as we do.”
This competitive drive and thirst for recognition is how Wagner sees The Empty Chair connecting to his Hollywood novels. “The intersection of celebrity and spirituality has a long and rich history in America,” Wagner says. “The themes I write about are fame, wealth, invisibility and spirituality. It’s an irresistible area for me.”
While describing the larger themes of all his works, Wagner mentions an Italian artist from the 18th century named Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who is best known for his etchings of “Carceri d'invenzione” or “Imaginary Prisons.” “I’ve taken that title for all of my work. Just like Henry Miller called his work ‘The Rosy Crucifixion,’ the title to all my books is ‘Imaginary Prisons.’ I’m very much drawn to the ways that we feel might be a method out of the cage—[a cage that’s] sometimes golden, sometimes radioactive—that we find ourselves in.”
The Empty Chair becomes an uplifting, enlightening journey for the reader in part because Wagner’s belief in the capacity of humanity to endure is so strong. Wagner’s own method out of the “cage” is through spirituality and storytelling—although sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. “For me, there’s God and Dickens,” Wagner says. “There’s something external that falls upon one as one has finished a Dickens novel. Other people find it in a Rothko painting or Mozart or Bach. Or the simplicity of a warm day where one has not that much to do and sits in solitude on a bench as the sun falls on your face.”
For now, Wagner’s still not sure about the next step on his own path. Maps to the Stars, a screenplay he wrote for David Cronenberg to direct, will be released early next year and will explore the decadent world of Hollywood that Wagner knows so well. In general, Wagner realizes that he tends to alternate subjects—switching between Hollywood and non-Hollywood material. Ultimately, though, he always returns “to where I live, in a sense, the place that captivates me: Hollywood. Then I do something perhaps unexpected or unanticipated,” like The Empty Chair.
While the “single, religious detail” that connects Charley and Queenie is certainly unexpected, it doesn’t come across as contrived or gimmicky. Wagner’s storytelling is infused with such humanity and hope that readers will finish this slim, heartfelt book with the same feeling you might get listening to Bach or sitting on a bench, feeling the sun on your face.
Richard Z. Santos teaches in a small town just outside Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in the Rumpus, the San Antonio Express News, Huffington Post and many others. He’s working on his first novel.