Archive for Sunday, July 15, 2007

Futuristic noir thriller full of clever concepts

July 15, 2007

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It is 2017, and Los Angeles is under assault by electronic image.

Digital billboards litter the landscape, lining highways, blocking scenic vistas and even shining from beneath transparent sidewalks. They transmit a constant flood of commercials, including ads that feature long-dead movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable, digitally reanimated to hawk Pepsi and dandruff medicine.

Kurt Wenzel constructs this Marshall McLuhan nightmare as the backdrop of his novel "Exposure" (Little Brown, $23.99), then dives into a muddled plot that's part Hollywood satire and part L.A. noir, shot through with a liberal dose of media criticism before it lapses at the end into poorly executed science fiction.

The book is at its best in its portrayal of the world of 10 years hence, where terrorism angst and media saturation have stirred up a stew of spiritual malaise and apocalyptic paranoia. At times, Wenzel's world seems chillingly plausible. In his Los Angeles, the hottest new trend is the "media fast," a retreat for those exhausted by the digital onslaught where all electronics are unplugged and the humming of commercial jingles is banned.

But Wenzel's clever futurism takes center stage at the expense of the plot, which regularly lapses into long passages rife with exposition. He labors to link numerous strands, including an iconic movie star beset with an unexplained illness, the race to identify a mysterious media critic who may be inciting civil disobedience and a top-secret scheme to feature the digitally reanimated screen legends in actual new films.

The characters are mostly archetypes - a jaded screenwriter, an ambitious TV reporter, a sleazy Hollywood agent - who all share the convenient habit of being naive at just the right time, usually when the plot is bogging down and needs another push forward.

Wenzel has an admirable eye for detail and a flair for visual description that gives the book a cinematic feel. "Exposure" aims to indict the soul-deadening glut of what it calls image pollution, but while reading it, a thought nags: This would have been better as a movie.

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