I saw the best minds of my generation, like Roger Orr, destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix
Allen Ginsberg, Howl

I was finally in someone else’s book.

But just my luck, it was a book about someone who never really existed, an oral history of a character named Roger Orr. The saving grace, however, was that it was by the novelist Bruce Wagner.

If Lenny Bruce and Evelyn Waugh had had a surrogate love child by way of Eve Babitz, it would be Bruce Wagner. He’s written 12 novels and best-sellers, including the Cellphone trilogy (I’m Losing You, I’ll Let You Go, and Still Holding), as well as Dead Stars, The Empty Chair, and the PEN/Faulkner–nominated The Chrysanthemum Palace.

Wagner also wrote the screenplay for David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars (for which Julianne Moore won best actress at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014), and, 21 years earlier, he created the visionary mini-series Wild Palms (for Oliver Stone) and co-wrote all three seasons of the acclaimed Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union.

Roar, Wagner’s 13th novel, tells the story of Roger Orr, who morphs from being a stand-up comedian to a singer-songwriter, film director, author, painter, sculptor, and Beat poet. He even becomes that most exalted of physicians in Los Angeles: a dermatologist! A bisexual seeker of spiritual truths who samples Indian mysticism, he discovers that he’s half Black and eventually undergoes hormonal and surgical treatment that turns him into a woman.

In other words, the story of our times.

His life is narrated by a Mormon Tabernacle of voices, bringing together the famous (Meryl Streep, Amanda Gorman, Beverly D’Angelo, Dana Delany, Griffin Dunne), the deceased (Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Lenny Bruce), the obscure (family members, critics, historians), and a handful of fellow writers (Sam Wasson, Stephen Fry, Gavin de Becker, yours truly). And Wagner wrote every word.

What follows is the (true) oral history of the accompanying audiobook, in which various people spoke aloud the words that Wagner attached to their names, a few channeled the deceased, and others assumed the roles of living public figures. Pirandello would be proud.

STEPHEN FRY (actor, writer): Carrie Fisher introduced us. Bruce and I were both lucky enough to be friends with that human miracle—nothing forms a bond quite like it.

DANA DELANY (actress): I met Bruce at a party at Carrie Fisher’s house. He was there a lot! I think he actually accosted me in the bathroom at Carrie’s [laugh], but we ended up working together on Wild Palms, which was way ahead of its time. We had a trio—Bruce, me, and James Ellroy—in the early 90s. We would do these readings together of Ellroy’s and Bruce’s books, and just hang out together.

GAVIN DE BECKER (author and security specialist): We first met via my high-school and lifelong friend, Carrie Fisher. In 1997, when my book The Gift of Fear was about to come out, I was fortunate that Bruce agreed to be an early reader and commenter. Friends ever since!

BEVERLY D’ANGELO (actress): I was in Los Angeles renting Paul Jabara’s house, and the film director Hector Babenco was a friend of mine. Hector brought Bruce over one day. Bruce had a full head of hair then. And he was febrile and funny and smart and incisive. He hadn’t written a novel yet, though I know he’d written a Wes Craven movie.

SAM KASHNER (writer): Like most of the people speaking in Roar, I had no idea I was in Bruce’s book until Ash Carter called to tell me. Ash and I had co-authored an oral history of our own, but about someone who not only existed, you might say he over-existed: the director, comedian, filmmaker, art and Arabian-horse collector, and husband to Diane Sawyer, Mike Nichols.

GRIFFIN DUNNE (actor, director): My producing partner, Amy Robinson, and I had read a script of Bruce’s. We never read anything quite like it. It had a rhythm and a darkness.... It was just its own planet. Of course we had to meet. We were both amateur Hollywood historians, so Chasen’s seemed like the right place. I grew up in Los Angeles, and that was the restaurant we would eat in on Sundays, seated next to Jimmy Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock and their families.

SAM WASSON (writer): Ever since I was just a wee Hollywood Jew, I always wanted to see my name in a Bruce Wagner book. It feels like I’m a cool person now. I expected to open the book thinking I would find maybe a passable approximation of my voice, but it really sounded like me. Roar is a tour de force of parody. [Bruce] doesn’t just get [a subject’s] voice, but he gets their humor. I was knocked out by that.

BRUCE WAGNER (writer, author of Roar): An oral biography of an imaginary person seemed so ambitious that I was paralyzed. I told myself I would begin with something simple and satirical, but I wanted something epic—magisterial. And I wanted to write a full-throated, full-dressed novel. The story stretches nearly a hundred years when you include Roar’s genealogy. The form has always appealed to me: the magnificently simple, idiosyncratic, unadulterated human voice.

D’ANGELO: Bruce said that he had this idea to write a book about this man, and he wanted me to be a person who had an affair with him for 40 years. And the reason, he said, was because he wanted to access my life. I said, fine, because I’ll probably never write it down. I don’t have a memoir deal!

FRY: I absolutely didn’t have a clue that I was in the book till an advance copy landed on my doormat. It’s a perfect book to come at you unexplained and out of the blue. You can’t help but zigzag back and forth across it, like an Alpine goat leaping from crag to crag. I couldn’t believe it when I saw my own name there! Quite wisely, Bruce had decided to go ahead and write the voices without going back and forth for permission. His solution was to present us with a fait accompli. I can’t imagine any of us included being anything other than delighted, astonished, and flattered.

WASSON: Why not have Meryl Streep in the book? Why not invite everyone to the party? One of the inspirations for Roar was Jean Stein’s West of Eden, her last book before her suicide, and a stone-cold masterpiece.

DE BECKER: At some point, Bruce asked if he could include a true story I had told him. I happily agreed. The book is a marriage of reportage and fantasy.

DELANY: Bruce sent me a PDF. I looked at it, but it’s such an opus, I hadn’t really gotten through it. And then he said he was going to do this audiobook and would I read a couple of the characters? So I thought, I better read the book! And I loved it. It kind of does everything. I feel like it’s a culmination of what Bruce is, and the oral-history part of it is perfect for him, because he has such an ear for how people speak. He’s a screenwriter, so it’s very natural for him. And the character of Orr is so beautiful and so much Bruce’s journey in life.

KASHNER: My “contribution” was recalling Roger’s encounters with the Beats, since I had been a young acolyte and gofer for some of the founding fathers of the Beat movement at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, which Ginsberg and Anne Waldman had founded in Boulder, Colorado. Bruce even had a footnote annotating a book I hadn’t written.

DUNNE: I know a lot of the people in Roar, and I think he captured a lot of their voices. I read three characters [for the audiobook], but the one I had the hardest time with was myself. I just didn’t sound like me, even though I was actually saying something I probably would’ve said. But the one voice that I totally could do—and have done all my life—is my father’s [Dominick Dunne]. I do a drop-dead imitation of him.

FRY: The recording session was enormous fun! He let me do what I wanted with my own voice and with others, to use an old-fashioned word, that he’d asked me to personate. It’s not quite impersonate. I think it means more to embody the spirit of. That’s what I’m going for anyway.

WAGNER: I had no desire to tell Beverly D’Angelo or Stephen Fry to sound more like themselves.

“Quite wisely, Bruce had decided to go ahead and write the voices without going back and forth for permission. His solution was to present us with a fait accompli.”

KASHNER: Bruce had me add a few lines here and there, and I stumbled over a few words. If I were wearing a hat it would be off to people who really do read books for a living. How did it go? You’d have to ask Bruce, but I’m fairly certain my phone isn’t going to be blowing up with offers, unless it’s for the audio edition of the Warren Commission report.

DELANY: My first venture into audiobooks was Judith Krantz’s Scruples. It was in the 80s, when people were first beginning to do books on tape, and you’d get this huge thing with all those cassettes in it. I did Scruples I and II, though I’m not really a voice actor. I had to do all these different voices—men and women. I had to do a sex scene between two men, one of whom had an accent. I’ll never forget that one of the reviews of the audiobook was: you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Dana Delany as the voice of two men having sex.

WASSON: I can’t act at all. I can’t even play myself. So I said, “Bruce, you won’t offend me. Give me line readings. Tell me exactly how you need it to be.” I read myself and the voice of Andrew Sarris, the Village Voice film critic. But what I really wanted to do was someone totally inappropriate. It would’ve been my dream to be Amanda Gorman—or Wally Shawn. Unfortunately for me, Bruce got Wally to play himself.

KASHNER: I sat like Eichmann in a glass booth in the recording studio. Bruce was listening and watching me remotely on Zoom. The words Bruce had made up that I had never spoken but was saying now appeared on a small screen beneath the microphone. The mike was so sensitive that Alberto, the fellow in the control booth, asked me to stop breathing. I think he meant through my mouth, though I haven’t breathed through my nose since Woodstock. Jewish adenoids.

DELANY: It didn’t feel like a script, more like how people speak to each other.

FRY: I felt my own voice [in the text] was done pretty well, actually. He makes me sound like a plumptious intellectual, and that suits me right down to the ground. To mangle Oscar Wilde: if there’s one thing worse than being ventriloquized by Bruce Wagner, it’s not being ventriloquized by Bruce Wagner.

DUNNE: Not to diminish any of the other great books that have followed, but the one that introduced me to what a brilliant novelist Bruce is was I’m Losing You. It was so perceptive, and sad, and funny. It’s right up there with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby stories. I recognize the world and the sensibility in his books. Bruce has one story about a guy who’s driving his car, and he pulls up next to a very powerful studio executive who he knows to be gay, and who’s clearly checking him out. He thinks, “Well, he has my script, so maybe I’ll go there.” I laughed out loud when he was describing the thoughts of this hungry, desperate writer trying to make it in show business.

DE BECKER: Bruce’s books have taught me, entertained me, challenged me, but Roar left me speechless. Hundreds of different voices telling a single story as if held together by gravity, and then the story sometimes breaks free. I think it’s impossible that anyone wrote that book, and yet, here it is.

WAGNER: In the end, it’s pseudo-autobiography. Much of my experience is embedded, amplified, and decorated. It’s a dream diorama of my own life, and hopefully that of others, including the reader. More than any book I’ve written, it’s a foreign thing to hold in my hands. It helped that the cover says “compiled and edited by Bruce Wagner”—the author vanished, by design. The purest writing is that which is done when the writer gets out of the way.

WASSON: I think being labeled a Hollywood writer doesn’t serve him. He’s a writer. Hollywood is just the stage for him to talk about the most important issues, many of them spiritual. Dead Stars is a novel for its generation. It’s as if Dickens wrote novels about contemporary Hollywood.

DELANY: Bruce is—what is the word?—a polymath. So curious about things. I don’t want to give anything away, but Roar is a kind of ascension. It’s the Buddhist concept of the true self, which is no self. He’s always been a rebel. Look what happened with his last book. They wanted him to censor it and make changes, and he refused and instead offered it for free [on the Internet]. I’m glad he’s striking a blow against what’s unreasonable about cancel culture, which is just rampant right now, and it’s not good for any of us.

FRY: Bruce is a writer whose nose and instincts have a lot in common with Alexander Pope in The Dunciad. In Roar he’s found a way to present the kaleidoscope of 20th- and early-21st-century (principally Anglophone) culture and society, which is playful, funny, cunning, devastating, and fantastically alive. Given the anemic, etiolated bloodlessness of much literary fiction today, I reckon his energy and willingness to be original and find his own way makes him rare.

WAGNER: I’m a huge acolyte of Svetlana Alexievich’s transcendent oral histories. I was astonished and thrilled when she won the Nobel Prize for literature for her nonfiction work. There was great poetry to that choice, and a revelation of the blurring of lines between the illusion of what we call reality. Her work is literature of the highest order. But not in the traditional sense.

D’ANGELO: I asked Bruce if he wanted me to talk to you as though Roar was real. Why don’t I just say that I did know Roger Orr, and that everything I say in the book is true?

WAGNER: It’s interesting to me that it’s becoming more evident, day by day—it has always been the case, but most of the time we just can’t see it—that, as Roger Orr himself likes to say, this world is an illusion. Around the time we were doing the audiobook, my bank called, and it became quickly evident that I had suffered a major identity theft.

Perfect: I was effectively erased. It was cosmic justice.

Sam Kashner is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL.Previously a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, he is the author or co-author of several books, including Sinatraland: A Novel, When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School, and Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends