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Memorial

By Bruce Wagner

Simon & Schuster,

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507 pages, $36

Memory is to the novel what soil is to a plant, both food and home. Think of Dickens's David Copperfield or Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Try to imagine smelling Proust's time-transporting madeleine pastry.

For better or worse, few subjects recur in the literary novel as regularly as the persistence of memory. American satirist Bruce Wagner invokes and challenges this literary fixation on memory in his stimulating new novel, Memorial, a novel that, in its own wild and vitriolic telling, understands why people sometimes prefer a specific and physical public memorial to the vicissitudes and abstractions of private memory.

To frame his skewering portrait of self-serving greed, Wagner interweaves the stories of four Californians on the threshold of financial change. Thirty-seven-year-old Joan Herlihy is elated to climb past personal and professional plateaus when she is short-listed to propose designs for a billionaire's private memorial to family lost in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

While she hopes to earn piles of money through her work, her feckless brother Chess is tempted to sue for a similar pile after a half-friendly betrayal finds him injured and then addicted to painkillers.

Their mother, Marj, a widow with an empty nest and a full bank account, falls prey to appeals to her vanity and meets an unexpected attack on her financial and personal security.

Completing this composite portrait of selfishness and flimsy ethics is Ray, a man "in the September of his years" also considering a legal settlement, one that would see him finally able to provide for those he loves, a first for a man who abandoned his young family decades ago.

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While Joan and her "starchitect" peers often pile material upon material in their memorials and commissioned designs, here Wagner himself piles accuracy upon accuracy in this bitingly funny novel brimming with inventive wordplay, splenetic satire, pitch-perfect realism and, ultimately, genuine humanity. A gift piece of "blood coral" is "like a letter in the alphabet of the nonverbal." Adult children reluctantly visit their mother and stepfather "on smiley autopilot." A rival architect "looked like a well-heeled dentist, the type with something questionable on his hard drive."

Delightfully, Wagner combines his metaphoric eye with cutting social observations to create superb satire. The billionaire commissioner of the memorial chooses to honour only his brother and sister-in-law, not other victims, and does so on 400 acres of private land, knowing he is denying the public their "gore fix," refusing to be a "healer or a dealer" by allowing "the public to stroll around and drop their trash" to "iPod commentaries." For another character, a hospital visit meets "the usual mindlessly galling, passive-aggressive encounters with testily indifferent functionaries and grinning eunuchized volunteers," and finally, a "tangle of nerves, short circuits, and wrong information."

Wagner's feverish, insatiable wordplay and endless social satire almost eclipse his superb realism and his admirably multidimensional characters. Consumerism, xenophobia, racism, cultural imperialism and the counterfeiting of vanity as spiritualism all come under Wagner's relentless attack. Here, in his sixth novel, Wagner pulls out all the stops and attacks with one well-turned phrase after another, with deliciously accurate and cutting dialogue (including more than one multipage monologue) and with the four unfolding and interweaving stories.

Perhaps most impressive is Wagner's thorough but complex mining of guilt. As in life, characters regret their mistreatment of family members one minute but then continue to pursue selfish motives the next. These mixed emotions are often observed best in the sex lives of his characters, and to Wagner's hermaphroditic credit the sexuality best explored here is that of the late thirtysomething Joan, not one of the men.

Ultimately, though, not even sex or love are spared Wagner's withering eye. Regarding pregnancy, Joan says, "Nothin says lovin like something from the oven." Only the senior male, Ray, feels slightly underexplored, with an uneventful present not quite matching the severity of his past.

The novel's plot, nimble prose and extremely au courant immersion in pop culture make Memorial a vibrant and frenetic novel, and one must occasionally dodge the allusions or jokes to see how deeply heartfelt and caring it is as well. The billionaire patron of the memorial is aghast to see the first anniversary of the tsunami recalled by celebrities on talk shows mourning other celebrities: "Yeah right, I'm sure, that's exactly what Sir Soulmate would have wanted! I died drowning, getting thwacked by garbage and dead babies breaking the bones in my face as I screamed and my lungs sucked in animal feces and gasoline -- but party on!"

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Yet even at its most brazen, Wagner's satirical disapproval for contemporary humanity is fuelled by a palpable, and ultimately affirming, desire for people to live wiser and more genuine lives.

In one of the novel's innumerable moments of emotional maturity, in a Wagnerian moment of characters being mature by admitting to their immaturity, a man confesses to a woman that he loves her because, "You're the only person angrier than I am." Such a line encapsulates this writer and his love/hate relationship with contemporary culture. Like it, Bruce Wagner is invitingly honest, bristling with rage and yet simultaneously full of sincere love.

Darryl Whetter is a former professor of creative writing and the author of the story collection A Sharp Tooth in the Fur.

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