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Exposure A Novel Kurt Wenzel Little, Brown: 266 pp., $23.99

July 15, 2007|Veronique de Turenne | Veronique de Turenne is a book critic and blogs at www.laobserved.com/malibu.

IT'S the year 2017 in Los Angeles, the setting for Kurt Wenzel's futuristic Hollywood novel "Exposure," and the city is pretty much the same as it is today, only more so. More people, more cars, more noise, more stress, more pollution and way more media.

Colt Reston, a minor league ballplayer-turned-actor ("A face contoured as if by the gods," his agent thinks) is the biggest movie star the world has ever seen. And the world sees him all the time. Can't escape him, in fact. His image fills thousands of Moving Image Billboards (MIBs), high-definition screens that ceaselessly force commercials on a captive public. From tiny MIBs on the salt and pepper shakers at the local diner to multistory monstrosities visible for miles, there's no reprieve.

A synchronized nationwide terrorist attack in 2010 (one per state) has put the U.S. into a virtual lockdown. Roving checkpoints can pop up anywhere, anytime, and law enforcement types have free rein to question and detain citizens. The rich indulge in "media fasts," paying big bucks to retire to hotels and retreats in search of the most precious commodity -- silence. Barring that, they turn to Bliss, a viciously addictive new drug that dulls the edges of this brave new world.

Despite his great fortune, all is not well with Colt. In a kind of reverse "Picture of Dorian Gray," he's seized by a wasting disease whose virulence escalates in direct proportion to the distribution of his pixilated image. Colt's best friend, Marshall Reed, a Blissed-out script doctor, embarks on a wild mission to save Colt's overexposed life.

But as quickly as the story takes off -- and it's a good one, with warring talent agencies and evil agents obsessed with "The Black Book," an anonymously published anti-media manifesto -- it's hobbled by new characters. You get Wenzel's intent -- to launch his story as close to the action as possible. But he starts so late that he repeatedly resorts to flashbacks. Things will be rolling along, fueled by some perverse detail of Wenzel's future L.A. (junk-food-addicted mountain lions roam city streets, attacking humans for their McDonald's takeout), when suddenly a new character is introduced. The plot stops, the exposition starts and the momentum evaporates.

Still, there's enough knowing satire and inventive detail to keep you reading. Wenzel dabbles in sci-fi details but doesn't clobber you with them. This world isn't so much dystopic as it is dyspeptic, a ramped-up, amped-up version of today. But even that brings unease. Here's a warning from "The Black Book":

"They're going to put advertisements on the moon. This is true. It's already in negotiations. A satellite is going to throw images off the surface, six days a month, while the moon is at its fullest. Why? you ask. Because they can. Because they know you're too numb and worn down."

As a Hollywood novel, "Exposure" is more than good. As a treatment for a rip-roaring, action-packed anti-Hollywood movie, it's almost great.

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