- Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures
- Riverhead Books, 320 pp.
A Way of Life, Like Any Other
Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, author Emma Straub’s first novel, is a capably written and often engaging work. Straub skillfully delineates the private life of fictional actress Laura Lamont; however, it’s much harder to believe in her public life as a movie star. The older Laura Lamont regrets ever leaving her beloved Door County, Wisconsin, for the bright lights of Hollywood, but I couldn’t see how a life there would have been all that different, except that the husband, children, and friends who are clearly the center of her existence would have had different jobs. Laura – aka Elsa Emerson – often seems a quintessentially other-directed woman, whose life would have centered around her family and friends regardless of where and how she lived. Publicists’ claims to the contrary, these are not generally the sort of women (or men) who become movie stars.
As if tacitly acknowledging this, Straub presents Laura’s stardom as the result of a series of accidents. The first line of the book calls Elsa/Laura, the youngest of her family, the “blondest, happiest accident.” Elsa’s father operates a small community playhouse catering to Door County’s summer visitors, and the family helps out, so she’s born into show business. Older sister Hildy is far more driven than young Elsa, but she dies after being seduced and abandoned by the playhouse’s latest leading man. (She’s also bipolar, it’s hinted). At several points in the narrative, Straub implies that Elsa/Laura is living out her dead sister’s thwarted dreams, but this explanation never quite convinces.
The teenaged Elsa marries yet another summer-stock leading man and accompanies him to Hollywood, but as soon as she becomes pregnant, she’s prepared to let her own dreams slide. While heavily pregnant with a second child, she’s approached by an executive at the studio where her husband is under contract. He likes her “milkmaid” quality enough to suggest that she contact him after she gives birth. (This was not a scenario I found entirely believable). Within months, Irving Green of Gardner Brothers has not only renamed Laura Lamont, but also married her (the studio, through Irving, having stage-managed her divorce from husband number one).
Laura’s stardom is thus the direct result of Irving’s personal attraction to her – yet audiences must see something in her, too, and we never learn what that is. It’s somehow unsurprising to learn that her career goes into eclipse after Irving dies. Essentially, Laura has stardom handed to her. We never know if it’s something she would have continued to pursue in the face of serious rejection or opposition.
In an interview on the book’s Amazon page, Straub notes that an obituary for actress Jennifer Jones was one of the novel’s inspirations. I wondered as much while reading the book, given the similarities between Irving Green and producer David O. Selznick, Jones’s husband and apparent mastermind of her career; I also thought of the marriage of Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg, the “boy wonder” of MGM. Both Jones and Shearer retired not long after their husbands’ deaths; Shearer‘s star in particular declined dramatically. They’re remembered, but largely by enthusiasts and completists; neither quite entered the realm of myth.
Does Straub want us to believe that Laura Lamont entered the realm of myth, like Greta Garbo or Marilyn Monroe? Or is she just meant to be a nice woman caught up in an occasionally cruel industry? I’m not quite sure. Being a star is different from being an actress; the latter involves taking on other people’s identities, the former requires someone to embody, for life, a heightened and distorted version of one’s own identity, to project one’s self into the fantasies of millions of strangers. Unsurprisingly, such an act of projection does great violence to our notions of the self and its boundaries; no wonder stardom seems to damage people, and no wonder it seems to be sought largely by those who are somehow damaged already.
“She was She, who had stepped into the Flame once too often” — that’s Kenneth Anger describing Judy Garland in Hollywood Babylon, his famously bilious compilation of Hollywood gossip, itself a monument to the intense ambivalence stars and stardom evoke. Garland, notes Angela Carter in her review of Anger, was “a victim of the intense exploitation of the star system, and maybe of the emotional disturbance that makes somebody want to be a star in the first place.” It’s this sense of disturbance, of a burning need beyond the ordinary, that seems to be missing from Straub’s portrayal of Laura Lamont. Rebecca West captured this quality perfectly in her description of the seductive blonde, Susie Staunton, in her novel The Birds Fall Down: “She had great possessions, she had this hair, but she was racked, as if she were wandering waterless in the desert, by this phantom yet unassuageable need”. That line seems a more accurate evocation of the aura of stars like Monroe, Garbo, or Elizabeth Taylor than anything we’re told about Laura Lamont.
Sister Hildy apparently had this, but then Hildy, the book strongly implies, is very sick and not a nice person. The same goes for Laura’s first husband, whose appetites eventually destroy him. Straub seems on some level to distrust the kind of impulses that draw most would-be stars to Hollywood in the first place.
The feelings and experiences that preoccupy Straub are pregnancy and motherhood, friendship and domestic partnership. The repeated evocation of bodily experience and physical closeness is one of the most marked features of her writing: “She was impressed with the elasticity of the female body, the wisdom her cells possessed,” thinks Laura while pregnant. She loves seeing her daughters playing and dancing, “speaking their own little bodily language, two feral cats with no need for speech.” When she sits with a friend, she finds “sitting so near to another body that wasn’t her husband’s made her think of her sisters.” Later, when eldest sister Josephine joins her in mourning another loss, the two embrace and “Laura thought that if they had tried to fuse their bodies together precisely at that moment, they could have, so unified were their feelings, so in sync.”
This sense of physicality may be Laura Lamont’s most distinctive characteristic. Yet it sits a bit oddly beside the fact that the most important thing about her is her two-dimensional image, gazed at by strangers. Her acting career is presented in terms of the physical sensations of being onstage, or on set – neither Laura nor her creator seem all that interested in the flickering lights and shadows that are the end product.
Straub possesses considerable gifts as a writer, but they seem to come out in describing the quotidian details of Laura’s private life, and in evoking the bonds that tie her to her loved ones. In these moments, her stardom seems beside the point. What that stardom really consists of, and why it should be the focus of our attention, are questions never fully answered.