“. . . a potboiler of a thing, something that would have, during the studio era, been the stuff of a B picture.”
After the slam-bang debut that was her short story collection Other People We Married, Emma Straub has chosen to follow up with a tale of Old Hollywood.
Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is complete with a character loosely based on Golden Age whiz kid (and husband to actress Norma Shearer who thanks to her husband was the oldest Juliet ever put on film) Irving Thalberg—here still conveniently still named Irving (although his last name has shifted to Green), about whom in driving the comparison home Straub writes:
“He was younger than the other producers, no older than thirty-five, and had the look of a boy who had always hated the sunlight. His skin was so pale it was nearly green, as if all the blood vessels underneath were desperately close to the skin.”
This tale of the glory days of Hollywood is, of course, something no less than F. Scott Fitzgerald failed to pull off, complete with his own Thalberg variant, Monroe Stahr, in his unfinished The Last Tycoon—which should perhaps stand as a warning to Ms. Straub and any other young writers who might wish to do what the greats could not.
Not that our author entered into Fitzgerald territory unawares. Note that her book begins with a Tycoon quote:
“You can take Hollywood for granted like I did, or you can dismiss it with the contempt we reserve for what we don’t understand. It can be understood too, but only dimly and in flashes.”
Those words, “dimly” and “in flashes” relate directly to Ms. Straub’s new book, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures and to the reader’s experience of it. For this book can be enjoyed only dimly and only for the sake occasional flashes in which the spark of inventiveness with language and circumstance that she shows in her short fiction still shines through—a few words here, a paragraph there—in what otherwise is a potboiler of a thing, something that would have, during the studio era, been the stuff of a B picture.
Ms. Straub even does herself a rather majestic disservice in her choice of the name that her Thalberg-lite gives her heroine while changing her life with a literal snap of his finger.
Born the natural blonde “Elsa Emerson” in the cherry groves of Wisconsin, she hits Hollywoodland with a young husband in tow, literally just off the bus from her parents’ summer barn theater located on the shores of Green Bay.
While she is busy making a home in a Hollywood bungalow and giving birth to two daughters, her husband lands small roles in the films of the Gardner Brothers studio. There, at a wrap party, Elsa meets her husband’s producer, who, ignoring the fact that she is great with child, sees a star standing in front of him. And on the spot begins the transformation by giving her a new name.
But in dubbing her “Laura Lamont,” Ms. Straub dooms her to the inevitable comparison with Singin’ in the Rain’s bombastic Lina Lamont and to actress Jean Hagen who played her so indelibly that while scanning the page, the reader hears nothing but Lina’s flat “I cin’t stan’ it!” nasality as Ms. Straub’s Laura Lamont speaks.
This surely was not what the author intended.
She writes of Hollywood in the 30s and 40s with the competence of Wikipedia, never truly creating the world in which her tale is set—a Hollywood as mysteriously untouched by the Depression and/or World War II and completely devoid of any cultural reference to the 60s and 70s later on.
These eras are alluded to only when it suits the plot (Will Laura have to sell her movie star mansion as she falls out of favor in middle age?)—a plot as studded sudden turns of melodramatic fortune as any Lana Turner movie, most especially Turner’s own lush Broadway-to-Hollywood fable, Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, whose timeline Lamont roughly echoes, with the character Harriet filling on for loyal Annie.
And speaking of Turner, given that the book slavishly borrows from reality in its Bizarro world kind of way (Laura’s buddy Ginger, a redheaded comic with a tendency toward mugging and pratfalls, fails to find success in films, but after marrying and turning her attention to television finds huge fame in a sitcom loosely based on her life called Ginger & Bill’s Hoedown Happy Hour and ends up owning the studio), this tale of Hollywood could have been greatly enhanced by a Johnny Stompanato stabbing or two, or at least a Monty Beragon style triangle with her daughter—something.
To be honest, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures falls into the category of a lumpish, mawkish Hollywood fairy tale.
Therefore it must be compared with the leaden film version of Inside Daisy Clover, as opposed to Gavin Lambert’s wry and bitchy novel of the same name. (If you are looking for a great book on Hollywood, the illusion of fame and the power of the studio myths, by all means, seek out Daisy Clover.) It is, as far as movie star shimmer, Hollywood insight, and literary veracity go, akin to Valley of the Dolls or The Love Machine, or worse, TV show Hollywood Wives, while lacking the mad joy that reading any of these would bring.
Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures seems home-stitched, with frayed edges and finger smudges. A hastily madeup thing. A silly thing. And worst of all a predictable, boring thing.
Again, given author Straub’s previous work, it is curious to find an almost complete lack of plot. It is a novel in which “this happens, and then that,” without development, without arc. A work in which most of the action is simply dictated to us, reported by our storyteller, in which nothing is made vivid or brought to life. And the skill Ms. Straub showed for vibrancy of language is puzzlingly lacking here.
As in the moment in which Laura Lamont wins an Academy Award, surely a high point in any actress’ life:
“Though Laura very much wanted to win, it was absolutely true that both Irving and her father wanted it more. She watched their faces as the syllables came out of the actor’s mouth—Lore-ah Lah-monde—and the rest of the room, so full of applause, felt silent to her ears. All Laura could see or hear were the two men who loved her most, now standing up to embrace each other over her head, their suit jackets flapping about her ears. Laura wedged her way between them and kissed her father on the cheek and then her husband on the mouth, being careful not to muss her lipstick.”
Autumn brings new possibilities with it every year. The long, hot summer has ended, the trek has been made back from the shore to the city and the kids are back in school. New movies, new Broadway shows, new television series and new books are all put on offer. Each season, some hit the mark. Most don’t. Each fall, we guess which will be the first TV show to be cancelled. Which books will take flight and which won’t.
Sadly, a very talented young writer has failed, this time out, to achieve the success expected of her. No doubt she will write other, better books in the years ahead, as hers is a true gift. Emma Straub is a writer far better than her book.
And autumn will bring other and better novels. But this one, well intentioned as it may be, is best packed away with the beach towels.