Tuesday, July 2, 2013

WISCONSIN CINDERELLA

LAURA LAMONT"S LIFE IN PICTURES is Emma Straub's first novel is a varaition on the Cinderella theme told in a clean, neat style, all short sentences made up of good Anglo-Saxon short nouns, is the prevailing fashion requires. This is a book unlikely to tax the Tweeter generation's attention, "Irving Green had an idea every thirty-five seconds. Laura liked to time him...He wanted to hire a French chef for the commissary to make crepes. Had she ever had a crepe?" This sort of prose works well to move the plot along and to Straub's credit, her book does have a plot that includes tragedies and triumphs.She plucks teenager Elsa Emerson from Door County, Winsconsin, deposits her in Hollywood along with the boy she married on an impulse. Two children later the marriage is kaput, but stardom is on the horizon.The novel could end right there, leaving the reader wondering if the bright lights of Tinseltown are a good enough substitute for the soft starlight of Door County. However, the story goes on and on to include a divorce, a second marriage, the glamour of stardom and a fall from grace. There is, in the background, a detailed domesticity, dull as dull, "'Some spice cake?' Harriet got up to clear their plates. 'I shouldn't.' Harriet brought over two plates with tiny slices of cake, 'Just a smidge. Hardly counts.' Laura nudged a bit of cake onto her fork and put the bite on her tongue, closing her lips around the fork.' This piling of detail upon detail is one of the novel's serious failing. It is as if Straub were reluctant to empower the reader's imagination to fill in gaps trivia more experienced novelists confidently set aside. "She was impressed with the elasticity of the female body, the wisdom her cells possessed." Well and good. Adding that "They grew this way, not that. She expanded out, not up..." is something any Ninth Grader can think up without prompts. Minor issues such as this, easily corrected by tougher editing, do not invalidate Straub's competence. She has plenty of experience with nonfiction. Her work has been published at Slate and The Paris Review Daily, among others.But the sustained effort to to tell someone's life story requires so much more than crafting short nonfiction. It demands getting under the character's skin,as Fitzgerald did with Gatsby, as Tolstoy did with Anna. There is so much in this novel that is overloaded with detail one wonders about the great lacunae around, such Winconsin Elsa's marriage to Jewish New York Irving Green. Were there any conflicts, such as the great Christmas battle that often takes place between inter-denominational couples? We know that mama Emerson disapproves of Green because he is a Jew, but what does Green think of Mama Emerson? What about Green's yiddishe mamma, what does she think of the shiksa her son married? One of the greatest obstacles in Straub's path is that literature is, in great part, a register of the transformational power that separates human from non-human, writer from non-writer or better yet, ordinary writer from great writer. Changing Elsa Emerson into Laura Lamont seems easy until one takes into consideration similar transformations throughout literary history--Emma Roualt into the Emma Bovary, Anna Oblonsky into Anna Karenina, Karen Blixen into Isaak Dinesen. Laura Lamont's transformation is skin deep. That in itself is a story, a story Straub does not tell. Since the reader is not priviliged to know what is in Elsa's heart, all that surrounds her--marriages, children, deaths, broken alliances,enduring friendships--seem to have all the life of artificial flowers. For the moment, all I can say is that Straub can write better than many. She shows promise. Her next book will tell whether she can take the next step towards greatness. I would like to reserve judgment till then.

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