Life of a Star by Jane Unrue
In Jane Unrue’s third novella an unnamed woman visits galleries, fountains, and piers, and observes the underweight litany of her existence. This is a book to be read all at once with a long evening spreading ahead, in order to best note the slow, dexterous rising of tension, the avid portrayal, and the bare yet startling language. Unrue punctuates the unnamed woman’s thoughts (they occur while she does her needlework, visits the museum’s garden, and wanders in a city where she seemingly has no acquaintances) with muted intensity. Unrue’s sentences are as calm as they are discerning, often running against one another and interrupting in humor and emotion:
The color of my eyes is something people might not well recall. And though petite, at times I seem
Look how her––!
She’s not one little bit––!
Mine is a woman’s face, though something of the child hides back behind the surface of my veering eyes.
Prose vignettes -- at times one line takes up a whole page -- read like private journal entries, and reveal a woman who is either on the verge of a crisis or has barely survived one. With time we learn the woman is a kind of actress -- a failed actress, a closeted actress, a successful actress are all strong possibilities. The woman bitterly recollects a carefree girl from her youth who ended up acting (“I was diminished by her”) and the memory of this girl is followed by a taunting line from an adult, which appears in quotes and occupies a page: “Child, have you ever aspired to perform upon the stage?” These and other tidbits make it clear that once upon a time the woman had wanted to be an actress, and that now she is not (or never was). In fact, the ambiguities regarding the narrator’s occupation and her general background serve to highlight the incandescent and disturbing tension Unrue has created in the narration throughout the book:
I pick the scissors up. A sparkling vision fills my head, those long-gone Christmas Eves and other nights-before when I would feel the glittering gaze of someone peeking in to see if I was just pretending to be asleep or if I really was asleep. I clip it, thread it, knot it at the end, and tell myself I wonder if I’m acting now.
We are in limbo, just like the narrator. We find grounding in the woman’s memories of her childhood and of the conversations she once had with her lover. The conversations appear to us snipped, but they are beguiling. The woman and her lover converse on the nature of isolation, their relationship, and sex. That was the woman’s past.
In the present, the woman stares into the eyes of the subjects of Renaissance paintings, she plays a femme-fatale role (self-cast) at a gallery in the museum, and also hires herself for a part she wrote for herself. This last role is a “straightforward though deeply layered story” about a woman who lives in a one-room flat above her mother’s defunct flower shop. The woman acts out the role in a voyage, on a boat deck. Wearing an evening gown and donning a sea-pearl evening clutch, the woman concentrates on her manner and poise. The woman plays the role, rehearsing the execution in grueling and intensive practice sessions, so that “I, please God, might not convey to those around me evidence of jealousy, resentment, malice, desperation, anything.” Life of a Star reads as though Marina Abramovic or Allan Kaprow truly succeeded in erasing the lines between art and life -- but the result is disturbing. Akin to the hair-rising fear we feel from looking down an abyss, we look upon the nameless woman playing her voyage role, reacting to the passangers on the boat as if her fellow actors, and we wonder how far she will be able to go without finally stepping into insanity:
Soft blonde hair, her dress black taffeta, a beaded coral cardigan around her shoulders, she moved gracefully, so pretty, and he uttered something to her that I could not understand before I heard him tell her clearly, rather loudly, that he’d screw her (she had downward eyes) until she’s bleed (soft face; not shocked). Then suddenly she ran away.
The mother-character in me wept for daughter’s bitter disappointment as the father in me shrank in weakness to confront that bastard piece of shit, while she, the woman that I really was
It seems I have no feelings I can call my own.
Unrue strikes on a narrative drama that is interspersed with ordinary epiphanies, which reveal a life richly lived, but underscored by a quiet, masterful tension. The woman’s triangular connections with the world and her self (when the self she knows is slipping) are utterly intriguing. This is a portrait of a woman entering art and losing herself in it, increasingly unable to find the center of her own emotions. Life of a Star is a book for theorists, art lovers, academics, but mostly general readers who are both grateful and uneasy to find a writer who experiments with blurring the line of art and life.
Life of a Star by Jane Unrue