The Tragedy of Celebrity in Anne Enright’s “Actress”

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Partway through “Actress” (W. W. Norton), Anne Enright’s captivating seventh novel, the narrator, Norah, advances a theory about her mother’s rise to fame. Katherine O’Dell, who died at the age of fifty-eight, the same age her daughter is now, was a grande dame of the Irish theatre. Her four-decade-long career, which began in the nineteen-forties, brought her to Broadway, to Hollywood, to avant-garde productions of Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett. This ascendance, Norah insists, was instantaneous. “A star is born not made,” she aphorizes. “Whatever a star has, they had it all along.”

This notion has a charming simplicity. In the face of celebrity’s special incandescence, perhaps there is no need for an origin story of mundanities like talent and hard work. But these days the taxonomy of the famous has been expanding ever downward (we have a Z-list now), and Norah’s formulation collapses under scrutiny. Of course stars are made: it takes connections or coincidences or both to find your way to the top—and publicity to stay there. This is part of why we have always found celebrities so transfixing. “The whole media construction of stars encourages us to think in terms of ‘really,’ ” Richard Dyer wrote in “Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society,” his classic study of celebrity, from 1986. “Really” as in, What is she really like? It’s the simultaneity of constructed persona and real person that draws us in.

For Norah, this paradox persists even twenty-five years after her mother’s death. A married novelist with two grown children—that is, with stories of her own—she is still drawn to the story of Katherine O’Dell’s making. She isn’t the only one: Norah gets an e-mail, and then a visit, from a young doctoral student who is writing a dissertation that will offer her view of what Katherine was really like. The student promises to engage with the actress’s “radical subjectivity,” to “de-iconise her and show her as an agent in the world.” She wants to know about things like Katherine’s “sexual style.”

Norah doesn’t want to think about these things; she suspects that they say more about the student than they do about Katherine O’Dell. If fame is a mirror, for Norah the task of parsing resemblance is especially complicated. Hours after the student leaves, Norah is still sulking about the cannibalization of her mother’s story. Her husband, no longer able to mask his irritation, asks, “Why don’t you write it yourself?” Norah, who has published five novels, has yet to write the book she “needed to write,” the one “that was shouting to be written.” The following morning, she buys a ticket to London, where Katherine was born, and begins her accounting.

Enright, who is Irish, is drawn to stories about troubled families. In “The Gathering” (2007), her fourth novel, which won the Man Booker Prize, the restless narrator returns home for her brother’s wake and tries to make sense of his suicide. “The Green Road” (2015) tells of the Madigan clan, their fortunes and misfortunes over the course of three decades. At the center of these households are mothers who are headstrong, capricious, impossible to please. (In both books, a daughter gives her mother an expensive scarf, only to be cruelly rebuffed.)

Norah and Katherine form another tragic mother-daughter pair—their tragedy heightened by their proximity to the stage. We are told from the start that Katherine’s drama will end in a mental institution, after a strange and salacious incident in which she shoots a well-known producer in the foot. And yet Katherine is also the heroine of Norah’s story; the two are close, loving, in a way that Enright’s other mother-daughter pairs are not. “I want to think that nothing between us two ever went wrong,” Norah says. They sit together on the sofa for whole evenings at a time. “She put a cushion on her lap for my head,” Norah recalls, “and we smoked from the same pack, as though smoking were some kind of occupation.” Katherine travels often, and her reunions with her daughter are “astounding, joyous affairs, with dancing and presents.”

But Norah can’t be sure where the actress ends and her mother begins. Katherine, she says, was a star “not just on screen or on the stage, but at the breakfast table also.” The scene at home, as Norah describes it, has the clichéd perfection of a movie set: “The sun is coming through the window, the smoke from her cigarette rises and twists in an elegant, double strand.” Her mother makes toast with marmalade, then takes three, maybe four bites. To signal that she has finished, she does a “little wavy-over thing” with her hand. Afterward, she might pick up the receiver of the beige wall-mounted phone, or natter on to young Norah, or to the ceiling, or to the dog waiting under the table for crumbs. There is always an audience. When Norah is thirteen, her grandfather dies, and Katherine breaks the news to her “like a good mother,” caressing her hair and asking if she’s O.K. “She did it all so perfectly,” Norah says. “I did not think, for a single second, that she might adore him the way that I adored her.” If Katherine was only playing the role of parent, who was she—really?

Katherine O’Dell, we are told, made her first appearance onstage at the age of ten. She played a crocus. When, in 1939, the war came to England, her parents—successful but itinerant stage actors—moved the family to Ireland. Eight years later, Katherine was back in London, débuting in a play in the West End. The show was a wild success. The following year, now in New York, she was reborn as an Irishwoman. Her accent, like her bottle-red hair and the apostrophe in her name, was part of a carefully constructed fake. It was her agent’s idea. “You are in America,” he told her. “You can be anything you want to be.”

If the story of Katherine’s rise contains at least some element of mystery, the story of her decline is relatively straightforward. Like the careers of countless actresses, its arc has everything to do with age, and, of course, with sexism. “In those days, when a woman hit thirty she went home and shut the door,” Norah says. Katherine stars in a hit film in L.A., but within a year she is pregnant out of wedlock and forced to retreat from the public eye. She gives birth to Norah in Brooklyn, then travels incognito with her daughter back to Ireland, where the rest of her career will take place on the stage. (Norah is never told who her father is. Compared to the story of Katherine’s rise, the question of her origins strikes Norah as uninteresting.) Katherine discovers that her fame and desirability have already peaked. She is only twenty-six.

The mother’s life is unravelling just as the daughter’s is taking shape. As Norah chronicles Katherine’s experiences, we learn, intermittently, of her own. She writes about unremarkable boyfriends and true loves, about the trauma of sexual violence and the boredom of middle-aged marriage. The scenes spool ahead into the future and back into the past: she grows up in Dublin, buys a house by the sea, can’t afford to heat it. The voice Enright conjures for Norah is lissome and intimate. She has an eye for the unexpected and exacting image: the British Embassy in 1972, days after Bloody Sunday, “the roof just a few blackened beams against a wet sky”; the funeral of her mother’s longtime housekeeper, in the mid-nineties, the family dressed in coats of “the same lilac-coloured polyester.” These images are associative and digressive, the way memory is. The story is easy to follow but difficult to reconstruct. But that may be part of Enright’s point. Making a narrative out of the inchoate past inevitably entails selection—and perhaps some level of deception.

“You can leave now. I really just needed you to unzip me.”
Cartoon by Ali Solomon

In charging her narrator with the task of excavation, Enright revisits the premise she used in “The Gathering.” Veronica, an affluent homemaker, tries to reconstruct her brother’s life after his suicide; like Norah, she wants to write it all down. She thinks she knows when things began to go wrong for him, but to explain it she needs to look further back, to before either of them was born. Veronica’s story is made up mostly of what she cannot know; she reimagines what did take place or invents what might have. Even events from her lifetime are cast in doubt. Of the turning point she has identified in her brother’s life, she admits, “I am not sure if it really did happen.”

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