Reading Jane Unrue’s novel Life of a Star (Burning Deck Press) is similar to the experience of entering a quiet room and seeing the broken shards of a glass figurine lying on the floor and though when seeing the wreckage one is not familiar with what the shards once composed while intact, the essence has not changed—the figurine exists broken, it’s brokenness animated to high art.
The novel is made up of brief sections no more than two pages long. The unnamed female narrator at the center shifts back and forth between childhood and adulthood, between angst and agony, between galleries of art, the sewing of a bumble-bee pillowcase, lovelorn encounters and an early envy for a little girl “…far more likely to dazzle than” she could ever be. She hasn’t always been alone, but she is now.
What does this narrator want? Certainly the title is a wry play on words. The narrator is in an incredible amount of pain. She is a star only in her own multitudinous mind that announces stage directions for her to enact like “(Full body modesty.)” “(Eyes wide.)” “(Repeat for other side; wrist up.)” Her best performances, solo of course, are not attended:
That night, all husbands, wives, long gone, the water was so quiet underneath the little bridge, dark foliage all around, a moon up high, and I was wearing nothing on my body or my head. It was the kind of scene to paint on onion skin, and then to wrap around a lantern, turn it slowly, see the bridge slide into view and out, my naked body coming, going too. p. 94
The “naked body coming, going too” might be the sine qua non of this entire endeavor. The narrator and her stories can’t keep still. She searches, spins and hams her way into a container impervious to other people. Escape, even from such agonies as lovers sleeping with others can never be commensurate with the self-flagellation in its wake:
…I lay there on my bed and wished I had not tried to lift you off my floor and bring you back into the bed…” Don’t tell me that you love me,” you said. He’s already gone, I thought, my gaze up at the ceiling flooded as if by a bucket full of liquid silver pouring down into my eyes and in my mouth. p.71
The last sentence is a Lynchian dissolve, a rainbow shimmer and ungluing of sense that stomps any snaky sentimentality and keeps loss lyrically stifling.
One may wonder what sense this journey into dark sludge has—where is the uplift, where lies redemption? but Unrue has gone into the well many scribblers have spelunked. As in Rilke’s novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, there are mystical childhood encounters, the changing galleries and gardens the narrator wanders through, the bumblebee pillowcase (reminiscent of the mother’s lace), and the concern with how to make prose sing (to be seen shortly). Each also concerns singular narrators who want to be more than they’ve become, but first they must struggle to see the world. Unrue (like Rilke’s directive from the Sonnets to Orpheus) “dances the orange” through a fine needlework of phraseology that takes what is melodrama and heightens it, producing not so much the life of a star, but the scrawl of a poet planting and detonating verbs, adverbs and nouns into sinuous strobes of sound:
No matter how I try to focus motivation, limiting associations, drilling each part of a sentence individually, not too emphatically, it’s always stumped me why so many of my very most tender and authentic memories are tangled up with over-practiced words and stiff, exaggerated moves. For instance, any recollection of a figure standing next to me is so unbearably entwined within the lifting of my hands as if to block the morning light out, that I’m left to pick through words and objects, moments of remembrance, for the slightest hint of anything that I can even begin to recognize as someone close enough to reach. P.104
Her text is the toil that separates her. The narrator is conscious of other ways to communicate but the struggle carries both the singe of the past and the problem of the future. Is there understanding? Is there a way to see truth and breathe into the pain? Unrue’s narrator does plenteous breathwork and the result is a tidy but by no means lean novel wherein the cries to stay private get choked by a willowy wordsmith, a shooting star—shot and fallen.