Laura Cassidy’s Walk of Fame, by Alan McMonagle, Picador, 304 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1509829880
Alan McMonagle’s second novel, Laura Cassidy’s Walk of Fame, has much in common with his debut, Ithaca. Both are told in the first person by delusional narrators who have imaginary friends and are obsessed with absent fathers. Both move to an almost disastrous climax precipitated by the misuse of prescription medication. Both end with a coda depicting a moment of relative calm. There are frequent references to American movies and TV. Ithaca’s Jason is a softened version of the hard-boiled detective. Laura Cassidy sees herself as a descendant of “the tough-talking ladies” of 1940s and ’50s Hollywood.
The narrative is at once simple and tricky. We know only what Laura tells us. But can she be trusted? She is twenty-five and living with her mother in Galway. It’s 2016 but Laura is stuck in the past. She remembers, as a little girl, staying up late with her beloved daddy, an amateur actor, to watch old movies. He told her she would be a star one day like those they watched on the screen. But, when Laura was ten, daddy died. Her life is a nightmarish struggle to realise his dream. Her last turn on stage ended in “the crisis”. She is on anti-psychotic “meds”. She does not get on with her mother or her sister, Jennifer, home with her son Juan, after years away “saving the world”. Laura finds solace in her “leading man”, Fleming. There might be an opportunity to retake the stage. We follow her as she prepares. But Laura is muddled. As she and Fleming sit back-to-back, she sees a swelling on his temple. She worships the sharp-tongued women of film noir, yet, in quoting Double Indemnity, she attributes to Barbara Stanwyck a line spoken by Edward G Robinson. She mentions memory loss. She complains of Jennifer’s six postcards in as many years, but later describes long phone and Skype conversations. This lack of awareness is typical. Laura has scant regard for her audience. Though she wants to be a star, she shows no interest in being an actor. It is a daring move to go with a narrator who is effectively speaking to herself (or selves): “Isn’t that right, Laura?” she asks herself. “Yes it is, Laura. Indeed it is.”
Though it is too drawn out to be tense, the narrative has engaging aspects. We see Laura in the stars she wishes to emulate. Her loose grasp of reality is evident. She confuses her life with theirs, conflates actors and roles, and roles with actual human beings, seemingly unaware that the female characters she so admires are often women narrated by men. Her identification gives rise to grim humour: “So you want to be the famous daughter of a long-dead father,” she is asked. “Already halfway there …” There are memorable bit parts, minor characters with whom Laura has dealings: the Beggar Flynn, Pisser Kelly (with his own past), Doc Harper, Camilla the Hun, Yoohoo Lucy, Glick Nolan in Brady’s shop, Odd Doris and Goodtime Ray. She stalks “hotshot director” Stephen Fallow. Lists of film titles evoke Laura’s loneliness and ambition, her affinity with the past and lack of a future. Sunset Boulevard, The Big Sleep, Where the Sidewalk Ends, In a Lonely Place.
Naming these works has another effect. It invites comparison. What distinguished the language in those great films? Economy, compression, strict rhythm and the inventive use of simple words. Take the lines from Sunset Boulevard (which Laura misquotes after watching the movie three times). The writer Joe Gillis realises whose house he is in: “You’re Norma Desmond. Used to be in silent pictures. Used to be big.” She replies: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” Laura’s talk consists mainly of mildly slangy cliché: shake things up, going all out, for good measure, in the right place at the right time, the greatest thing since, the other side of the world, fancy man, have a soft spot, stick to the drill, haven’t got a clue, crossed paths, on its merry way, in the flesh, on my case, make a beeline for, extend the olive branch. She thinks in stock phrases: “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, “Ignorance is bliss”. She calls it “philosophy”. She favours long clunky hyphenated adjectives: “hard-to-figure-out-what-is-happening movies”, “her best I’m-not-sure-I’m-going-to-believe-a-word-of-this-but-tell-me-anyway face”. Her imprecision is distracting. She says her daddy hauled her to the harbour, but she went with enthusiasm. She confuses “late into the night” for late at night, “plummet” for plunge or dive. People don’t stay, they stick around, they don’t sit, they perch, they don’t leave, they skedaddle. Occasionally, there is a point. Laura “swings by” the doctor’s as though she were trying to convince herself it was just a casual call.
Laura has a sense of her own importance, a sense so pleading it betrays a total lack of confidence. She is “not the scourge of the street”, she is “the most dangerous person in the country”. She has fantasies of suicide and violence. A “devil” is “in charge of her”. She thinks of killing her sister. “Is that before or after you kill yourself?” Fleming asks. There is a fine cannibalistic parody of food writing as Laura envisages Jennifer’s head on a plate. Suicide is sexualised. She has “secret affairs with ledges of tall buildings”. When she strives for a language to articulate her own disintegration, the writing is eloquent in its imprecision: “It’s like I’ve got all these parts to me. Easy-to-see parts and long forgotten parts and parts I encounter in my problematic dreams. I have shadow parts. They do not wish me well.” Though she is almost entirely self-absorbed, there are moments when she forgets herself and a tender attentiveness comes through – remembering her daddy and his theatre friends, sharing moments with her mother, Juan or Jennifer, walking alone by the river. Her efforts to amuse give way to a gentle lyricism: “I hunker down … swans glide over the surface of the water.” Twice she sees herself in the “surging water” of the Claddagh river, “grimy and petulant, roaring its … way into the harbour”.
Not being listened to is a theme. Laura pours her heart out. No one responds. The book shows how difficult it can be to attend to such an amped, solipsistic voice. Laura claims she is charming, but what is charming in a child, or to a child’s father, may not be so for others. If the intention is to have the reader share in Laura’s frustration, then it succeeds. Often, I felt like Joe Gillis reading Norma Desmond’s manuscript: “It ought to be organised by somebodyhe thinks. “It wasn’t so simple getting some coherence into those wild hallucinations of hers.” “When I grow up,” Laura told her daddy, “I want to be Norma Desmond.”
David O’Connor is a writer and reviewer working in Dublin.