An NPR Best Book of the Year
A dazzling debut novel following the lives of three groundbreaking womenMarlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahlcinema legends who lit up the twentieth century
At a chance encounter at a Berlin soirée in 1928, the photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt captures three very different women together in one frame: up-and-coming German actress Marlene Dietrich, who would wend her way into Hollywood as one of its lasting icons; Anna May Wong, the world's first Chinese American star, playing bit parts while dreaming of breaking away from her father's modest laundry; and Leni Riefenstahl, whose work as a director of propaganda art films would first make her famousthen, infamous.
From this curious point of intersection, Delayed Rays of a Star lets loose the trajectories of these women's lives. From Weimar Berlin to LA's Chinatown, from a bucolic village in the Bavarian Alps to a luxury apartment on the Champs-Élysées, the different settings they inhabit are as richly textured as the roles they play: siren, victim, predator, or lover, each one a carefully calibrated performance. And in the orbit of each star live secondary playersa Chinese immigrant housemaid, a German soldier on leave from North Africa, a pompous Hollywood directorwhose voices and viewpoints reveal the legacy each woman left in her own time, as well as in ours.
Amanda Lee Koe's playful, wry prose guides the reader dexterously around murky questions of identity, complicity, desire, and difference. Intimate and clear-eyed, Delayed Rays of a Star is a visceral depiction of womanhoodits particular hungers, its oblique calculations, and its eventual betrayalsand announces a bold new literary voice.
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|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.60(d)|
About the Author
AMANDA LEE KOE was the fiction editor of Esquire Singapore, an honorary fellow of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and the youngest winner of the Singapore Literature Prize for the story collection Ministry of Moral Panic. Her working manuscript for Delayed Rays of a Star won the Henfield Prize, awarded to the best work of fiction by a graduating MFA candidate at Columbia University. She is also. Born in Singapore, she live in New York. This is her first novel.
Read an Excerpt
Before she crossed the ballroom to ask the Chinese woman for a dance, Marlene unloosed a curl from the crown of her finger wave, letting it fall across her forehead. It was a habit, now mostly unmindful, that she had acquired for herself as a schoolgirl, whenever she wanted the attention of a classmate or the teacher.
Even from where she had been standing, Marlene could smell the fresh magnolia tucked behind the Chinese woman’s left ear whenever she moved, which was often. This woman was cutting up the foxtrot, polka and waltz, even as gouty gents swathed in silky cummerbunds trod on her toes, shod not in shoes but dance slippers, and so providing a winsome view of the high arch of her foot. To be sure, Marlene did not know if it was more that she wanted to dance with the woman, or to be together with her at the center of attention. The most satisfying thing about going with the moment was not having to wait to find out, but a pomaded, middle-aged man had stuck his cane out just as Marlene was about to reach her.
Ahem, he coughed.
Marlene raised an eyebrow. She’d crashed the ball on a producer’s last-minute extra invite, and whilst it would be disappointing to be thrown out so soon, she would not have been sorry for dropping by. But the stranger had not meant to chase her away. She saw him point now, crooked thumb perched over thick fist, to the line of men waiting their turn behind him.
Ah, she said.
He dismissed her with an imperious nod, flashing Marlene a close-range view of the snot-clotted snuff flecking the nose hair extending unevenly from both his nostrils. Unkempt daddies in expensive suits were disgusting. She joined the queue to dance with the Chinese woman. After waiting for a quarter of an hour she grew bored, and stepped out of line. Slouching against the wall, she wedged a fresh cigarette into her pipe-shaped cigarette holder, appraising the violinists by ear.
The only legitimate job she’d known before her current gig with the cabaret-theater and her bit parts in a string of abysmal movies, both of which combined barely defrayed her rent, was second violinist in a movie palace, scoring silent images as part of a live orchestra. Stepping out of the music pit’s anonymity to try and catch the light on the stage or screen sounded dreamy, but Marlene was clear-eyed about her prospects. After watching her latest film cameo, where she entered a room for less than five seconds to set down a teacup for the leading lady, Marlene exclaimed to her friends: I look like a potato with hair!
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief that they would not have to coddle her, pretend otherwise, although they remained encouraging: Your big break is bound to come!
Better sooner than later, Marlene said darkly. I’m almost thirty, these pups aren’t going to stand at attention forever. With that she weighed her left breast in her right palm, like a savvy hausfrau sizing up sweet oranges at a fruit stall. Anyway, she went on in a loud voice, why must a woman always have beautiful breasts? Accustomed to her skylarking even in a quiet café by day, Marlene’s friends did not blink as she joggled her own flesh up and down, attracting affronted looks from the nearest patrons. They can afford to sag a little, can’t they?
Not even so long ago, Marlene was committed to the impression that she would be an accomplished concert violinist in the near future. How sobering to have circled up to the realization that whilst she was adept at the violin, past a certain proficiency, technical competence meant little to nothing. Skill was predictable. The movie palace paid, but it was not the concert hall. What was her magic, and where did it live? She was afraid, too, of giving up the violin to chase down an aspect of herself that might be absent rather than dormant, and then having to disingenuously explain away the embarrassment of failure as a lack of fair opportunity. Scoring a romantic dramedy one evening, Marlene saw with limpid clarity how seamlessly the path of the movie palace second violinist segued into that of the middle-of-the-road music teacher in an all-girls school, the private violin tutor for provincial children and their cornball parents.
The next morning, she tendered her resignation.
The manager took her aside.
You’re one of our better players, he said. I want you to know that.
Thank you kindly, Marlene said. Tell me, do you believe in God above? She scooted closer to him. Involuntarily, he squirmed from the unexpected proximity. Yes, she prompted as she blinked up at him, or no?
Why yes, he stammered. Of course I trust in He. Don’t you?
Alas for me, Marlene said, no. So you see, she added as if for his benefit, if there is neither savior nor paradise in my world, it would be best to be singular in this life.
She pretended not to notice the manager shuffling a half step away to reinstate between them that more respectable distance. All the best, he pronounced gingerly, as she prepared to take her leave. A bead of sweat traversed, with comic timing, the side of his forehead. Marlene dropped her hat, and then her coat, as she burst out laughing.
The ballroom violins had inched on to a flimsy and polite interpretation of Bach.
Marlene scowled down an oversimplified glissando till it tailed off. It was the opposite of how she would have played the arrangement. Looking up, she saw the Chinese woman curtsey away from the man with the snuffed-up nose hair at the front of the line. Throwing his hands up in disbelief, he refused to let her pass, but was elbowed aside by a bushy-haired brunette in a long-sleeved dress. A short way behind them was a photographer with his camera. A waiter capered about the coterie of shiny people in motion, offering up flutes of champagne. What a circus!
Tipping back her drink, Marlene went over.
As if dancing with no pause was not enough of a challenge, Anna May had to beat her gums and keep up light conversation with every white chump who wanted to know her name, what was it like in China, how long would she be in Berlin, was she really a Hollywood actress, maybe they could show her around, all whilst making excuses for them every time they went off-rhythm and stepped on her feet.
She was perspiring steadily under the arms. Her dress was sleeveless and black so there was no worry of sweat stains, but she wanted to catch her breath, and her mouth had tired of smiling. The last heeler spun her in and threw her out with such smug gusto, as if she were a newly-purchased hand-loomed carpet he was unfurling in his sitting room for all and sundry to admire. As the tune petered out he leaned in. She thought he was bowing his thanks.
Just so you know, he whispered right by her ear, I’m a high roller on this continent.
Unsure of what she was supposed to do with this information, she went with: That’s neat.
I mean, he said. Have you decided with whom you’ll spend the night?
Anna May bit down on the inside of her cheek to cover up her wince. Three men ago she told herself to turn the next dance down. Each time, as the following guest stepped up, she found herself unable to say no, and she saw that in any case everyone was more than happy to misread her hesitation for shyness, even anticipation, as they took her hand. What she found repellent here was her unvarying incapacity, in times like these, to react in immediate accordance with her own feelings. She found it easier to fleece herself than to leave someone else less room to stand. Things had to hit the skids before she insisted on her terms. As the music changed, finally, she curtseyed politely away from the next man in line.
He, middle-aged and greasy-haired, was not amused by her rejection.
After all, he said in German-edged English, refusing to budge as he waved his cane at the queue and his place in it. Who must you think you are? She, too, might have liked to know the answer to his question, but to help them both out of it, she said: My apologies, but I am afraid I am much in need of a glass of water.
All the waiter had was Moët & Chandon.
He promised to come back with some water.
Sparkling, he said, just for you.
Still is fine, she called out after him, still water is better for me if you wouldn’t mind, but he had already left to fetch up the seltzer. When Anna May turned back, a flour-faced brunette in a long-sleeved metallic knit dress was standing rather too close, introducing herself as “just like you—also an actress—but here in Berlin”. She was well-dressed, if in the self-conscious way of a freshly-clipped poodle, and she had quick darting eyes. With no small talk, she wanted practical tips for transitioning into Hollywood. Already I have appeared in several Bergfilms, the brunette said. Are there mountain movies in America? Do I need an agent?
I’m not sure about mountains, Anna May said, but as long as it has a love story—
It’s true, isn’t it? A blonde stepped in, interrupting their conversation apropos of nothing. Only pansies know how to dress like a sexy woman.
Anna May did not know what she was talking about, but the woman had a charmingly nasal voice. A wavy lock of hair came loose across the blonde’s forehead as she took a short drag on her cigarette, tucked vertically into a holder shaped like a pipe. She nodded approvingly toward a gamine man in a red dress. The man’s dress was cut down to his coccyx, and he was on the arm of a man in a velvet smoking jacket, with a matching wine-red rose for a boutonnière in his lapel.
Personally I find such aberrations troubling, the mountain-movie actress said, after the couple had passed. The world might as well be topsy-turvy.
The blonde exhaled smoke into their faces without blowing it upwards.
What’s not to like about a topsy-turvy world, the blonde said, pushing back the curl from her forehead. Women would be kings, and I’d wear pants all the time.
Anna May saw the brunette clutching for a rejoinder, but before she could open her mouth, a dignified-looking man with a camera (or was it just a man with a dignified-looking camera?) approached them. The brunette surged forward to exchange with him a social embrace.
He wanted to take their picture.
All three of us, the brunette hesitated, together?
Yes, the photographer said, if they found themselves suitably inclined?
As the three shuffled together, the blonde met Anna May’s eye. Her gaze was sportive and insolent. Did this woman go through life looking at everyone this way, and how did that pan out for her? Before Anna May could look away, she was wet down the front of her dress.
The flute of champagne had slipped from the blonde’s hand.
I am so sorry, the blonde said, holding up Anna May’s string of pearls, dabbing at the damp with a scented silk handkerchief. I ought to be spanked thoroughly!
At this, the brunette gave a scandalized snort. Though he tried to hide his amusement, the photographer was clearly enjoying the frivolous spectacle. The wet fabric clung to her skin, and Anna May tried to hunch her ribs and breasts away from the surface of the dress. Far from home for the first time she had been nervous enough as it were, worrying that she was embarrassing herself even as she enjoyed herself, infelicitous wardrobe hiccough notwithstanding.
Prior to the voyage, she’d prepared an annotated list of questions and answers.
Can you tell us about the films you have acted in, what projects are you working on in Europe, who are your favorite directors, how did you know you wanted to be an actress? She even made phonetic annotations in her notebook on how best to pronounce Robert Wiene (VEEN) and Fritz Lang (LAHNG), but thus far the question most often put to her was: How do you mean you aren’t from China? Having been born and bred all her life in LA, Anna May had to admit that she well and truly had not thought to prepare for that. When she was little, her father told her China was on the opposite side of the world from California. Later she asked him if that meant people walked upside down in China. Her father laughed, patted her head. The conclusive answer never came, and she did not dare ask again.
It was something the boy who sat behind her in class had said.
His father was an anthropological craniometrist.
People in China walk upside down, the boy explained matter-of-factly, that’s why your brains are less developed. Having long learned to hold her tongue with him, she said nothing. Why don’t you give up already? The craniometrist’s son had asked her before, when she’d challenged him in an argument. It doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong, he said with a meaningful smile beyond his years. You’re never going to win at anything. Right before Anna May asked just what he meant, he pulled slit eyes at her, and she understood perfectly.
Dressing for this party, she’d teeter-tottered between wanting to look her glamorous best, and fearing she would stand out too much. At the last moment, she’d eschewed ornamentation for the simple black dress with sheer paneling at the shoulders, and pearls worn long. A waiter was kneeling by her feet to pick up the broken glass with his white-gloved hands. Going with black was a stroke of luck, there would have been nowhere to hide her face here, in a roomful of fashionable strangers, had she sustained a wine spill in a light colored gown.
Don’t worry, she thought she heard the blonde say, I’ll make it up to you.
Anna May was distracted by the heady fragrance of the blonde’s handkerchief. There was nothing sweet about it. It reminded her of leatherbound books and the jute gunnysacks of Chinatown spice merchants.
The blonde winked.
Taken aback, Anna May tried to recall if she had ever been winked at by a woman. No, she believed this might be the first time. There was nothing spiteful in the blonde’s eyes, but why else would one woman spill her drink on another at a fancy party?