Home Books Delayed Rays of a Star: by Amanda Lee Koe

Delayed Rays of a Star: by Amanda Lee Koe

Delayed Rays of a Star, Amanda Lee Koe’s debut novel, opens with flair at the Berlin Press Ball in 1928 upon a chance meeting of three cinema icons: Anna May Wong, Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl. As the photographs included in the book’s early and concluding pages attest, the brief convergence of the figures’ three distinct journeys did actually occur. The pictures—the opening image all poise and polite smiles, the closer just laughter and prop play (but for Riefenstahl, who stiffly looks on from arm’s length)—were in fact the origin point of Koe’s globe-and-decade-trotting epic, which boldly arranges twentieth-century history (from World War I to the fall of the Berlin Wall) around this holy trinity of female film workers.

It jumps among the respective points of view of each of these main characters and a huge supporting cast of their acquaintances, too. There’s immense pleasure in following these forking paths of perspectives, which jolt up against each other across nine mock-elegantly titled sections (“Marlon Brando Lays an Egg As News of Pearl Harbor Reaches a Chicken Coop in New York,” “Josef von Sternberg Pays a Visit to a Zen Buddhist Mental Asylum in Kyoto”), three for each of the three luminaries. As the novel goes on, readers see revelations and contradictions abound in the interstices of their private and public lives, of past glories and physical decay, of mythical energies and real desires: we see Wong engage in various romantic entanglements with fellow artists like Dietrich and Douglas Fairbanks but chastised by her parents at home for getting caught up in such scandals; Dietrich bedridden in her final years but caught up in reveries of the gender-bending games she would play with her mother when she was a child; Riefenstahl willfully ignorant enough to cast camp-bound Roma and Sinti people as extras in her bloated Tiefland yet genuinely shocked when Americans rejected her continuing support of Hitler during a visit to the States in the late ‘30s.

Koe ably navigates her book’s opposing forces with grandeur (lots of temperamental figures making grand statements about life) and careful attention to the ways in which economic privilege, white supremacy, heteronormativity and patriarchy team up to prevent professional, social and personal progress. She highlights injustices endured by the three women as they struggle to maintain some semblance of creative freedom in a male-dominated film industry whose tendency is to limit the career span of actresses to a handful of years, after which they must resign themselves to endorsing products for television ads or playing impotent matronly figures in support of up-and-comers. But there are utopian possibilities, too, routes almost-but-not-quite taken. Wong comes close to receiving a leading role in The Good Earth before being replaced by Luise Rainer, Dietrich and Wong nearly mend their relationship years after working together (read: being pitted against each other) on Shanghai Express and Riefenstahl almost ends up cast as The Blue Angel’s Lola Lola.

One of the most entertaining things about Delayed Rays of a Star is its brazen willingness to dive into sensationalized celebrity interaction. We get Marlene Dietrich sleeping with JFK, Leni Riefenstahl doing her thing with Hitler and—for all you cultural studies hustlers—Walter Benjamin taking his own life in a hotel at the French-Spanish border. Koe daringly imagines the unimaginable in these scenes, which feel mundane enough to be real yet so carnal (whispers, glances, breaths, doubts) as to hover in the doorframe of the beyond. Her work dances on the boundary between historically accurate information and pure imagination, allowing the scenes to effectively and dramatically conjure a who’s who of cine-political ghosts.

Ultimately, Delayed Rays of a Star leaves behind an indelible image of bygone days now just beginning. It glances along wounds still afire with the Eurocentrism of Hollywood’s cosmopolitan tendencies and also accords the everyday lives of out-of-place people cinema’s resplendence. Or is it poetry’s grace? One of the book’s most dazzling passages finds Dietrich’s Chinese maid silently answering an impossible question (“What was it like where you were from?”) with a flood of memories. The recollections of corpses, birds and fumbling abusers appear from the past as if enunciated for the first time. In much the same way, the overall effect of Koe’s novel is to place us at an audiovisual confluence of impressions unbound, with interior life firmly positioned at the center of the silver screen.

Delayed Rays of a Star leaves behind an indelible image of bygone days now just beginning.
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Glorious Cinema

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