I REMEMBER believing, when I was a young woman rearing small children, that if they took my domestic duties away from me there would only be left a damp spot. I bluffed my way. This sense that one is all facade, that there is no self inside, is a common feeling among the young today in their long passage to a stable maturity, and in an acute form, it is the "missing person" of this new novel by Doris Grumbach, author of the widely admired Chamber Music.
The Missing Person is the story of "The Fabulous Franny Fuller," movie star, pin-up girl, sex symbol. It takes place in the '30s and '40s and there is sometimes a Movietone News quality to the narration, and sometimes a Silver Screen. "People on the floor recognized her at once, her whispered name spread through the Roof Garden, and everyone on the dance floor stood back to watch. tThey asked each other 'Who's the man she's with?' No one seemed to know. Astonished at how much more beautiful she seemed 'in person,' as they said to each other, than on the screen, they remarked upon every one of her features, her piquant lost-child look, her deep single dimple, her flood of gold hair beginning at the sharp point of her forehead, and most of all, her splendid swelling breasts that strained against the seams of her dress." Franny Fuller's is the very familiar Hollywood story of a beautiful woman who is the object of envy, admiration and lust but is not happy.
Franny begins life in Utica, New York, in the care of a coarse, jealous mother and no father. The mother has a series of lovers, one of whom rapes Franny when she is 14. She leaves home, supports herself for a few years by casual prostitution, and is finally discovered and brought to Hollywood where she becomes a star. It is the Hollywood of Movietone News: "The Depression, which had dampened the real life of most Americans, had an inverse effect on the films Hollywood produced. Sensing correctly that escape films, garish and lavish musicals, and lush costume dramas would raise the spirits of the population, Hollywood filled its already elaborate Palaces with palatial films. It was the Golden Era of the golden film capital, and Franny Fuller, its golden girl, served it well . . .
"The economic recovery did not make itself felt until war clouds had been gathering over the European continent for some years."
The glamorous Hollywood of Franny's dreams, the money, the stardom, combine to reveal how lonely and empty she feels. She drinks, pops pills, and from time to time disguises herself and disappears into the seedy underside of the city. It is at a back barroom table, her head sunk in a pool of beer, that she is found and rescued by the pro football player, Dempsey Butts, who will be her first husband. Demp is a kind, simple man, and he comes from a family of such primal innocence that the wary reader assumes some kind of bizarre depravity will turn up. It does not. Mother, father, four sons "slept and ate, rested, joshed, and said their prayers, and asked their little concerned questions of each other: 'Better today, Maw?' and 'Still hungry, son?' and 'Any of that plum jam left?' -- loving queries that made up most of their conversation."
Demp could not keep his beautiful movie star clean, sober, or rescue her from despondency.
The next husband, Arnie, is an intellectual. He is a middle-aged balding New York Jewish poet and playwright destined to win a Pulitzer Prize, and against all reason he marries her believing that he can rescue her from ignorance and a too painful innocence, but he cannot.
So it seems that The Missing Person is meant to be a hypothetical explanation of the phenomenon of Marilyn Monroe. And the question is whether Doris Grumbach's intrusion is a worthy attempt to bring a clearer lens, a fresher, more insightful understanding, to the lives of people who, in all their aspects, have become cliches.
The private Franny Fuller she describes is an inarticulate, sexually inert, amorphously fearful, lonely woman, drugged and drunk, her few recorded words and thoughts often sweet, always banal. One must take on faith that she can memorize her lines, obey her director. The first husband, the football player, is so endlessly nice you suspect he is one of those who did not always wear his helmet. The second husband, the New York Jewish intellectual, is not nice. He is rigid, self-serving, vain, and it is impossible to believe he writes poems up to the mark of Edgar Guest. And it is troubling that there is something not nice about the descriptions of so many of the peripheral people who have to do with Franny.
Lou, a minor character, a short man, is the agent who introduces Arnie to Franny. "Lou stretched his miniature legs before him. Most of the time he sat down, at table, at his desk, or on couches, because he had an idea he looked taller that way. Actually, seated beside a larger man, he took on the appearance of a ventriloquist's dummy."
Billie-Jo, another minor character, is the mother of Dolores, the stand-in. "Billie-Jo found a job almost at once in the basement corset department of the May Company. She 'worked' heavy women into girdles. Seduced by her soft, lady's manner and subservient air, women let themselves go under her sympathetic efforts on their behalf, easing their difficult passage into new 'garments,' unaware that she despised them."
An underlying weakness in this story is that the inner person in Franny Fuller was really already missing before she left Utica. Franny isn't ruined by Hollywood, or even touched by it. It is unconvincing, therefore, that she has a serious effect on other people's lives, and indeed, the other people are stock characters, made to think improbable thoughts. Doris Grumbach is well known as a book reviewer and it seems to me that the respect and patience she lends to all sorts of authors, she withholds, for some reason, from too many of her characters.