The last cable was off, the green lane between ship and deck widened. Emily kept calling and waving to the three below, Ben, a press photographer, her brother Arnold and his wife Betty. Arnold was twenty-three, two years younger than herself, Betty was twenty-four. Arnold was a dark fleshy man, sensual, self-confident, he fooled around, had never finished high school. From Seattle he came to New York after her and she had helped him out for a while. He was now working on a relief project for the WPA and earning about a hundred dollars a month.
I'm Dying Laughing was pieced together by Stead's literary executor Ron Geering and published in 1986 after she died. She started writing the story around 1950, finished it, then went back and rewrote for a long time before finally putting the manuscript aside in 1969, abandoned, "a large albatross."* Geering describes in the preface:
What I inherited, in fact, was a huge mass of typescript ranging in finish from rough to polished and in length from page bits to different versions of whole chapters, along with piles of basic and supplementary material … The greatest difficulties occurred in what now stands as Part One of the novel. The opening chapter ('UNO 1945') of the 1966 version here becomes Chapter 4, since much of the re-working of the early manuscript was designed to provide an additional three chapters more information about the early years of Emily and Stephen …
So the opening lines above are not the opening lines the author planned for the novel. Chapter 4, her opening, starts like this:
Emily and Stephen had been free-lancing in Hollywood four months when they sold their second script. The morning they heard, on the telephone, from their agent Charlie Goldhammer, that it was sold, they telephoned a house agent to find them a house in a better district of Hollywood.
This beginning seems typical of Stead's later work: the briskness of that first sentence suits the briskness of, "Dr. Linda Mack had brought the five girls down to her Devon cottage in the car: it was June and the weather was fair," and, "It was Saturday, a fine March morning. Two women and a man were in the basement front room." Geering's opening sentence is happy, adventurous, while Stead's delivers the reader into a business atmosphere. Literature versus commerce is one of her themes in this book, one that surfaces again in the manuscript she published after I'm Dying Laughing was abandoned, Miss Herbert (the Suburban Wife). Her opening gives us the theme immediately and we're set to watch the couple struggle over it for the rest of the story. Miss Herbert is the more cynical work. Emily and Stephen are, at least, writing the light commercial pieces they despise, but Eleanor in Miss Herbert is employed by an editor to read manuscripts and slash out anything excessive. She's not even a debased artist, she's only an ignorant destructive force, and after the book was published Stead said that she felt nothing for Miss Eleanor Herbert Brent but dislike.
Geering's opening harks back to an idea that was prominent in her earlier work, to the moment when Louisa heads off on her "walk round the world" or Teresa sails to England expecting to find love. This is travel as an open-ended escape, a bold, good risk. Worthwhile - the author tells the reader, celebrating the departure - and necessary. Life needs risk. (It's easy to remember at these moments that she loved Nietzsche as a teenager.) In Miss Herbert she uses the idea again but this time she's turned it around and Eleanor is setting off on an inconsequential holiday, expecting to come back and marry her boyfriend. "She's not a risk-taker," the author lets the reader know behind her hand. "She keeps herself safe. She doesn't love him. No passion for her." Nellie Cotter fails this litmus test too, she travels abroad and comes home early, complaining because she can't find tea in Rome and the Italians don't speak English.
In I'm Dying Laughing, Emily is escaping a USA still suffering from the Depression. We can see that in her brother's WPA work. "[H]e came to New York after her and she had helped him out for a while" suggests he's a leech and this is quickly confirmed. Within the first page he's tried to talk her into buying him a ticket and she's refused. So she's getting away from something unpleasant, she's putting distance between her and it, and the question now is, where is she going to go from here? She might be a second Teresa, she might turn into another Eleanor. We wait, we see, we find out.
*In a letter to Clem Christesen, quoted in Rowley's biography.