Wednesday, November 14, 2007

November 07: Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion

Howdy all - red here. Milly Moo is trapped in a parallel dimension with no portal to the interwebs, so I've posted this for her. But before you get into her terrific review, we needs halp! Scorpy is flat out like the proverbial ferret surfing and hasn't had time to give the book for December any thought. Would someone else like to move up the list and trade spots with Scorpy? Let me know in the comments. Anyway, on with the review.

As with the movie ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ reading this novel in 2007 feels just as vivid and striking as it must have been for readers nearly forty years ago.

Didion’s most acclaimed novel is entirely new to me, and reads very sparsely, instead relying on what is unsaid or expressed through the desert landscapes, empty stretches of highway and driving nowhere fast.

The story is (mostly) narrated by the main character, Maria Wyeth, a 31 year old, newly-divorced, washed up actress who is struggling to work out what her purpose in life is. Set in late 1960s California, it depicts a morality-free Hollywood full of drink, drugs and movie industry types in which Maria is still a part, yet trying to escape. She tells us, “I have trouble with as it was……I try to live in the now…..Nothing applies.”

She and her ex-husband, Carter, have a daughter, Kate, who is institutionalised for a medical and physical illness that it not fully explained in the story. Maria regularly visits her daughter and hopes to ‘get her out’ and one day live a simpler life. Maria’s love and concern for Kate seems to be the only ‘real’ thing in her life; much more important than her dead marriage, previous boyfriends or one night stands.

Maria falls pregnant by a friend of her husband (Les Goodwin) and is encouraged to have an abortion by Carter. Try as she might in her world of casual sex, vacuous friends and the ever-availability of drugs, she is unable to rid herself of the guilt surrounding her abortion. This is still easy to identify with today and must have been a pretty daring subject to tackle back in 1970 when abortion was frowned upon (and often illegal). Didion writes sparsely but expertly: “She bought a silver vinyl dress and tried to stop thinking about what had he done with the baby. The tissue. The living dead thing, whatever you called it.”

Didion’s Maria may have long rejected a conventional and moral life, but she has not been able to replace the old values with anything sustainable. Didion’s prose is very sparing and the desert landscapes, freeways and air conditioning units read almost like a film script: it is easy to imagine how ‘seeing’ such scenes could even more effectively depict the emptiness and despair of Maria’s life.

Maria’s friend (and sometime lover? Swinger? Drug supplier?) BZ kills himself; possibly assisted by Maria – at least that what his wife Helen and Carter believe. She is not officially punished or set free by this event, but ‘gives up’ and seemingly willingly enters a hospital to recover and retreat from the world.

As I am not familiar with Didion’s other novels – or the literary set she belongs to – I can only go by my own knowledge. The characters in ‘Play it as it lays’ remind me of those in the ‘Great Gatsby’: frenetically busy drinking, fornicating, shopping, talking of nothing – money to spend but with lives of no meaning. It also reminds me of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the road’ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’ with similarly detached and seemingly brief views of lives lived without purpose or moral compass to guide them by. Perhaps these comparisons are obvious to the rest of you readers, but to me this book deserves a place amongst them.

I found it a very sad and disturbing read. Despite Maria’s irresponsible actions, I felt a lot of pity for her. No career, no loving relationship, a child that she can’t look after and no future that she can see for herself. She wants to tell us, her readers, that she doesn’t care about her past or future, but many comments betray her.

After the abortion, Didion writes, “She drove as far as Romaine and then pulled over, put her head on the steering wheel and cried as she had not cried since she was a child, cried out loud. She cried because she was humiliated and she cried for her mother and she cried for Kate and she cried because something had just come through to her……there must have been a relentless count somewhere, because this was the day, the day the baby would have been born.”

I think I need to read it through it again; and this time savour each sentence. I’ll conclude by saying that this is the sort of book that deserves several reads, and is one of those that is likely to have generated/will generate more words about it than the book itself contains. Lacerating, moving, tragic.

Milly Moo


redcap said...

I was thinking of FSF's careless people when I read it too, Milly. And the people in Hemingway's Fiesta/The Sun Also Rises. They're all rich, careless, hopeless, selfish people. I did feel sorry for Mariah, though. Carter and Helen both liked to think she was the awful one, the selfish one, the empty-headed one, but they were both just as bad if not worse and just as responsible for the ennui that ended up killing BZ.

I've only ever read Didion's essays before. Try Sloping Towards Bethlehem - it's about the same era - and is a very thinky read.

As a little aside, I was reading Play it as it lays on the train home one evening when a woman came up and said, "Excuse me. I'm really sorry, but I just had to interrupt you. You're reading Play it as it lays. That is the single most significant book I have ever read. I haven't seen anyone read it in 20 years." She was sitting opposite me again the other day - I recognised her red necklace - but neither of us said anything and by then I was reading a different book, so she probably didn't recognise me.

davey said...

Wonderful review, thankyou.

Ha! What a great story. 20 years? I've often felt like approaching people reading certain books also -- except my motives are slightly different.

"Excuse me. I'm really sorry but I just had to let you know that The Da Vinci Code is the least significant book I have ever read. I haven't seen anyone reading it for 20 minutes."

Ariel said...

Milly Moo, thanks so much for choosing this one - I've always meant to read it and now I have. And that's a fabulous review, too.

Like RC, I've only ever read Didion's (brilliant) non-fiction before, so it was fascinating to see how her style translates into fiction.

At the risk of being a 'Me Too' Kevin Rudd-ish person here, I have to say that Didion's characters reminded me of Fitzgerald too - that lack of moral compass (living 'in between' different sets of morals perhaps) and their breezy, beautiful, hedonistic and essentially empty lives.

I'd like to re-read this, too - it seems one of those books where you get more from each re-reading.

And yes, I thought Carter and Helene were just as, if not more, selfish than Maria. And their actions led to BZ's death more than hers did. All she did was to not stop him - because she respected his viewpoint. When faced with nothing to live for, you either end it now or 'play it as it lays' - play it out just to go with the flow, follow the chain of events set in motion and see what happens. It's almost as if he was better off than her - he had enough energy left to make a decision. She lives on partly because she doesn't care enough to make a decision to end her life - and also, I guess, because of Kate. That's a kind of gambling - gambling on the unlikely event (it seems) that she'll ever get her back.

It seems to me that Maria is destroyed, more than anything, by a broken heart over not being able to play out the one role she is committed to and cares for - that as a mother. It seems that she's been destroyed first by her own mother's death, then by Kate's condition, and finally by the enforced abortion.

Davey, that's very funny. Go on, say it to someone. I dare you!

Rosanna said...

Milly, this was an absolutely wonderful review. I'm thinking a future career path?

Redcap - let me know if you get stuck for someone re: December. I'll be o/s but I'm sure I can find something intelligent to say... at a last resort!

redcap said...

davey, heh. I just feel like smacking people when I see them reading Dan Brown and saying, "What are you thinking?! Snap out of it!"

rosanna, no sign of anyone yet, but it would be cruel to expect you to do it on your holidays! You'll have better things to do than read, I'm sure. If all else fails, we can always just do another modern classic like The Outsider or The Quiet American.

So come on, drunkards - be quick if you'd like to move up the list!

redcap said...

Woot! Saved. Hungry Hungry Hypocrite has come to the rescue. Watch this space for December's book.

dot said...

i read two thirds of this book in Barnes & Noble while waiting in the queue to meet Steven Colbert (probably the ALL TIME geekiest thing i've ever done).

i didn't like the book at first. but then i kind of got into it and thought i'd return to the store to buy the book.

but i never did.

...and now i've pretty much forgotten everything i did read, so it must not have impressed me that much.

Maria just seemed so feeble. there was no one to root for.

Milly Moo said...

G'day Dot
I can see why you'd think Maria was feeble; but if you give the book another try it seems as if she's really just burned out, a hollow shell. She's trapped between the more conservative times and in trying to escape the money, drugs, sex of life in Hollywood, with her role as a mother (via the distance of her daughter being kept in an institution) perhaps the only thing keeping her going.

Perhaps too, what we read as feeble is in fact in keeping with what most people would do in reality. If we had the money and no pressing work/family needs, wouldn't it be nice to check in to some 5-star rehab facility and avoid having to deal with accusing widows, ex-husbands or agents? How many of us dream of doing something really dramatic (or violent, or malicious), yet in reality we barely grimace as we hobble away?

Just a thought....

regards, MillyMoo

PS - thanks for everyone's kind comments about the review - I was pretty bloody nervous about it!

R.H. said...

Good work Milly.

dot said...

"trapped between the more conservative times... [and] the money, drugs, sex of life in Hollywood"

from a 21st century viewpoint i just find it so hard to imagine a world where these are the only options; Hollywood hedonism or conservative rule-following. it IS sad and disturbing.

anyway, i'm sure i'll give it another chance down the track. :)

great review Milly!