Friday, March 01, 2013

3. Play It As It Lays

By Joan Didion

I’ve been wanting to read Play It As It Lays ever since I saw it in the Time 2005 list of Best 100 novels.  But after years of fruitless searching in used bookstores, I gave up and asked my brother to give me this as a birthday present a couple of years ago. Maybe it was all that build up, but now that I’ve finally read it, I have mixed feelings about it.  Perhaps it has to do with Didion’s ambivalent place in Hollywood during the 70’s and the question of “whether this novel is a sour kiss-off or an acid love letter.”

The above was quoted from the eloquent introduction by David Thomson, who obviously considered PIAIL a modern classic. Thomson also wondered how Didion could have predicted that “her scabrous novel would be relished by people who might have been models for its worst characters”.

…That is why, far more usefully than a book about the film business, this is also a wonderful opening up of the nature of film narrative and what the concentration on exteriors does in the way of Novocain-ing internal things. 

The Novocain-ing of internal things is a perfect description of the protagonist. Even her name, Maria Wyeth, sounds like it should be spoken in a whisper, lest some memory from the past gets disturbed.

Maria Wyeth is troubled in so many ways: she has lost her husband; another beloved is married to someone else; her daughter, Kate, is in a clinic with some imprecise disorder; Maria has not made it as an actress in a very competitive system; she does some drugs; she has an abortion; she sometimes lapses into a kind of comatose impassivity—an amoral life founded on the thought that “nothing applies.” 

The novel is stylistically and structurally interesting, as it vacillates back and forth between the first and third person of Maria Wyeth. In its form, the book is comprised of short non-linear vignettes. In film language, it would be structured in “a sequence of short takes, some seeming broken or cut short”. To complement the form, the writing is sparse and the length lean: only 213 pages in my paperback edition but “stretched out over areas of white space and unfilled pages—there’s space to soak up the tears, and we hear from others that Maria cries a lot…”

There was already a 1972 film adaptation starring Tuesday Weld, which I haven’t seen yet, but I can imagine the narrator speaking in a hushed Terence Malick-esque tone over plenty of driving scenes, either along LA freeways or the empty Nevada desert as the sun is setting.

Play It As It Lays was probably the perfect feminist existential novel for the seventies, as it was a bestseller when in was published in 1970. It doesn’t have the hell-bent path towards self-destruction as in Appointment in Samarra (another one of Time's Best 100 Novels), as the self-destruction of Maria Wyeth is much more subtle and elliptical, more like a slow and gradual emptying out of her core. It makes for beautiful writing, but not exactly pleasant reading.

I’m glad I finally had the chance to read this, but I’m also glad I’m not the sort of person who would relish this type of novel.

SHE HAD WATCHED THEM in supermarkets and she knew the signs. At seven o’clock on a Saturday evening they would be standing in the checkout line reading the horoscope in Harper’s Bazaar and in their carts would be a single lamp chop and maybe two cans of cat food and the Sunday morning paper, the early edition with the comics wrapped outside. They would be very pretty some of the time, their skirts the right length and their sunglasses the right tint and maybe only a little vulnerable tightness around the mouth, but there they were, one lamp chop and some cat food and the morning paper. To avoid giving off the signs, Maria shopped always for a household, gallons of grapefruit juice, quarts of green chili salsa, dried lentils and alphabet noodles, rigatoni and canned yams, twenty-pound boxes of laundry detergent. She knew all the indices to the idle lonely, never bought a small tube of toothpaste, never dropped a magazine in her shopping cart. The house in Beverly Hills overflowed with sugar, corn-muffin mix, frozen roasts and Spanish onions. Maria ate cottage cheese.

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