The Books: “Play It As It Lays” (Joan Didion)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

PlayItAsItLaysDidion.jpgPlay It As It Lays: A Novel – by Joan Didion

If you do a search on my site for “Joan Didion” you’ll probably see she comes up a lot. She’s one of my favorite writers of all time. Her essay collections (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album to name my 2 faves) are addictive – and thought-provoking – and HIGHLY emotional – even though her writing is as cool (sometimes cold) and clear as frost. Her best-selling memoir that just came out The Year of Magical Thinking – about the year after her lhusband’s death (her husband was writer John Gregory Dunne – brother to Dominick Dunne) is one of the most astonishing books I’ve ever read. She doesn’t just look into the heart of the sun directly – she writes from WITHIN that burning – That book has to be read to be believed. She has no distance from her experience – she is in the throes of intense grief and longing and the kind of madness that can come when you lose someone so vital to your life … and yet her skill as a writer is so acute, that she is able to DESCRIBE her experience. The otherworldliness of having him – her mate – NOT be there. And why she can’t throw away his clothes. And how she keeps going over and over and over in her mind the night he died … she is convinced that it could be reversed. That he didn’t REALLY die. That’s what she means by her title. It is an incredible book.

Her career has spanned decades, and she’s done it all. Personal essays, reportage, screenplays, novels. She’s a real idol of mine.

Play It As It Lays is one of her novels. Joan Didion started out her career as a writer by moving to New York (she’s a born-and-bred Californian) – she wrote for Vogue – eventually, she met and married John Gregory Dunne and they moved back to California. They wrote screenplays together, and lived in Malibu. They had a daughter (who tragically died ALSO in the “year of magical thinking” – an unexpected heart failure at the age of 31 – unbelievable) … and they settled into life on the outskirts of Hollywood. Occasionally they were main players in that world. Play It As It Lays is a book about Hollywood. In a larger sense, it’s a book about America – and America at a certain time – the late 1960s – and a certain set of people: the fringe of the elite in Hollywood. The ones with careers either on the ascendant or the decline. Maria Wyeth is the main character in the book – and sometimes she narrates chapters in her cold creepy voice (she is totally cut off) – and sometimes there is an omniscent narrator. Maria is on the decline. She was an actress. She had a rough past – orphaned, now divorced – she has a daughter who is in an institution. But there’s something wrong with Maria, too. You can tell from how she writes. Something has been cut off in her – some ability to respond with warmth. A wound has been cauterized. And she is left forever damaged.

The book goes downhill from there.

It’s a bleak read. Joan Didion, on occasion, can be the bleakest of writers. Didion takes a world that many people envy (for all the wrong reasons) – and slices it open to see how it works. It’s not pretty.

Didion has written essays about what it’s like to drive on the freeways in LA – and in the book Maria Wyeth, a restless woman, running away from something – spends hours driving on the freeways. That’s the excerpt below.

EXCERPT FROM Play It As It Lays: A Novel – by Joan Didion

In the first hot month of the fall after the summer she left Carter (the summer Carter left her, the summer Carter stopped living in the house in Beverly Hills), Maria drove the freeway. She dressed every morning with a greater sense of purpose than she had felt in some time, a cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator, and she dressed very fast, running a brush through her hair once or twice and tying it back with a ribbon, for it was essential (to pause was to throw herself into unspeakable peril) that she be on the freeway by ten o’clock. Not somewhere on Hollywood Boulevard, not on her way to the freeway, but actually on the freeway. If she was not she lost the day’s rhythm, its precariously imposed momentum. Once she was on the freeway and had maneuvered her way to a fast lane she turned on the radio at high volume and she drove. She drove the San Diego to the Harbor, the Harbor up to the Hollywood, the Hollywood to the Golden State, the Santa Monica, the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, the Ventura. She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Beverly Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an hour. Normandie 1/4 Vermont 3/4 Harbor Fwy I. Again and again she returned to an intricate stretch just south of the interchange where successful passage from the Hollywood onto the Harbor required a diagonal move across four lanes of traffic. On the afternoon she finally did it without once braking or once losing the beat on the radio she was exhilarated, and that night slept dreamlessly. By then she was sleeping not in the house but out by the pool, on a faded rattan chaise left by a former tenant. There was a jack for a telephone there, and she used beach towels for blankets. The beach towels had a special point. Because she had an uneasy sense that sleeping outside on a rattan chaise could be construed as the first step toward something unnameable (she did not know what it was she feared, but it had to do with empty sardine cans in the sink, vermouth bottles in the wastebaskets, slovenliness pat the point of return) she told herself that she was sleeping outside just until it was too cold to sleep beneath beach towels, just until the heat broke, just until the fires stopped burning in the mountains, sleeping outside only because the bedrooms in the house were hot, airless, only because the palms scraped against the screens and there was no one to wake her in the mornings. The beach towels signified how temporary the arrangement was. Outside she did not have to be afraid that she would not wake up, outside she could sleep. Sleep was essential if she was to be on the freeway by ten o’clock. Sometimes the freeway ran out, in a scrap metal yard in San Pedro or on the main street of Palmdale or out somewhere no place at all where the flawless burning concrete just stopped, turned into common road, abandoned construction sheds rusting beside it. When that happened she would keep in careful control, portage skillfully back, feel for the first time the heavy weight of the becalmed car beneath her and try to keep her eyes on the mainstream, the great pilings, the Cyclone fencing, the deadly oleander, the luminous signs, the organism which absorbed all her reflexes, all her attention.

So that she would not have to stop for food she kept a hard-boiled egg on the passenger seat of the Corvette. She could shell and eat a hard-boiled egg at seventy miles an hour (crack it on the steering wheel, never mind salt, salt bloats, no matter what happened she remembered her body) and she drank Coca-Cola in Union 76 stations, Standard stations, Flying A’s. She would stand on the hot pavement and drink the Coke from the bottle and put the bottle back in the rack (she tried always to let the attendant notice her putting the bottle in the rack, a show of thoughtful responsibility, no sardine cans in her sink) and then she would walk to edge of the concrete and stand, letting the sun dry her damp back. To hear her own voice she would sometimes talk to the attendant, ask advice on oil filters, ho wmuch air the tires should carry, the most efficient route to Foothill Boulevard in West Covina. Then she would retie the ribbon in her hair and rinse her dark glasses in the drinking fountain and be ready to drive again. In the first hot month of the fall she left Carter, the summer Carter left her, the summer Carter stopped living in the house in Beverly Hills, a bad season in the city, Maria put seven thousand miles on the Corvette. Sometimes at night the dread would overtake her, bathe her in sweat, flood her mind with sharp flash images of Les Goodwin in New York and Carter out there on the desert with BZ and Helene and the irrevicability of what seemed already to have happened, but she never thought about that on the freeway.

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2 Responses to The Books: “Play It As It Lays” (Joan Didion)

  1. Ted says:

    It’s not pretty is right. She captures the superficiality, the desperation and the heat in a way that made me feel like I couldn’t breath. Such a tough book.

  2. red says:

    Ted – such a tough book!! Isn’t the first something like: Is Iago evil?

    Something like that. I mean, that’s where it STARTS.

    To me, it’s the details in this excerpt like the beach towels and the sardine cans in the sink that put a chill thru my heart.

    She’s so so good.

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