Sunday, 14 May 2006

Review: Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion (1970)

There’s something wrong with Maria (Mar-eye-ah, as she stresses). She’s unhinged, slightly batty, off in her own world. She must be on the freeway by 10:00. She must move. Anywhere. Other people in her life: Carter, Lang, Helene, BZ, Benny Austin, her father (now dead), her mother (ditto), and her daughter Kate.

Once she was on the freeway and had manoeuvred 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 Bevery Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy mile an hour, Normandie ¼ Vermont ¾ Harbor Fwy 1. 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 she slept dreamlessly.

In the spaces between bouts of narrative light, Maria continues to live, feel and suffer. The spaces are black with fuzzy edges and we drift in and out of the light in short sections of narrative, stepping across the spaces of darkness and entering a new area of consciousness populated by Maria and her fears: of Carter, of not having her period, of the abortionists who she dreads, of her friends in New York. Stranded in Los Angeles at the end of the string of her life, Maria is adrift. She won’t tell Carter whose child it is. She dreams of being with Kate. She is alone.

In the dream from which she woke when the telephone rang again that night she had the baby, and she and the baby and Kate were living on West Twelfth Street with Ivan Costello. In the dream she did not yet know Carter, but somehow had Carter’s daughter and Carter’s blessing. In the dream it was all right. She supposed that she had dreamed of Ivan Costello because the telephone was ringing, and he used to call her in the middle of the night. “How much do you want it,” he used to say. “Tell me what you’d do to get it from me.” The telephone was still ringing and she pulled the cord loose from the jack. She could not remember what she would have done to get it from any of them.

After the abortion, the divorce. Carter, Helene and BZ at the courthouse with Mrs. Maria Lang, the plaintiff. Didion reveals confidences in her writing: the legacy of planning and structure, the rightness of everyday drama that is just a little more surreal than our own, lived lives. We feel as if we are there, hear the hollow echo of Maria’s voice and the harsh clangours of the voices of the others. As if each voice that brings a pain to Maria causes us mentally to flinch.

Every night she named to herself what she must do: she must ask Les Goodwin to come keep her from peril. Calmed, she would fall asleep pretending that even then she lay with him in a house by the sea. The house was like none she had ever seen but she thought of it so often that she knew even where the linens were kept, the plates, knew how the wild grass ran down to the beach and where the rocks made tidal pools. Every morning in the house she would make the bed with fresh sheets. Every day in the house she would cook while Kate did her lessons. Kate would sit in a shaft of sunlight, her head bent over a pine table, and later when the tide ran out they would gather mussels together, Kate and Maria, and still later all three of them would sit down together at the big pine table and Maria would light a kerosene lamp and they would eat the mussels and drink a bottle of cold white wine and after a while it would be time to lie down again, on the clean white sheets.

It sounds like Ballad of Lucy Jordan, doesn’t it?

Maria schlepps around about: Vegas, the desert. She is rootless, unbridled, desperate for comfort of any kind. Immobility alternates with movement: she gets in her car and drives at 80 miles an hour into the desert. The desert has fewer memories but she makes them all the same.

The town was on a dry river bed between Death Valley and the Nevada line. Carter and BZ and Helene and Susannah Wood and Harrison Porter and most of the crew did not think of it as a town at all, but Maria did: it was larger than Silver Wells. Besides the motel, which was built of cinder block and operated by the wife of the sheriff’s deputy who patrolled the several hundred empty square miles around the town, there were two gas stations, a store which sold fresh meat and vegetables one day a week, a coffee shop, a Pentecostal church, and the bar, which served only beer. The bar was called The Rattler Room.

The conversations are slightly opaque, the characters unformed. This quality makes your mind slide over the action like a coin on a Teflon sheet. You’re not sure what each utterance actually means, and so you try hard to find meaning where you can. The book makes you work but provides something else, too: the certainty that life never stops coming, that tomorrow you’ll do the same things you did last week, and that sometimes things get out of hand. You can only try.

1 comment:

Dr Ian Hocking said...

Hi Dean

Nice blog. Maxine (from Petrona), via here ( thought you might want to take a look at some of my thoughts on South of the Border, West of the Sun, which I've posted here:

The short version is 'I didn't like it', but I'd be interested on your take, if you have the time.


PS The intention is not to wind you up...