Sunday, July 22, 2007

Rave: Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

"What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.
Another example, on which springs to mind because Mrs. Burstein saw a pygmy rattler in the artichoke garden this morning and has been intractable since: I never ask about snakes. Why should Shalimar attract kraits. Why should a oral snake need two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none. Where is the Darwinian logic there. You might ask that. I never would, not any more. I recall an incident reported not long ago in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner: two honeymooners, natives of Detroit, found dead in their Scout camper near Boca Raton, a coral snake still coiled in the thermal blanket. Why? Unless you are prepared to take the long view, there is no satisfactory "answer" to such questions.
Just so, I am what I am. To look for "reasons" is beside the point."
Such a cool and brutal start to a novel. Play It As It Lays is not exactly a fun read, as it chronicles the unraveling of Maria Wyeth into boredom, anxiety, and despair, tracing with a hard, sharp line her failed career, failed marriage, abortion, failing love affairs, desperate attempts to imbue her life with a sense of purpose, or fun, or normalcy. It is a document of disintegration, of a woman's collapse into nothingness. Yet, in bits and pieces, revealing the life of Maria Wyeth, Nevada-born daughter of a hard-luck gambler, beautiful enough to model in a strange and lonely New York, then marry an upstart movie director and flirt with avant-garde stardom in 1960s Hollywood, the novel never fails to compel.

As always, Didion sharp and striking prose guides us through the narrative, weaving in a small coterie of desperate people succeeding their way into despair. The novel is structured to flow, the narrative is a swift current, forcing you lucidly but headlong through the false hopes and false threads at which Maria grasps in search of release. Again, not fun, in the sense of jovial, but Didion's command of both language and the narrative of the story make for an exhilarating read. When she hits you, she hits you hard. Be warned, but Play It As It Lays stands spine to spine with any of the other masterful documents of collapse that mark the literary landscape of the extended American 20th century (such as The Great Gatsby, Appointment at Samarra, Revolutionary Road, etc.)

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