Alice Bolin on Joan Didion and Los Angeles
When I first moved to Los Angeles, I sat by Echo Park Lake and read Joan Didion’s 1970 novel Play It as It Lays twice. You have to be a special kind of depressive to read this book more than once, especially more than once back to back. It follows Maria Wyeth, actress and model of minimal success and wife to an up-and-coming movie director, as her life falls apart. Her young daughter, Kate, suffers from a mysterious mental illness and is institutionalized. Maria files for divorce. She gets an abortion. She becomes, in her agent’s words, “a slightly suicidal situation.”
Although Play It as It Lays has achieved classic status—it was on Time’s List of the 100 Best Novels—many readers find Maria unbearably dramatic, self-centered, messy, and babyish. I think it takes a personality with both a tendency towards old-fashioned melodrama and a ruthless, sad/beautiful, cinematic nihilism to pick up what Play It as It Lays is putting down.
I sat on a crumbling stone bench set into the greenery surrounding the lake, and dead birds of paradise got tangled in my hair. It was lovely: ducks hung out in the shallows and the statue of Lady of the Lake laid her shadow in the water. But as I observed the men pushing ice cream carts, the families, dogs, and joggers circle the lake, it was as if every vision concealed a dark edge, a poison that floated imperceptibly in the daylight. Toddlers almost pitched themselves into the water when their parents looked away. A man threw a tennis ball into the lake and his little dog swam out to retrieve it over and over again. Every time it looked to me like the dog was faltering, she had gotten too tired, she might drown right there near the fountain.
At one point in Play It as It Lays Maria takes in the action in the town square of a small beach community. She watches “some boys in ragged Levi jackets and dark goggles… passing a joint with furtive daring;” “an old man [who] coughed soundlessly, spit phlegm that seemed to hang in the heavy air;” “a woman in a nurse’s uniform [wheeling] a bundled neuter figure silently past the hedges of dead camellias.” Maria fantasizes about calling her lover Les Goodwin, and in making contact, undoing her dread. “Maybe she would hear his voice and the silence would break,” Didion writes, “the woman in the nurse’s uniform would speak to her charge and the boys would get on their Harleys and roar off.”
The discrete images Maria observes carry ominous weight because of her loneliness. Her anxiety is evidence of the secret patterns, connections, and implications that a mind accrues when it only talks to itself. “Her mind was a blank tape,” Didion writes of Maria, “imprinted daily with snatches of things overheard, fragments of dealers’ patter, the beginnings of jokes and odd lines of song lyrics.” Her life becomes inseparable from her dreams: images and figures and words and sounds collected, recombined, and imbued with sinister meaning.
Throughout Play It as It Lays, Maria dreams of her dead mother, a shadowy “syndicate” hiding bodies in the plumbing of her house, fetuses floating in the East River, and children filing into a gas chamber. Waking and dreaming, she is preoccupied with rattlesnakes, and her pregnancy and the aftermath of her abortion are dark and strange as a nightmare. Shortly after I moved into my new apartment in Los Angeles, I opened my laptop in the morning and tiny grease ants started crawling out of the cracks in the keyboard. Sometimes dream symbolism collides with waking life by coincidence, but sometimes it is a bad sign.
Didion’s experimentation with dream structure in Play It as It Lays may have something to do with her suspicion of the unity, linearity, and cause and effect of traditional narrative. Didion is one of the essential essayists of the twentieth century, and all great nonfiction writers examine how the consistency we expect from storytelling is incompatible with the contradictions and competing truths of real life. I think of Janet Malcolm, the only contemporary nonfiction writer who rivals Didion for pure intelligence and readability. Over her eleven books, Malcolm has considered the way narrative is created in psychology, journalism, and biography—the artificial order each lays over real life. Malcolm writes in The Journalist and the Murderer:
As every work of fiction draws on life, so every work of nonfiction draws on art. As the novelist must curb his imagination in order to keep his text grounded in the common experience of man (dreams exemplify the uncurbed imagination—thus their uninterestingness to everyone but their author), so the journalist must temper his literal-mindedness with the narrative devices of imaginative literature.
In this way, Didion walks a careful line in Play It as It Lays. She can’t avoid all the traditional conventions of the novel form, and she can’t ignore the mandates of fact. But she must find a way to shape a novel that reflects that archipelago of an industry that is “entertainment,” and Los Angeles, a city whose unifying characteristic is its disjointedness.
Play It as It Lays begins with Maria compulsively and aimlessly driving L.A.’s freeway system. “She drove it as a riverman runs a river,” Didion writes, and when Maria is not driving, she fantasizes about it:
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.
This practice indicates Maria’s absolute idleness—her husband and daughter have both been taken away from her, so she has nothing to occupy her time or her thoughts. But she is also seeking emptiness. Driving is a meditative activity, the mind and the body working in unison, moving in response to stimuli—the road, the lane, the signs and signals, the other drivers—without conscious thought: the flow of the fugitive act. “Sometimes at night the dread would overtake her,” Didion writes, “bathe her in sweat, flood her mind with sharp flash images… but she never thought about that on the freeway.”