Thursday, July 23, 2015

Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion

She began to feel the pressure of Hoover Dam, there on the desert, began to feel the pressure and pull of the water.  When the pressure got great enough she drove out there.  All that day she felt the power surging through her own body.  All day she was faint with vertigo, sunk in a world where great power grids converged, throbbing lines plunged finally into the shallow canyon below the dam's face, elevators like coffins dropped into the bowels of the earth itself.  With a guide and a handful of children Maria walked through the chambers, stared at the turbines in the vast glittering valley, at the deep still water with the hidden intakes sucking all the while, even as she watched; clung to the railings, leaned out, stood finally on a platform over the pipe that carried the river beneath the dam.  The platform quivered.  Her ears roared.  She wanted to stay in the dam, lie on the great pipe itself, but reticence saved her from asking.

Maria (Ma-RYE-a) Wyeth is a starlet, the kind who never really drops the diminutive to become a "star."  (Kind of like Tuesday Weld, who plays Maria in the film version of Play It as It Lays?)  In a brief first-person narrative that opens the book, she gives us her life story: growing up in tiny Silver Wells, Nevada, a town that doesn't exist anymore, moving to New York where she becomes involved with a manipulative abuser named Ivan, coming to Los Angeles and marrying the producer Carter Lang, who puts her in a couple small pictures, having a daughter, Kate, who is confined to a mental institution.  But most of the book occurs in the third person, as a disembodied observer watching Maria tumble slowly into a nervous breakdown.

The most obvious comparison point for Play It as It Lays is The Bell Jar: both are about young women undergoing protracted mental episodes.  Both Maria and Esther Greenwood cling around the lower rungs of a industry dominated by male figures.  Play It as It Lays is populated with cruel men: the psychopathic Ivan, the dismissive Carter, a womanizing Russian mobster named Larry Kulik.  None of these men understand Maria, nor do they care to; Maria's instability and suffering threaten the kind of freewheeling party atmosphere they laboriously occupy.

But the other comparison point is Nathanael West's L.A. phantasmagoria The Day of the Locust, another book that paints Hollywood as a moral black hole.  Los Angeles may not be to blame for Maria's breakdown, but it is somehow the perfect backdrop for it: shallow, superficial, misogynistic, destructively hedonistic.  Much of the novel is taken up by Maria driving around Greater Los Angeles with no clear destination or purpose, which is most of what I imagine happens on L.A. freeways:

In the aftermath of the wind the air was dry, burning, so clear that she could see the ploughed furrows of firebreaks on distant mountains.  Not even the highest palms moved.  The stillness and clarity of the air seemed to rob everything of its perspective, seemed to alter all perception of depth, and Maria drove as carefully as if she were reconnoitering an atmosphere without gravity.  Taco Bells jumped out at her.  Oil rockers creaked ominously.  For miles before she reached the Thriftimart she could see the big red T, a forty-foot  cutout letter which seemed peculiarly illuminated against the harsh unclouded light of the afternoon sky.

I'm putting that one in my great-sentence scrapbook: "Taco Bells jumped out at her."

The book ends by forcing a moral choice upon Maria (spoiler alert): she does nothing while her friend, BZ, commits suicide by overdose.  This single act redefines the entire novel.  It is the only moment in which Carter and her friends take her mental breakdown seriously, since as we know from the first-person chapter, it's what finally drives her into a mental institution.  But it also repurposes Maria's persistent lack of agency.  BZ asks her to do nothing, and though she is drugged out, her compliance with his wishes transform her lack of agency into a positive moral choice which honors her friend's distress in a way that the other characters in the novel refuse to recognize Maria's.  Is it an act of kindness?  Or, as BZ's wife believes, an act of deep selfishness?

Maria tells us at the novel's beginning that such questions have no value:

What makes Iago evil? some people ask.  I never ask.

Another example, one 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 coral 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 too 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.
But doesn't this attitude let all the monsters of the novel--Ivan, Carter, Larry Kulik--off the hook?  Is it merely the only way that Maria can cope with the world in which she finds itself, to embrace its cynical amorality in order to keep "playing it as it lays?"  And is it Los Angeles' problem, or all of ours?


Randy said...

I've never read this, but "Taco Bells jumped out at her" is almost enough by itself to make me want to.

Christopher said...

Read it!