Saturday, December 15, 2012

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

One too many tragedies sends a woman over the edge

Maria (Mar-eye-ah) Wyeth, a 31 year old failing actress living in Beverly Hills, starts behaving in self destructive ways. The institutionalization of her young daughter has contributed directly to her divorce from Carter, a hot movie director. However, it is Hollywood, so the strange behavior doesn’t raise that many alarms. As the novel goes on, one horrible thing after another happens to Maria. Overwhelmed, she lets it happen without direct protest.

The writing is tremendous, crazy and hilarious, all about the telling detail, compulsively readable, so that the reader completely buys being in Maria’s crazy head, although the reader is also expected to pay attention enough to figure out what exactly is going on with the plot. The dialogue as characterization is wonderful. Didion keeps it mysterious, at first. The organizing principle is gambling. “I was raised to believe that what came in on the next roll would always be better than what went out on the last.” A classically optimistic American (Californian?) position. But lately that philosophy hasn't been working too well for Maria. She copes by stumbling through Hollywood like a zombie.

The story is familiar, perhaps even hackneyed. A beautiful girl from a rural Eden gets transported to Hollywood. She has a fairytale marriage, a beautiful blonde baby, a nascent career as a movie star – then, everything falls apart. Her daughter has a severe mental illness, which puts Maria in agony. Her primary motive in the book is to help her child but her child is beyond help, so Maria numbs her feelings.

Carelessly, also numbly, she gets pregnant. Her ex-husband arranges the illegal abortion. Huge chunks of this novel concern the abortion and Maria’s subsequent horror of bloody fetal parts clogging the drains. She’s so traumatized she can’t react. At night, she tries to comfort herself with peaceful images of her and her daughter and her lover at the beach eating mussels. During daytime, she realizes it’s a fantasy.

I’m not sure that this novel is a fully realized realistic portrait of society. The husband is a two timing villain. And the female friends are monsters.  Near the end, the plot gets to be like the perils of Pauline. I was like come on, she's getting raped too? I could feel sympathy for Carter’s exasperation.

She never tries to make sense of what’s happening to her. But she never gives up either.

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