Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Taking David Foster Wallace's English 170R: Class #7 (Play It As It Lays, Finish)

Hi all. Here's the last class of 2014. I'll be talking about Didion's Play It As It Lays. So Merry Christmas, I'll see you next year, and I hope you all have a great holiday.



   Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays is about disconnection and loneliness. This should come as no surprise considering the milieu, which is centered around the emotional wastelands of Hollywood and Las Vegas. While these locales have been mined repeatedly for the kind of anomie described in the book, Didion manages to keep our interest in a couple different ways.
   The first is her writing style. It is spare and direct, but with enough craft and artistry that it can’t be accused of simply holding up a mirror, stylistically, to the world it describes. The prose levels with us, making us trust it, and we are confident that it will not “b.s.” us. This is very important in a novel of this sort. It does not sugarcoat the sordid events that occur, nor does it offer up the hardcore, “unflinching” look at the world that can be its own kind of dishonesty (when it is used to merely shock and titillate, for example). Didion presents the material simply, without too much comment. The reader is not totally left to “come to her own conclusions,” however. Didion definitely has an authorial point of view, though this comes through in the way the novel is structured, rather than the actual prose. She shuffles events in and out, and where they begin and end is important to the overall scheme. This resonates with one of the book’s themes: if there are answers/meaning to be found, they are not in the character’s day-to-day existence, but seem to reside in what happens before and after events, in their dreams, in the “white spaces” of their lives.
   Another way Didion keeps us engaged is through the qualities she gives to the main character, Maria. This is a character that we have seen many times before, someone lost and rudderless trying to navigate through a pitiless world. She also borders on being self-loathing, and those can be feelings that are sometimes (unintentionally) shared by the reader. But Didion prevents Maria from crossing over to pure contemptuousness, for either herself or her surroundings. If anything, she is extremely self-critical, and always expecting the other shoe to drop. A line on pg. 73, “Maria did not particularly believe in rewards, only in punishments, swift and personal,” sums up her character almost too neatly. This is followed by: “The notion of general devastation had for Maria a certain sedative effect…suggested an instant in which all anxieties would be abruptly gratified…she felt a kind of resigned tranquility.” (pg. 104) Even mundane things she does like not having a phone could lead to disaster: “There was no one to whom she wanted to talk but she had to have a telephone. If she could not be reached it would happen, the peril would find Kate.” There is no doubt that she is narcissistic, but she beats herself up so much that it feels almost cruel to think unkindly of her; it’d be almost like kicking an injured puppy. And even though a big chunk of the book deals with the rigmarole of getting a then-illicit abortion (the book was published in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade), we are still affected by Maria being haunted by the procedure. The imagery of her nightmares and thoughts (“All that day Maria thought of fetuses in the East River, translucent as jellyfish, floating past the big sewage outfalls with the orange peels.” (pg. 116)) are still striking in 2014.
   Ultimately, Maria’s disconnection is one that will never be rectified. This is dramatized by the ending of the book, when the closest thing she has to a kindred spirit, the movie producer BZ, suggests that she take a suicidal amount of Seconal pills with him. He has been led to believe that she’s just as sick of the world they live in as he is, that she feels just as acutely the pain he feels. But he is wrong. She does not take what he has to offer, and even misunderstands his intentions toward the end. (“  Don’t.’ After she had said it she opened her eyes.”) With the person most likely to understand her gone, Maria loses what seems to be her last chance at connection, and her contention on the last page that she “[knows] what ‘nothing’ means” is heartbreaking, despite (or even because of) her resolve to “keep on playing.

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