Tuesday, October 27, 2020

PLAY IT AS IT LAYS by Joan Didion

 I should have read this thirty years ago... Why didn't I read this back in the early nineties?... These thoughts recurred several times while I read--belatedly, inexcusably--Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays. Long an admirer of Didion's journalism--Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album are beautifully written cultural landmarks that deserved their 'instant classic' status--I have inexplicably avoided her fiction. (Similar story between Susan Sontag and me, equally inexplicable: enjoy re-reading the essays, haven't read the novels.) So when the first volume of the Library of America's collected Didion came into my hands, I was very pleasantly surprised by the excellence and risky beauty of her second novel. (Here's hoping the LOA soon publishes a two-volume edition of Sontag's fiction so I'll have another opportunity to be surprised.) Play It As It Lays, seemingly an artsy, au courant (for 1970) novel of affluent angst among the Fitzgeraldianly careless moviemaking side of Sixties Los Angeles, surprised me by turning explicitly existentialist at the end, Maria's journey terminating (or, more precisely, continuing) in nihilism and death, existential anxiety taken to its limits. Stylistically engaging and formally original, this short novel is, at the very least, what critics call 'a minor classic' (maybe we should lose that minimizing adjective) and deserves to be as much of an LA landmark as the Getty Center or LACMA. It's the kind of artful, existentially engaged novel no American writer writes anymore. (Well, Rachel Kushner at least tries to write them.) I finished it mourning the fact that it has birthed no native sons or daughters.

No comments: