2018 TBR Pile Challenge, American Lit, Classics, Contemporary, Creative Non-Fiction, Essay, Joan Didion, Non-Fiction

“Joansing” for Didion

While Halloween has always held a coveted spot in my heart and imagination, the truth is, I used to get almost as excited for the 4thof July. It was like the summertime version of my favorite autumn day, where the rules were bent and the pure joy of living was the day’s entire purpose. I distinctly remember people from my childhood commenting about my love for this holiday, and about how patriotic I must have been. But that was never the reality.

What I loved were the barbecues and the being outside with friends all day, playing kickball and having water balloon fights, and getting so bloated on hot dogs and ice cream that I thought I’d burst before the big city fireworks show. I loved the morning parade, being in it as a Boy Scout and, when Boy Scout days were over, arising early to save the family seats along the sidewalk, close enough to grab candy and other goodies from the parade participants.

And I can still hear the sound of the ice cream truck, softly in the distance. I can see my friends’ faces as they heard it too; we’d look at each other at just the right moment, realizing it was time to pause the game, rush home to beg for a dollar, and then get back out into the street in time to stop the truck as he came tinkling down the road. But more than anything, it was the fireworks.

Reading Joan Didion is like reading the 4th of July. It is fireworks in my brain and sitting down with an old friend to chat about and think about everything and nothing, and leaving exhausted by the pure and exhilarating experience of being together again. There’s no special magic to fireworks, once you learn they’re little more than powder, a match, and some cleverly timed fuses. In the same way, one can “figure out” the technical and creative style of Didion in order to explain just how she does what she does, and why it is so compelling. But even now, that knowledge, about fireworks and Didion, remains subliminal, and I continue to be, above all, caught up in the spectacle, in the color and rhythm and choreography of it all.

The White Album is a collection of essays written in the “aftermaths of the 1960s.” Her subject matter ranges from personalities like Doris Lessing to events like the Manson murders. What holds it all together is the skeptical and, in hindsight, sobering but accurate perspective of an often-mistaken view about the United States’ “greatest decade.” Didion takes an unflinching look at the optimism of the 1960s, the supposed freedoms, and the many breakdowns and reckonings of that idealism, the unmasking, as it were, of one decade by its disillusioned successor, the 1970s.

In the first essay, from which the collection takes its title, Didion writes, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live . . . we look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” In other words, the writer’s work at this time was to try to make sense of the senseless, and the 1970s more than any other time revealed that, sometimes, the narrative is simply wrong.

In later essays, she writes about architecture, like governors’ mansions and museums, as signifiers of our culture’s shaken and superficial, even misleading, view of our own past. In “The Getty,” for example, she writes, “the Getty tells us that the past was perhaps different from the way we like to perceive it.” If the collection has one unifying theme, it is this critique on what we Americans think we know about our own past, and how quickly truth and reality seem to slip through our fingers. To read this collection now, in 2018, is a particularly painful and humbling experience.

One of the most under-rated essays in the collection is its last, “Quiet Days in Malibu.” In a way, this piece, written between 1976-1978, is the logical concluding piece not just because it comes near the end chronologically, but because Didion writes about the personal experience of living in Malibu in order to reveal that it, too—the reality of her hometown—is different from how it is perceived by those who live outside of it. Malibu, California has an aura about it that relates to nothing real, according to Didion, just as the 1970s exposed the truth of the 1960s, puncturing its aura forever. Aptly, and somewhat ironically, at the center of her experience in this essay is an immigrant who runs a local flower shop for decades. His are some of the most expensive, sought-after plants in the world and, like everything else, their position is precarious. Danger and uncertainty, instability and tragedy, are always lurking. And yet, so is hope—inexplicable, untraceable, blind hope.

I adore Didion’s writing, so beware my bias. That said, this is perhaps her most tightly themed collection. Despite an essay or two with which I had some intellectual or emotional disagreement (there is one titled “The Women’s Movement” that left me feeling more than conflicted), I felt a fierce and powerful sense of grounded awe while reading these essays and after finishing the collection. This is what I’ve come to expect, personally, from my time with Joan Didion.

The rocket’s red glare. The bombs bursting in air.

This was the fifth book read for my TBR Pile Challenge.

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American Lit, Book Review, Existentialism, Fiction, Hollywood Novel, Joan Didion, Modernism

Review: Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion

Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 43

3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays is included in Time magazine’s “100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to 2005.” The protagonist (although, from here out I may call her simply “main character,” as protagonist implies a positive agency of some sort) is Maria Wyeth, a disillusioned, mentally troubled, emotionally scarred 31-year-old woman.  The story begins at the end, with Maria writing down episodes from her life in an attempt to reconcile certain events and to heal, mentally and emotionally (think Catcher in the Rye).  The crux of the story seems to be Maria’s lack of purpose in life, coupled with the loss of her daughter (who is alive but who has been institutionalized, something Maria likens to a type of imprisonment).  The primary conflict is Maria’s desire to reconnect her daughter, to bring her home and take care of her, but it is usually clear that, even if Maria were to gain custody of her daughter again, there’s no way she would be in a condition to care for her, or for anybody.  The story’s resolution can be read in two ways, either as hopeful or as perpetually doomed – arguments for both readings can absolutely be made (and this is, perhaps, an Americanized complexity –or playful approach- to the French Existentialist problem).  

3 – Characters well-developed.

Most of the narrative time is spent with Maria, which makes sense as she is writing a journal of sorts, remembering certain events from her own life.  She comes across as submissive, physically and sexually, to strong male characters; but, the irony is that she truly admires strong females, such as a powerful Italian woman she reads about in a magazine, and also the resolute character she herself plays in a minor movie.  All of the other characters are minor ones which serve the novels larger purpose, which is to expose a type of American existentialism, wherein all meaning and purpose in life has been lost (or the meaning of life, which is that there is no meaning, has been discovered).  The thing to take away from these characters is the sense of resignation to a disappointing fate – a theme present in other “Hollywood” novels, such as West’s Day of the Locust and Fonte’s Ask the Dust.  There is a clear commentary on Hollywood culture (fake, detached, sad, and superficial) and also on the realization that the great west, the final frontier, is gone, leaving nothing left to be discovered, no hope to cultivate, and no dreams to believe in.

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Most of the novel is made-up of short, episodic chapters of stringently controlled third-person narration which is strengthened by rather visual and biting prose.  Near the end of the novel, the third-person chapters are interrupted by very short first-person reflections, inner-monologue of a sort, which represent Maria’s emotional awakening and new (or relearned) consciousness.  Maria Wyeth is, for most of the book, emotionally disconnected and sees things in simplistic ways.  This suits Didion’s style, one which is clearly inspired by Hemingway (Didion’s literary hero), Fitzgerald, and other American modernists, particularly those of the ex-patriot Lost Generation.  The reductive, sparse prose is striking and powerful, particularly in the most intense moments, such as the description of Maria’s abortion and the suicide of Maria’s friend.  These types of scenes would traditionally be either inferred, but not described, or described in detail (with or without metaphor – but in a highly descriptive way).  Didion lays them out in a bare, straightforward way, which make them all the more real and terrifying.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements are present and enhance the Story.

For such a sparse novel, it is absolutely littered with meaningful symbols and motifs.  The most obvious and recurrent of these is probably the rattlesnake.  As would be expected, they’re typically present in times of danger, but they also represent the male dominance, mimicked in Maria’s relationship with all men in this book (men who are ultimately responsible for the destruction of female relationships and the separation of mothers and daughters).  There is also the symbol of the Hummingbird, which might represent Maria’s re-awakening to “real” life and emotions.  There are many times throughout the book where people, Maria and others, feel suffocated by “fake” items, such as an artificial lemon (which someone almost eats) and plastic plants, which Maria believes suck away the oxygen, rather than giving off oxygen as actual plants would.  This is clearly another indication of the suffocating non-reality of Hollywood life, where everything is a copy of a copy of… etc.  There is also the motif of the freeway/roadways and Maria’s attempt to find meaning and direction by driving aimlessly which, in true existential fashion, does not work.  Games, gambling, and “playing” work in the same way that plastic copies of living things do, in that they are moments which pretend to be meaningful real life events, but which are actually avoidances.  Other things to look for are the presence and meaning of dreams, the nature of madness, and Maria’s obsession with whiteness and cleanliness.  

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 16+
Interest: American Existentialism, Modernism, Hollywood, Abortion, Sexuality, Gender Dynamics, Cultural Studies.

Notable Quotes:

“What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.”

“I am not much engaged by the problems of what you might call our day but I am burdened by the particular, the mad person who writes me a letter. It is no longer necessary for them even to write me. I know when someone is thinking of me. I learn to deal with this.”

“By the end of the week she was thinking constantly about where her body stopped and the air began about the exact point in space and time that was the difference between Maria and other.”

“One thing in my defense, not that it matters: I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what “nothing” means, and keep on playing.”