Didion co-wrote the screenplay with her husband, John Gregory Dunne. The novel begins with an internal monologue by the year-old Maria Wyeth, followed by short reminiscences of her friend Helene, and ex-husband, film producer Carter Lang. The further narration is conducted from a third-person perspective in eighty-four chapters of terse, controlled and highly visual prose typical of Didion. Maria's story begins as she is recovering from a mental breakdown in a psychiatric hospital in the Los Angeles area, but soon flashes back to her life before the hospital. A not-quite lurid view of life in Hollywood follows.
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Colin Winnette admires the writer Nicholas Rombes, so he asked Nicholas to suggest a book. He works in Detroit, Michigan. Colin Winnette: Will you provide a brief description 3 sentences or less of this book? Nicholas Rombes : The novel is about year old Maria Wyeth, who is confined in a psychiatric hospital. It is from her point of view, mostly, that we learn in fragments the details of the journey that led her here: her divorce from her filmmaker husband Carter Lang, the fragility of her four-year old daughter Kate, the abortion Carter forces her to have.
Beginning around a year before I taught the class I began some heavy-duty reading of fiction, poetry, and drama that I had missed in my undergrad and grad school days. How could this be, I wondered? Such a fantastically strange book, so alienating and warm at the same time. So full of excess truth that it shoots across the page more as a prophecy than a novel. How is this possible? For any of us? To transcend all the well-intentioned, stupid categories that we erect between ourselves?
So this book, this unexpected miracle, comes into my life and messes it up. NR : I should say, rather than messed up, the novel reflected , in a distorted way the messed-up-ness of my life at that time. What caught me at the end of that fall happened to be this novel. I fell into its arms, as corny as that may sound, and found there a distorted reflection of my own disordered world.
Most of the time I turn to novels or poetry or movie to escape the tyranny of my own habits of thought, but Play It As It Lays was different. How does this happen? If I could bottle it, I would. When the class clicks and feels right teaching is effortless and the classroom becomes a space where the meaning of the novel is scaffolded and constructed right there before our eyes. An act of shared creation, pure creation.
In the case of Play It As It Lays I was very open with the students and told them that I selected it not because I had anything profound to say about it, but the opposite: it left me baffled. How to hold onto that mystery while at the same time honoring the duty, as a professor, to guide students through the process of dismantling a text so as to interpret it? So much so that the first person chapters could almost be considered a kind of overture.
What did you make of this front-loading of narrative voices? Suddenly one night I realized that I had some first person and some third person and that I was going to have to go with both, or just not write a book at all. I was scared. The juxtaposition of first and third turned out to be very useful toward the ending, when I wanted to accelerate the whole thing.
Part of the pleasure of the book lies in figuring out how to navigate through these narrative voices.
The first three sections are each narrated by a different character, beginning with Maria, and clearly titled as so. On the afternoon she finally did it without once breaking or losing the beat on the radio she was exhilarated, and that night she slept dreamlessly.
CW : What relates to that smooth access? How does a reader prepare for it? I never ask. In disavowing the question about Iago and evil, Maria in fact has to ask it. She has to put the question out there. And that sets up the entire book, really. There are no reasons, there are no answers, Maria says. CW : For me, reading this book for the first time was like having a bad dream.
Not a nightmare, necessarily, but one of those dreams where everything just feels kind of haunted and tender. And yet that nothingness is also a comfort. A relief from the constant drive to make meaning, to square things up, to find patterns in everything, to structure reality so that it suggests the opposite of nothing. And I also think the text layout and design of the book works around this nothingness, too. The enormous amount of white space on some pages. The blankness of the pages, they way it assembles itself around the block prose.
Several of the chapters or sections are only a few lines long, isolated, surrounded by nothing. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture. In other words, the aestheticization of the abject in all its horror transforms it into something of beauty.
The original cover had the coiled black snake. It involves real risk. To mess with a rattlesnake at rest is potentially deadly. A hummingbird, however…. NR : That hummingbird!
I watch a hummingbird, throw the I Ching but never read the coins, keep my mind in the now. I obsess over book covers and as a class we researched different versions. To keep with the gambling analogy, a book cover is such a tell. The cover reminds me somehow of that sort of sad, post 9—11, Sofia Coppola feel, especially the vibe of Lost in Translation , which came out in CW : Can you leave us with a quote from the book?
Who talks like that? Help Electric Literature continue to publish and pay writers through the pandemic. The first lady of West Coast letters needs to share that honor with the Mexican diaspora. Enjoy strange, diverting work from The Commuter on Mondays, absorbing fiction from Recommended Reading on Wednesdays, and a roundup of our best work of the week on Fridays.
Personalize your subscription preferences here. Skip to content. A hummingbird, however… NR : That hummingbird! Read Next. Switch On Symbol. More Like This. May 18 - Jeanna Kadlec.
Maria knew what ‘nothing’ means
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Play It As It Lays
A new novel by Joan Didion is something of an event. By Joan Didion. Maria is an expert on Nothing. By birth she is from nowhere. Silver Wells, Nev. The setting is Movieville, Cal.
Play It as It Lays -- Paperback / softback [Paperback]