Play It as It Lays

No one writes about dread with the elegance of Joan Didion. The evidence: Play It As It Lays, her novel set in an angst-filled Hollywood in the 1960s.

(And: that the sense of free-floating anxiety that she writes about so well? It never felt more immediate than now.)

It’s one of the greatest novels of existentialism ever written. Our protagonist, Maria, faces dread and despair. She is brittle, sensitive, attuned to the depths of mood that swirl about her. Maria fights for her damaged daughter. And even the depths of her own despair, she remains courageous and compassionate.

She knows the abyss and the threats latent in life. She knows night terrors and emptiness as real as the desert between Barstow and Las Vegas. And with — or despite — that knowledge, she makes a choice. The only choice that really matters, as Camus said.

Play It As It Lays is less about plot — although it has one, and Didion deploys it skillfully — than it is about mood, a series of psychic states and fragments woven together by landscapes and slicing encounters. 

Never less than faultless, Didion’s prose sends you to a place of dreams, to half-conscious states of drunkenness and to the lobbies where snapping nerve endings brush up against frigid air conditioning and even colder laughter.

Among other conditions, she makes you understand, on the surface of your skin, what it is like for a beautiful women to be the cynosure of men’s eyes and desires. The terror of it.

Faced with grief, with losses that cut to the marrow, with nothingness itself, Maria comes through at the end. Just as Sisyphus, Jake Barnes, Meursault, and Ralph Ellisons’ Invisible Man do. 

And just as we must do ourselves.

(The novel was filmed with Tuesday Weld as the lead. That’s where I found the images for this post. I’ve only seen a few clips of the movie: L.A. freeways, and a delicate blonde at the wheel of a Camaro shot with telephoto lenses. And that’s perfect. It’s enough; I don’t want to see anymore. Some films are better left imagined. What’s a shame, though, is that I read that Sam Peckinpah wanted to direct it. And that makes you ache at the loss of what might have been a great film.)

The Bomb


When I lived in Paris the first time, I taught English. Most of my students — all but one, in fact — were Japanese.

My friend Eric, smarter than me and very kind, too, suggested that I target Japanese expatriates in Paris.

It worked. Students signed up to learn good American conversational English, and I earned enough to buy red wine, Président camembert, roll-your-own tobacco, as well as yogurt and beef heart. And that was enough for me.

One of my best students was Yukinori Tanada, a man of real brilliance and impeccable style. He’d trained to be an architect, then transitioned into management consulting. He treated my girlfriend and me to magnificent meals of sushi or canard roti, and even drove us to the town where van Gogh died. In short, a prince.

Several months into my sojourn in Paris, a close friend visited. Emily’s an artist, a spontaneous and intense personality. Also, it’s fair to say that she owns more curiosity and sincerity than tact. Or at least, she did back then.

I took the opportunity to host a party with my Japanese students and her in my cramped apartment on rue St. André des Arts. My other students were less polished than Mr. Tanada, less cosmopolitan, but sincere and very sweet, and they all spoke English well.

Although we ended up knee-to-knee and the conversation had a stilted and oddly literary quality, we had a fine time. My friend and my actual girlfriend must have seemed exotic to them. Emily, a green-eyed blonde, towered above all the Japanese students, male or female.

In the freedom of gestures and her movement and conversation, she suddenly seemed completely American to me — in the best way. My actual girlfriend, an alluring Russian beauty, was quite charming herself, and she enchanted the boys.

Things went well; the wine flowed. It pleased me to see everyone getting on, speaking English with facility, finding topics in common.

Then Emily leaned down to the knot of Japanese and said, looking at them from under her brows, “Do you hate us?”


“Do you hate us for dropping the Bomb?”

Even deeper silence.

Eyes shifted. All the bonhomie vanished, blown out the window like smoke in the wind. 

After an incredibly long pause, Mr. Tanada spoke up. First he clarified: which bomb? 

The nuclear bomb.

Mr. Tanada pulled out a Dunhill cigarette and offered Emily one, which she took. He lit it for her.

“Do you know about the fire bombings in Tokyo?” he asked. 

She nodded.

“I think,” he said, softly, “a bomb is a bomb. And you are dead either way.”

Read: Berlin in Lights

kessler by tim roessler

My diaries embarrass me. I keep a notebook, which is a different beast. But a diary? No way. It’s pure torture to read any of my scribbles.

To write well off the cuff and in the privacy of your own mind — now that’s a feat of character, of talent, even of soul. And while those qualities are rare, many fine diaries exist. Samuel Pepys, Eugene Delacroix, André Gide, and Paul Léautaud all wrote so well that their journals make a fascinating body of work on their own.

Count Harry Kessler belongs to that exclusive club. Kessler was a diplomat, a publisher of fine editions, a co-librettist for Richard Strauss, a connoisseur of art and music, a colonel, a Prussian aristocrat, a committed democratic socialist, and, most importantly for us, a fine writer.

His journals from 1918 to 1937 cast a cool and penetrating eye on the fall of the Kaiser, the splendors and decadence of 1920s Berlin, and the rise of the Nazis.

He knew practically everyone worth knowing. Kessler offers sharp-etched portraits of Albert Einstein, George Grosz, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Aristide Maillol, and Josephine Baker, to mention just a few. But he wasn’t a mere social butterfly. He had principled break ups. Perhaps the most painful for him was with Richard Strauss over the latter’s enthusiasm for dictatorship.

For all his sensitivity, Kessler was a cool customer. During the 1918 revolution, his entries describe machine gun bursts and sniper fire as mere annoyances. Perhaps his sangfroid was not only because of his aristocratic values, but also because he had recently returned from the front lines of the war. After that storm of steel, what’s a few extra shots? His reserve is all the more striking because Kessler’s diaries were not meant for publication. Even in the privacy of his own journal he was brave.

Perhaps because he had to be. Right-wing assassins killed two of his closest associates. He pushed for social democratic reforms –deeply unpopular in some powerful circles. Later, he’d be exiled. Kessler describes it all with dispassion and a total absence of self-pity.

He writes vignettes that are like haiku in their compression and clarity. And, inevitably, you find out some history, too.

The entries from the late 1920s are especially heartbreaking. So many people in so many countries wanted to make a better world, to establish lasting peace, and to move civilization forward. You could find good signs everywhere. Then, slowly and suddenly, the Fascists took over.

Yet, you learn, up close, that the great tragedy wasn’t necessarily inevitable. The Weimar Republic, despite everything, was working. Hitler, far from being an evil genius, was a mediocre creep whose own stench of failure actually helped him blunder into power – helped by theoretically clever power brokers who thought they could use him. Kessler, though, saw right through him, knew the danger he represented, and opposed the Nazis from the beginning.

The loss of Kessler’s Germany – one of broad cosmopolitanism, of insane refinement, of deep culture, of wild innovation in every art, and of tentative hope, is among the many tragedies the Nazis inflicted on the world.

To wrap up, here’s a quote to you a good sample of Kessler’s style – his perspicacity and aestheticism. Kessler’s visiting the Imperial Palace, occupied by rebel sailors. As he wanders through the ransacked rooms, he notes:

But these private apartments, the furniture, the articles of everyday use, and what remains of the Emperor’s and Empress’s mementoes and objets d’art are so insipid and tasteless, so philistine, that it is difficult to feel much indignation against the pilferers. Only astonishment that the wretched, timid, unimaginative creatures who liked this trash, and frittered away their life in this precious palatial haven, amidst lackeys and sycophants, could ever make any impact on history. Out of this atmosphere was born the World War…

Kessler’s diaries are worth reading for so many reasons. Observations like these, filled with a sort of moral aesthetics are just one.

Marked by masks

We walked into the Kan Kun Mexican Restaurant in Beaver, Utah, to order take out dinners. My children and I wore masks.

The hostess, a Latina who also wore a face mask, glanced at our own masks then handed us menus. 

The restaurant was half full with many tables taped off to comply with social distancing rules. Fox News droned on a large TV monitor over the cash register. 

Two families with four or five children each plus some grandparents sat at long tables. One was entirely blond, the other Hispanic. Three retirees with faces like beef jerky were crimson with sunburn. Three young guys in camo cargo pants and t-shirts sat next to a window.

I know how all these people looked, because nearly all of them stared at us. Not long, but just for that extra beat that makes you wonder if you have, say, toilet paper stuck to your shoe, or an open fly, or a Satanic symbol tattooed on your forehead.

People in Utah are nearly universally courteous. So they simply gave us that long, lingering, and slightly disapproving look, then tucked back into their burritos and quesadillas and resumed their conversations.

Fox News showed video of a demonstration. It was during the early days, when bad actors would torch a franchise or two or loot the Louis Vuitton in the Grove Shopping Centre. It was shot to look like the Mau Mau Uprising, only with designer boutiques in the background.

“I’m sure glad I don’t live there,” one of the camo guys said.

My daughter, who is a sensitive type, said she’d meet us outside and left.

Strangers in a Strange Land

We encountered variations of this reaction across Utah and Nevada. We didn’t stop often, having no reason to. But we would use a restroom in an In-N-Out Burger restaurant. Or we’d drift through the aisles of a convenience store, or place another to-go order.

And everyone — each tow-headed child, each grizzled rancher, each softly rounded wife —turned to stare at us. Not for long. No, not much longer than an extra second, because that would make the stare rude — but long enough.

Over and over, it was like the cliché scene from old Westerns where, when the Stranger swaggers through the swinging doors of the saloon, the locals stop palavering and glare.

To be fair, the virus had not hit many counties in Utah. Also, right wing broadcasters have ridiculed masks. One commentator even said it was a sign of “submission” to wear one. Another claimed it was only the first step in a plot to rob Americans of their freedom. Our president is famously averse to putting one on, and some people still take him seriously.

So I thought about face masks. Sadly, I didn’t have any ideas other than the obvious ones that you’ve probably read on social media already. 

But: If we can politicize and make tribal such a simple, obvious step, one that’s cheap and easy, although inconvenient, one that’s backed by science and now by experience, then how will we ever manage the much harder issues we confront?

Corona Road Trip

photo by tim roessler

My daughter’s voice sounded faded, dry, and thin on the phone.

That was all the excuse I needed. I missed her, badly. So I decided to drive out, pick her up, take her back to our home in Boulder, and then drop her back at her place when she was ready.

She’d been under lockdown in Los Angeles for more than six weeks. In Los Angeles, for good reason, the quarantine included parks and beaches along with bars, cafes, clubs, stores, and restaurants. All that amounts to house arrest. Necessary, but draconian.

I myself seemed to have grown roots. Dank, thick, gluey roots. I don’t think I travelled outside of a five mile radius from my house from March 13 on. I only used pick up services and delivery. And although Boulder’s a beautiful spot on the planet, even the pines and Flatirons can grow stale. Not to mention my backyard.

House arrest, virtual or not, is a tougher punishment than I realized.

We — my son, my daughter, and I — all needed a break. 

So my son and I hit the road on 31 May. Here’s some snapshots from travel in the time of the corona.

Kum & Go® Convenience

If you haven’t been in a convenience store for a few months, it can put the zap on your head. All those rows of salty snax. All those searing lime greens, cherry reds and arctic blues. The mercury lights, cold and bright, bring it all to peak garishness. 

And no one in all the busy crowd — well, no one except for me and a very old man in a pink polo shirt using a walker — wore a face mask. I suddenly had a small sense of what Howard Hughes must have felt like.

This scene would be repeated. Sometimes, customers shopping for Red Bull or Fritos would wear masks, but never more than half.

Parachute, Colorado

We pulled over in to hit the rest stop in Parachute, Colorado. As we swung in, we passed a ragged woman holding a cardboard sign. She sat on the grass in shorts that were just slightly too short, her legs baked to a nutmeg color tinged with red, her brown hair streaked to brass by the sun. Her feet were bare. I walked by, and turned my head away. As you do.

Parachute’s okay. There’s a good sandwich shop in what was once a gas station. Kid Curry, an actual, historical desperado, robbed a train nearby. An olde-timey frontier atmosphere hovers in the air, like a half-remembered TV Western. But the whole vibe of the rest stop was creepy in a weird and particular way.

Walking back to our car, I saw the homeless woman again. A man in a cowboy hat had motioned her over to his shiny pick up truck. He didn’t seem like the type to give alms to the homeless, so I watched a little more closely. They chatted longer than would be usual. 

Then she climbed into that gleaming truck. He pulled away with her seated in the cab next to him.


Las Vegas

Already, in late May, mirages hovered on the Interstate.

Billboards outside of Las Vegas advertised shows that never happened. I felt sorry, in a vague way, for Gladys Knight and the Pips whose performances were cancelled. Animated messages promised that a casino was “Las Vegas STRONG” and that they would be reopening soon. The models in the animation wore face masks as they played the slots.

The Trump Hotel shimmered in its own gilded haze, a bit away from the strip. It seemed arrogant, ugly, and ersatz, but perhaps I was projecting.


convenience store photo by tim roessler timothy roessler

At the drive up Perks! coffee kiosk in Cedar City, a young barista was so cheery, polite, and sweet that it seemed as if Doris Day were reincarnated.

At another breakfast stop, this time in St. George, we pulled over for burritos at a cafe in a strip mall. The place was New West: Coltrane on the stereo, plants, and a hippy dude with long grey hair behind the counter. He wore a mask. Of course.

The burritos were fresh and tasty. As we enjoyed our breakfast, a very thin woman and a very fat woman sat at a table and vaped and complained about their manager at Albertsons. Across the parking lot, a guy walked into the market. He’d strapped 9mm automatic with a camo finish to his waist.

Oh yeah, I realized: Open carry. So that’s what it looks like.

In Green River, Utah, we stopped for lunch at the Chow Hound. A young guy, perhaps 22, with a shadowy mustache and a big belly waddled in. He and his pal enthused about a  large Dodge Ram truck in the parking lot with a lot of specific knowledge about rims and suspensions. Proving, I guess, that you can flex anywhere as long as you know the rules.

The bulletin board in the cafe featured memorial cards, notices from the local gun club, and a flyer from the extension agent offering help during the time of Covid-19. Forms of assistance included guidance with filing unemployment claims and classes on making family meals on a budget.

Los Angeles

The sky was blue. That was the first shock. Not just blue, but cerulean, the color of a new born’s eyes, the shade, in fact, of the California dream itself. No smog, not even a smudge of beige anywhere. 

Jasmine scented the air, and wisteria bloomed. Traffic dropped to nearly zero once we crossed the county line from San Bernardino into Los Angeles.

Stores up and down Sunset Boulevard were shuttered as were hundreds of others along the gentrified and un-gentrified streets. Many had plywood nailed over the windows, often with variations of Black Lives Matter or #BLM spray painted on. 

Other themes painted on the empty doors and windows included calls for peace, justice, harmony, and portraits, often very good, of George Floyd. The graffiti and improvised signs seemed sincere and not just a “performative” tactic to discourage looting. (But then, how do you measure the sincerity of spray paint? By how pretty the colors are?)

We didn’t stay long. The nearly empty streets felt as if an accident had just happened. You felt an aftershock, despite the lushness of flowers blooming behind stucco walls.

We ordered cappuccinos and cold brews at Intelligentsia Coffee in Silver Lake. Before, the Mediterranean patio teemed with people, mostly young, who looked both smart and athletic, along with inked-up hipsters and with alluring women who surely will be famous actresses soon.  

Now, ordering coffee was like cashing in a money order at a sketchy convenience store. Everyone queued up at the correct six-foot distance. The barista, masked, took our order from behind a thick plexiglass shield. The seating was closed. But it worked out. We perched on a planter by a closed boutique and savored the coffee in the clear sunshine.

No one, not even a homeless person pushing a shopping cart, walked by.

hotel room photo by tim roessler timothy roessler

On our second, short visit to LA, we visited Santa Monica Beach. My daughter couldn’t believe that the drive took half the time it usually does. We also found a great parking spot, in itself a minor miracle.

It was perfect — upper 70s, nice breezes, the water pleasantly chilly. Paradise. It suggested how LA must have been back in the 1940s and 50s, before the smog, the angst, and the riots.

Behind us, a Black guy and his white girlfriend spread their beach towels. Another white guy spread his towel not far from them. When he left, he approached the couple and said, “I am so happy for you.”

They looked up, guarded but polite.

“What you’re doing — is so important. I respect it so much. Black lives matter,” he said, and trudged away.

They waited until he was far enough away to give each other The Look: the look that expresses shared incredulity and faint revulsion.

beach photo by tim roessler timothy roessler

The next morning, early, my son and I headed home to Boulder.

Read: The Other Side of Dark Remembrance

The Other Side of Dark Remembrance is an inventive novella that uses its structural cleverness to serve a deeply emotional denouement. 

It opens in a satiric vein. A completely thrashed salaryman wakes up with a killer hangover. He doesn’t know where he is, his suit’s filthy, and worst of all, he’s lost a set of crucial documents. Unless he can find them, his firm may go under and he will certainly lose his hard-earned job.

The plot unfolds much like that of the American comedy, The Hangover. He has to retrace his steps through the bars, restaurants, clip joints and quasi bordellos that he wandered through the night before. He meets with anger, amusement, and, finally, sympathy as he tries to reconstruct what the hell happened to him the night before.

As he investigates the recent past of his weekend debauch, a second, more distant past begins to open up: that of his childhood and of Korea’s history. The tone shifts. We grow to know this man beyond his job title, beyond his bourgeois strivings. He becomes specifically human, and his story is one that moved me deeply.

Lee Kyun-young’s skills serve his novella impeccably. He pulls off a real narrative feat, but you never notice until the end how well he has constructed his book.

You should read it. A whole world of noodle shops, backyards, offices, good time girls, and orphanages will open up to you. You’ll learn, and feel, a chapter of Korea’s dark history.

But you just may have your heart broken.

13 Quarantine Questions

  1. Toilet paper? Really?
  2. Why is it so quiet?
  3. How much did I drink last night?
  4. What day is it?
  5. Wait… what did Trump say again?
  6. How do I read this chart?
  7. How many hours did I sleep last night?
  8. Do I have a fever?
  9. Why does it feel so spooky?
  10. How much did I eat yesterday?
  11. Where’s my mask?
  12. When will this be over?
  13. How many people have died?

“Human Acts” and Gwangju


After you died I could not hold a funeral,
And so my life became a funeral.

Today, May 18, marks the fortieth anniversary of the Gwangju Uprising. Human Acts, by  Han Kang, takes this massacre as the subject of her powerful and unforgettable novel.

First, some background: In October, 1979, the assassination of dictator Park Chung-hee raised hopes for democracy in South Korea. Instead, the head of security apparatus, Major General Chun Dohwan, lead a coup. On May 17, 1980, he declared martial law.

In the southern city of Gwangju, students, many of them still in high school, lead peaceful protests. 

The new strongman sent in special forces to crush the demonstration.

The paratroopers used boots and rifle butts at first. They switched to bayonets to slash and kill. They used rape to break and humiliate. They finally used automatic weapons.

The students, factory workers, and shopkeepers fell in bloody heaps. The soldiers piled the corpses in anonymous graves. But the resistance continued until May 27 when the army made a final push, massacring the resistants.

Afterwards, the government forces rounded up the surviving demonstrators and held them in prison for months, torturing them.

The official death count is 606. Other estimates range as high as 2,300. 

But one death is one too many.

And that’s the strength and the terrible beauty of Han Kang’s novel, Human Acts. We learn the specific weight of death. She hardly ever shows the violence head on. Instead, we feel the consequences. We see the corpses rather than the cuts or the shots. We live through the grief, not the battles.

Each chapter relates the events of Gwangju through the perspective of a different character and at a different time. The spine, or heart of the book is a 14 year old boy, Dong ho, who is gunned down after helping sort the corpses of the fallen. From him, Han Kang radiates out to include the intellectuals, the idealists, the factory girls and the bereaved who also have their stories to tell. Each is related to the boy in some way, and to each other.

They’re stories of aftermaths. Of how you manage wounds and trauma. It recalls the Greek tragedies, especially Antigone. Fate looms. Violence boils just around the corner. Choices matter. The character acts, and then lives with the consequences of her decision. Implicit on every page is the dignity of the individual, the necessity of mourning, and the evil that runs just below the surface.

The novel reeks of sweat, rot, and smoke — you feel the blood trickling down your back, the stench of the corpses, the fragrance of cold rice and charcoal fires. She avoids the traps of sentimentality or sensationalizing the events themselves. Nor does she fall into easy philosophizing. The characters, in the face of overwhelming brutality may consider the nature of the soul or of humanity:

Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves the single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, slaughtered – is this the essential of humankind, one which history has confirmed as inevitable?

But Kang doesn’t allow us to dwell in abstractions, ever. The story moves back to the sting of a slap, or the bile rising after a drinking bout that tries, and fails, to erase the pain of tortures remembered.

The only flaw of the novel is that it assumes that you know about the events in Gwangju. The translator provides a helpful introduction. But the drivers of the dictatorship, the broader social issues and the history that fed into the massacre aren’t in the book. In cinematic terms, it’s a story made of close-ups. 

The translation itself reads well, always simple, clear, and evocative. 

Human Acts brilliantly evokes the memory and the bravery of the people who fought against oppression — and the consequences of their courage.


I found these resources about Gwangju and the novel very helpful:

The Gwangju Massacre (an overview at ThoughtCo)

An Interview with Han Kang

An Eyewitness Account of the Gwangju Massacre

Slide show  about “Marching for Our Beloved
(This protest song was banned, and singing it would land you in prison)

And thank you to E., who gave me the book and introduced me to this tragic chapter of Korean history.

New Mission

new_york_city_lower_manhattan_rider_1916 copy image edited by timothy tim roessler

Two boys, about nine or so, play in the backyard next to my house. They bounce on a trampoline and make up adventures for themselves.

A couple of weeks ago, they planned attacks on North Korea using jet propulsion packs. (Why North Korea, I don’t know. When I was a kid, we battled Nazis.)

Today, the mission changed: They’re delivering ventilators to New York City.