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.)