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Review: Didion Novel of How a Housewife Came to Cope

At a recent Women’s Lib conference, Ti-Grace Atkinson, most intelligent and least practical of the movement’s theorists, said she had the impression that prostitutes were the only honest women left in America. I know what she means by that overstatement: It’s impossible to look at conventional marriages, in which economic dependency parades as wifely devotion, and not know what she means. But I think even the exacting Miss Atkinson would count Joan Didion an honest woman. No one describes the plastic ironies around us with more clarity.

In all her work — fiction, reporting, or soul-searching essays — it’s as if the characters, the whole unnatural 20th-century world and the author herself were falling over a precipice into … nothingness. And Miss Didion is determined to let us know exactly what it’s like on the way down.

This is her second novel, but she is still better-known to most readers as a magazine writer of nonfiction. Not that she bears any resemblance to images conjured up by “magazine writer” or “reporter.” While colleagues were scrambling for the current words of politicians and celebrities, Miss Didion wrote long, doomstruck, memorable reports on obscure victims of modern life; the sort whose fate illustrates the terror of the everyday. (I remember especially the story of an infaithful San Bernardino housewife convicted of immolating her husband in the family Volkswagen. “A tabloid moment,” Miss Didion pointed out, “to a new life-style.”) Those articles were collected in a book called “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.” More recently, she has been writing very personal essays in Life magazine on the modern terrors as they affect her and her marriage. So personal, in fact, that I read full of suspense, wondering if she can bring this one off without ending in a divorce court, or a mental institution, or at least in writerly bad taste. But she always does.

An illustration of Joan Didion
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The literary style she brings to all this is classic and colloquial at the same time. She makes all the right references to current song lyrics, branch names, and signs along some California freeway, but there is the distinct impression that a visitor from Mars or the 18th century could understand it nonetheless. The greatest assets of her prose is its frequent quality of being unchangeable, as if carved on the page. The more she writes, the simpler her writing seems to become. Lately, it’s been harder and harder to imagine changing a word or deleting a line without harming the emotional sense.

In “Play it as It Lays,” the character whose downward plunge Miss Didion records is a 31-year-old woman, more or less married to a successful young Hollywood director, whose story begins in a mental institution and proceeds through a series of flashbacks. Her 4-year-old-daughter, Kate, is ill, too; perhaps brain-damaged. Kate has been committed to a hospital by her father. Throughout the story, the wife’s one Pinteresque motive for survival is the thought of getting her daughter out and taking her someplace where the two of them can live alone.

But the woman, Maria Wyeth, is not defined by motherhood, and certainly not by her status as wife. (“Some people here call me ‘Mrs. Lang.’” Maria says calmly as she lies by the pool in her nameless sanatorium. “but I never did.”) She was first the product of a peculiarly American, dream-filled childhood in a Nevada desert town, where her gambler father ran a restaurant that never made money, and her mother sat in the 120-degree heat, cutting out magazine coupons for travel contests. ("… my mother’s yearnings suffused our life like nerve gas, ‘cross the ocean in a silver plane,’ she would croon to herself and mean it, ‘see the jungle when it’s wet with rain’ …") In New York, Maria became a $100-an-hour fashion model, but that was accidental, too; pointless, or so it seems in retrospect. (“From my mother I inherited my looks and a tendency to migraine,” she tells us flatly from her final sanctuary. “From my father I inherited an optimism which did not leave me until recently.”) Her mother drove off the desert highway one night and her body was torn apart by coyotes. Dead or alive, we don’t know: perhaps Maria doesn’t know either. The tiny Nevada town becomes the site of a missile range. As she draws inward, Maria becomes more and more obsessed with the desire to go home again, and with the knowledge that she never can.

There are more events in the flashbacks: the return of two past lovers, the abortion of a baby conceived by one of them, a brutal encounter with a young actor, flight to a motel room where she imagines the drains of her own Beverly Hills house to be stopped up with the flesh of a foetus, one more job as the actress she had hoped to become, a few days of air-conditioned hell in Las Vegas, long obsessive drives to nowhere on the freeways. And, finally, the event that triggers her retreat to the institution where we first found her: the suicide of a rich homosexual friend whom she allows to take pills, and who dies sleeping next to her.

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The list of events is horrific, and it is a tribute to Miss Didion’s flat, clean, immutable prose that she reduces them all to acceptable, newspaper-clipping events: the way they occur, and are accepted by us, in everyday life.

The strength of the slender novel, like the strength of her essays and reporting, is the finely observed terror in the ordinary. For days, Maria is unable to speak or read newspapers “because certain stories leapt at her from the page: the 4-year-olds in the abandoned refrigerator, the tea party with Purex, the infant in the driveway, rattlesnake in the playpen, the peril, the unspeakable peril, in the everyday.” In the end, she is reduced to — in her father’s gambling term — “playing it as it lays.” Withdrawn and isolated, her final self-congratulation is that she knows what “nothing” means. But she keeps living.

Ultimately, the problem with the novel is not observation or execution, but something nearer to its core. Miss Didion has taken a doomed woman, a sort of spiritual, thin-bosomed Marilyn Monroe, and endowed her with many of the author’s sensibilities. “Why, then,” we find ourselves wondering halfway through, “doesn’t Maria find the will to rescue herself?” Seeing her husband’s cruelty and the sham of their friends’ lives so clearly, why isn’t she able to get out?

There’s no answer to that, unless we accept the current literary convention of masochism in women. And I don’t think Miss Didion does. (Though, heaven knows, it’s easy enough. With sex roles as hypocritical as they are, sadism is easily excused as “masculine,” just as masochism is glorified as “feminine.”) We are left with a woman who has no plans, no will and few goals. That’s hard enough to accept and to make dramatically interesting, but Miss Didion has the skill to do it. She just made her woman a little too intelligent, a little too adept at sham-detecting.


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