Didion, Joan (Vol. 8)
Didion, Joan 1934–
American novelist and essayist, Didion, an excellent journalist, has assumed the role of chronicler of the moral wasteland of Southern California. She is probably best known for Play It As It Lays. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Hollywood as metaphor for everything that is tawdry, artificial, and superficial about America has become a cliche in contemporary fiction. Those novels about Hollywood which are still read—West's The Day of the Locust, Mailer's The Deer Park, Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run?—succeed by transcending the limitations of their subject matter. Countless other ones have faded as quickly as the sunset in the West they describe because their voyeuristic concern was with Hollywood as Hollywood, their fascination with tinsel as tinsel.
Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays (1970) belongs to that former group of novels which enlarges upon the limited nature of its material. Although its setting is Hollywood, its heroine is an actress, and movie making figures prominently in its action, the novel is as much "about" Hollywood as Heart of Darkness is "about" Africa or The Stranger is "about" Algeria. Like those novels, Play It As It Lays depends upon an intimate connection between setting and theme; but also like them, its overriding thematic concern is man's relationship with himself and with existence in general. Didion's novel is neither primarily a sociological commentary on the values of contemporary American society nor a psychological case study of its heroine. It is, rather, a picture of personal dread and anxiety, of alienation and absurdity lurking within and without. For although Hollywood is her setting, nothingness is Didion's theme. (pp. 64-5)
What saves Play It As It Lays from degenerating into banality is Didion's control over her material, her skill in focusing attention not on the events in Maria's life so much as on her cumulative response to them. The real action of the novel takes place in the mind and heart of Maria as she is forced to deal with her experiences. Viewed from a medical point of view, she might well be classified as a near schizoid personality whose experiences have precipitated a severe emotional crisis resulting in the loss of an integrated personality. In a more profound sense, however, her sickness is neither emotional nor psychological; it is ontological. She is suffering not from a nervous breakdown, but from the breakdown of a world around her which threatens to engulf her whole being with nothingness. (p. 65)
Maria says she answers "Nothing applies" to the battery of psychological tests put before her…. Maria displays impatience at the obtuseness of others because she has "been out there where nothing is"…. Her confinement in the sanitarium is not to be viewed as a solipsistic retreat but as a temporary withdrawal from the world in preparation for a future re-emergence, wounded but wiser, with a wisdom born of pain.
In this way, Play It As It Lays is closer in spirit and theme to the works of Camus and Sartre than to those of Nathanael West…. Play It As It Lays testifies on every page to [what Camus calls the] eloquence of the void as Didion relentlessly explores the emotional shock of the encounter with absurdity. The refrain "Maria said nothing" is repeated with increasing persistence throughout the novel until it takes on the characteristics of a ritual chant. In its silence, the statement itself becomes eloquent, illuminating the almost palpable nature of Maria's dread…. She has heard the silence of the void, has encountered that absurdity Camus describes, and has learned the truth of Beckett's observation that there is nothing more real than nothing.
For the title to her collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion chose the final line of Yeats' "The Second Coming." Her overriding concern in those essays and in her two published novels—the first was Run River (1963)—is with the broken center, with things falling apart, with "anarchy loosed upon the world." However, where the emphasis in the essays is primarily on the sociological impact of such fragmentation (the title essay, for example, deals with hippie life styles in San Francisco), Play It As It Lays focuses on a highly personal and private version of the broken center. (pp. 65-7)
What distinguishes Maria's experience from that of most heroes of existential novels is that hers is uniquely feminine, not that Didion has written a blatantly feminist tract, nor that Maria's encounter with nothingness is ultimately qualitatively different from a man's. However, one must understand her experiences as a woman to appreciate fully the nature of her crisis…. Just as Ellison's hero is shaped by the particular nature of his experiences as a black man in America, Maria is shaped by experiences uniquely feminine. Just as the Invisible Man could say, "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you," Maria can speak for many who are neither women, nor actresses, nor residents of Hollywood. (pp. 68-9)
Maria may well be compared with Esther Greenwood, the heroine of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar…. Didion, [unlike Plath], however, is purposely vague about the exact details of Maria's breakdown because she is more interested in the metaphysical rather than the psychological implications of her illness. (p. 70)
Play It As It Lays is not a nihilistic novel. Although Maria encounters nothingness, she survives. (p. 72)
Didion's narrative technique recalls Eliot's line from The Waste Land, "A heap of broken images," images of alienation and desolation, fragments of banal conversations, the minutiae of everyday life joined in a mosaic of nothingness. Instead of a flowing narrative, a broken and disordered pattern is brought about by frequent juxtaposition of past and present, important and trivial scenes, and first and third person narration. What emerges through Didion's careful selection and rendering is a bleak and haunting picture of nothingness. Since so many chapters are short, some only a few lines long, the reader is struck most profoundly by the empty spaces, the blankness on the pages of the book. These silences between the chapters become as disturbing and eloquent as the emptiness of the void itself, as significant as the refrain of "Maria said nothing" in communicating vacuity. (pp. 75-6)
Above all, Didion's laconic prose style communicates Maria's situation both powerfully and movingly. Her style is reminiscent of Hemingway's in its surface simplicity, its concreteness, its avoidance of abstractions and artificiality. Like Hemingway, Didion understands that less is frequently more, that understatement can often communicate more emotion than overstatement. (p. 77)
With relentless attention to telling detail, a perceptive eye for sharply-etched characters, an unerring ear for the absurdities and non sequiturs that pass for daily conversation, and a diamond-hard unsentimental style, Joan Didion has fashioned a remarkable novel which never misses in its portrayal of a modern woman caught in a mid-twentieth-century crisis. She has cast anew, in her unique idiom, one of the prevailing concerns of modern literature: confrontation with the void. Despite its preoccupation with death, suffering, boredom, and despair, Play It As It Lays is always fresh and alive. (p. 78)
David J. Geherin, "Nothingness and Beyond: Joan Didion's 'Play It As It Lays'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1974), Vol. XVI, No. 1, 1974, pp. 64-78.
It is true, of course, that in [Didion's] novels … the central figures are both female and undone. Inchoate half-mad women adrift in the world, they can in no way be taken to exemplify the resilience and strength of woman. Her women are ruined creatures—destroyed not by man or society but by their lack of character. Didion is one of the few extant novelists who still proclaims that character is destiny. She knows that her protagonists have been damned because they do not practice self-denial, sacrifice, and self-discipline.
At their root, Didion's novels are prophetic novels. Stripped of their contemporary sophistication, they denounce self-delusion, indulgence, and vanity, and include auguries of the abyss.
The apocalyptic strain is especially evident in Didion's new novel, A Book of Common Prayer, a novel which rises from the ashes of the recent past. It is written out of the disorders of that period in the early 1970s when, for a time,… the old tablets of the laws of social behavior lay smashed and abandoned. It is no wonder that Didion (a conservative moralist in the best sense of the term) felt herself to be in the heart of darkness.
A Book of Common Prayer is the story of what happens to Charlotte Douglas, the last American dream girl, the last American innocent, after she is informed by the FBI that her sweet and well-loved daughter, Marin, has set off a pipe bomb, hijacked a plane, and disappeared, sending back a tape of babbling revolutionary rhetoric. But the novel is not so much a story as it is a metaphor for America's fall from grace. A Book of Common Prayer begins at the Order for the Burial of the Dead.
The trouble with A Book of Common Prayer, in terms of its impact on us, lies in Didion's misreading of the actual state of the union. We are not dead souls, the edge of the abyss was not even close, and we Americans have fallen from grace and lost our innocence so many times that by now the supply of both seems inexhaustible.
Let me say that I think Joan Didion is one of our very best writers. I read over her collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), with the same delight I take in listening to old Billie Holiday records. Didion writes more movingly of time and loss than any other writer of my generation. In her essays. Not in the novels. She has the capacity, I think, to be the Chekhov of our time, but her novels do not come alive because they are insufficiently distanced from her own anxiety—too relentlessly ironic in tone, too emotionally controlled, as if the form itself were the bars of a cell built to contain the madman in the attic.
There is, however, one section of A Book of Common Prayer in which Joan Didion evokes the real terror and sadness of the human condition as well as any writer can. Here, Charlotte Douglas, after the first revelation of her daughter's terrorist identity, struggles desperately to deny what has happened, to reclaim from the immutable present her daughter of lost possibility. Then, as in that moment when we come upon a newspaper photograph of a parent bent over his dead child's body, we respond viscerally out of our common knowledge of the anguish of irretrievable loss. (pp. 63-4)
Margot Hentoff, "Slouching towards Babel," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), February 28, 1977, pp. 63-4.
Joan Didion will be remembered by readers of Play It as It Lays as an original and witty novelist whose voice once heard is not easily forgotten, and by those lucky enough to have come upon her book of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, as a critical writer of power and perception. I think [A Book of Common Prayer], for all its difficulties and tangles, is her best so far; it is proof of her talent and of an intellect at play in the fields of fiction.
The "tangles" mentioned above are plot intricacies…. One of the difficulties lies in the disappearing voice of the narrator whom Didion takes great care to set up: a 60-year-old American anthropologist, Grace Strasser-Mendana…. (p. E1)
The thread of this textured negation of a static plot … is Didion's prose. It is simple, direct, repetitious, as though the repetition of a noun from one sentence to the next, or a part of speech repeated again and again in subsequent sentences, provides a continuity, or a sense of it, to the otherwise jumbled plot-elements. The dialogue is full of wit, and when it is not witty it is terse, pointed, accurate. These purposive repetitions might represent Grace's careful scientific observations, unliterary and accurate, the kind of prose we might expect from an anthropologist giving witness, writing her report on a culture full of civilized cruelty, revolutions, violent destructive change, lost wealthy drifters, and drunken, doped deluded upper-class specimens.
Or perhaps her rhetoric is the language of religious litany, as the title indicates to us, liturgic petition from a lost people to an absent god. A Book of Common Prayer has many such levels, tied together by supple, original prose. We touch its texture more than engage in its events…. (p. E3)
Doris Grumbach, "Pray It as It Lays," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), March 3, 1977, pp. E1, E3.
Didion writes with a cool, cynical irony which suggests that to expend energy is vulgar, or at any rate pointless. She creates characters who are neither likable nor admirable and pits them against each other in situations which she warns us in advance will end badly for them all. Chilly ingredients for a novel. Yet Joan Didion's patented brand of intelligence, craftsmanship, and caustic wit makes A Book of Common Prayer an absorbing story and a touching one. (p. 91)
Amanda Heller, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), April, 1977.
In the title essay of her superb collection, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" (1968), Joan Didion draws back briefly from her painful study of the Haight-Ashbury dropouts to comment on the possible meaning of the "social hemorrhaging" she has been observing at close range. The drifting, inarticulate children of the 1960's, drug-besotted and prematurely aged, take on for Didion an almost allegorical significance. They are the pitiful casualties of an immense and perhaps inexplicable social change—an "atomization" prophesied by … Yeats … in "The Second Coming"…. ["A Book of Common Prayer"] investigates the consequences of this breakdown over the past two decades, particularly on parents and children. (p. 1)
Joan Didion is not, of course, alone in her passionate investigation of the atomization of contemporary society. But she is one of the very few writers of our time who approaches her terrible subject with absolute seriousness, with fear and humility and awe. Her powerful irony is often sorrowful rather than clever; the language of "A Book of Common Prayer," like that of "Play It as It Lays," is spare, sardonic, elliptical, understated. Melodrama is the nature of Didion's world, but very little emotion is expressed, perhaps because emotion itself has become atrophied. (p. 34)
Has the novel any significant flaws? I would have wished it longer, fuller: I would have liked to know more about the daughter, for instance. But Joan Didion's art has always been one of understatement and indirection, of emotion withheld. Like her narrator, she has been an articulate witness to the most stubborn and intractable truths of our time, a memorable voice, partly eulogistic, partly despairing; always in control. (p. 35)
Joyce Carol Oates, "A Taut Novel of Disorder," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 3, 1977, pp. 1, 34-5.
Joan Didion's "A Book of Common Prayer" is … accomplished and intelligent; despite its odd title, it doesn't peddle Christian virtue or the easy nihilísm that marred her last novel, "Play It as It Lays." More technically elaborate and thematically richer than Didion's other works, "A Book of Common Prayer" is distinguished by uncommonly vivid social details, voices and landscapes and the clenched intensity of its prose…. [It] is full of extraordinary vignettes of the 1960's and early 1970's. (p. 52)
"A Book of Common Prayer" has much that is sour to say about political fashions in both the United States and underdeveloped countries. The cultural politics of its sharpeyed realism is profoundly conservative. The chic depravity of the many characters' sexual and intellectual lives is energetically and remorselessly portrayed. But the almost monomaniacal control, the solemn, utterly sardonic voice, is troubling. There is unwavering, humorless contempt behind so much of the brilliant writing. Yet even more disturbing is the grand guignol, the melodramatic violence, that sometimes seems to overwhelm the writer and cause the hard-boiled style, like Hemingway's, to become sentimental, self-indulgent. "A Book of Common Prayer" is admirable, but V. S. Naipaul's "Guerrillas," which dealt with similar material, is far more impressive. (pp. 52-3)
Richard Locke, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 17, 1977.
Didion's descriptions [in A Book of Common Prayer] are a marvel. But it is rather a case where one might say, "I see the clothes, now where is the emperor?" We never get to know or understand Charlotte Douglas [the novel's central character] at all.
Partly at fault is the overbearing objectivity of the supercool Sra. Grace, who functions in the narrative like a kind of Intourist guide, rebuffing attempts at penetration while providing an official version of the events which unfold before you as in a movie. And you feel for her the same antagonism. You are constantly wanting to slip away from her and find out what Charlotte is thinking; hoping that, if you can just slip away from Sra. Grace, you will luckily meet up with Joan Didion, a penetrating and brilliant understander and explainer of things (Slouching Towards Bethlehem) as well as a brilliant describer of them….
As it is, one can invent the meaning for oneself (one reviewer believes it to be a story of maternal constancy). Probably the meaning is meaninglessness, or delusion, as Sra. Grace says. Didion seems to write under the rubric of Robbe-Grillet's dictum that the genuine writer has nothing to say, but has only a way of speaking….
For a century or more, art has been trying to clear its skirts of didacticism and exist for its own sake….
The utility, for writers, of fiction that eludes meaning is evident. Things that mean something are thought to have messages, and the composing of messages, like child care, seems to be a duty which, in most societies, no one really wants….
[It] is not surprising that Didion has tried to avoid the intensely subjective mode that seems to predominate in recent fiction by women and has tried to make herself vanish with the Tarnhelm of Art—or the rainbow cloak of Manner. (p. 6)
Should novels have a message? And the other great unresolved question in modern fiction has to do with character. No objections have yet been raised to the presence of characters in novels, of course; the worry is over whether it is allowed for us to like and care about them. Over whether it is necessary at least to identify with them in order for a fiction to "work." (pp. 6, 8)
[Didion invents] characters who are altogether real (who indeed will seem, to some, to have been drawn from recent history). They have pasts, minutely particularized; their peculiarities are their own, elaborately studied, consistent, unique; they even have real addresses and real labels—always good labels—in their clothes.
But Didion does not wish to intrude on what the French call the mouvements intérieurs of these characters, a phrase which suggests, to the English speaker, the queasiness with which matters below the surface are viewed. No polite person should wish to intrude upon a mouvement intérieur. Yet the transaction between reader and character, whatever it is, seems to involve the character's confidences about his emotions. Without them, Didion's book is like a serious, exciting, but strangely silent film; the motives, anxieties, passions, and delusions are all presented in pantomime.
It's hard not to be of two minds about this. On the one hand one feels it's appropriate enough for an age when meaning, like value, has abrogated its claim anyway and only surfaces remain. On the other is the undeniable fact that this starved, lean prose is like a high-protein diet. Didion's writing is high protein, but leaves the reader a little hungry for the starchy pleasures of the inner life….
Female power. Didion's woman narrator, by controlling a trust, controls the republic of Boca Grande, even though it's ostensibly run by her male relations, whose childlike machismo she does not take seriously. Charlotte takes neither of her husbands seriously. Her daughter is a successful hijacker while it is her male companion who is apprehended and hangs himself. Both Charlotte and her daughter exist in the vivid yet dreamlike world of romance, where women are accountable to no one; they have in fact replaced the men. Despite the formalism of Didion's presentation, hers is the world of Conrad and Graham Greene, but now it is women who have obscure crises of spirit in seedy hotel rooms and die forlorn and solitary deaths in warm climates.
It makes a change from the fictional world (or the real one) where husbands do not understand you, wives are not fulfilled, children are tiresome, and that includes all the other details of female despair which, without surrendering their authentic claim to our attention, are not such good reading either. (p. 8)
Diane Johnson, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), April 28, 1977.
[Some novels] suffer not from neglect, but from the wrong kind of attention. They are discussed too quickly for their bearing on contemporary issues, read too hastily as investigations of the modern condition. This is the case, I think, with Joan Didion's A Book of Common Prayer,… a book whose generally favorable yet somewhat confused reception may unfairly doom it to the status of period piece. The New York Times, for example, has recommended it is a "novel that searches the wreckage of the 1960s."
It is that, but it is also much more: a witty and oddly moving work that requires a slow reading, a kind of "shaking down" to be appreciated. True, it deliberately risks consignment to the category of the merely topical through its extraordinary specificity….
In the brilliant journalism collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem [this specificity] seemed to enable [Didion] to control her sense that "the world as I had understood it no longer exists." At the same time, "naming" intensified the terror in some of her reportage…. In Didion's Hollywood novel, Play It as It Lays, details become compulsive: the heroine's precarious—and unsuccessful—defense against breakdown.
One of the many advances of A Book of Common Prayer over Didion's early fiction is in the subtle use of precision of language to establish (and limit) the authority of an intelligent, skeptical, non-obsessional narrator. (p. 16)
[Didion] has written in an essay that her own generation, born in the '30s, was "the last to bear the burdens of home, to find in family life the source of all tension and drama." Charlotte [the protagonist] shares this burden….
To think about family dramas is to find new implications in the book's title, taken of course from the liturgy composed by Bishop Cramner for the Church of England in 1552. There are few religious references in this "profane" novel…. The section of the eloquent old prayer book the author probably had in mind is that devoted to various family rituals—matrimony, baptism, the "churching" or Thanksgiving of women after childbirth, the order for the burial of a child….
[Associations] with rituals that recognize suffering seem to me to enrich and "warm" the novel. There is, however, a quite different set of connotations that tends to chill it, one that might be called not religious, but superstitious. This is the True Confessions-style exploitation of lost or disfigured children….
I think I understand why some readers find Didion's work unfeeling. It is not, as they say, because she "writes too well," but because they are defending themselves against this Rosemary's Baby dread she sometimes generates. Still, in A Book of Common Prayer she shows that she knows the difference between anxiety and emotion. One hopes that this superior namer will continue to identify real fears and earned guilts. (p. 17)
Ruth Mathewson, "Family Dramas," in The New Leader (© 1977 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), May 9, 1977, pp. 16-17.
There is a certain segment of the American population for whom each day is an exercise in futility bound together only by certain rituals—shopping at exclusive stores, recalling elegant childhoods, peering into the pointless, limpid pools of water that gather outside $120-a-day hotel rooms. No one has ever succeeded in portraying these people as well as Joan Didion.
In her first novel, Run River, Miss Didion illustrated at great length the life of a rancher's daughter from California who, under pressure that would be small by most standards, goes insane. In Play It as It Lays, the heroine is a former model who, also for no clear reason, simply loses the ability to function and, after throwing aside family, career, and conventional behavior, narrates her story from a mental hospital. Now comes A Book of Common Prayer, a lineal descendant of those two stories about life at the breaking-point. This too is a story of a despoiled, broken human being playing out a life which signifies not quite nothing, but close enough….
Like all Joan Didion heroines, [Charlotte of A Book of Common Prayer] becomes, as we watch, the living dead, with no goals, hopes, or ambitions, no faith in anything, no capacity for deep feeling, a virtual automaton, capable primarily of bringing harm to those around her. Like all Joan Didion heroines, she can do nothing with nothing; and she does not even try. She tries only to establish a new routine and, heartbreakingly, fails even at that.
And yet, like Run River and Play It as It Lays, A Book of Common Prayer is an exquisite, magnificent, breathtaking piece of fiction. It is written in a spare style reeking of the poetry and exoticism of the tropics. I cannot think of a living writer whose prose matches Miss Didion's level of simple elegance, or the tremendous lyricism of passages such as the ones describing life for Charlotte Douglas in the Caribe Hotel in Boca Grande. But it is now clear that Miss Didion's medium is not her only message. In her splendid book of essays, Slouching towards Bethlehem, something comes out which is the key to why her novels interest a wider audience than psychiatrists and New Critics: in those essays, there is a uniform sense that life is not much more than a series of rituals. They may be the rituals of the rich or of the poor, of dentists in San Bernardino or of John Wayne on location, but they are still rituals, and, to Joan Didion, they are what life is made of.
More than that, rituals tell what kind of people we are. As Miss Didion wrote in the essay "On Self-Respect" (in Slouching towards Bethlehem), "… to give formal dinners in the rain forest would be pointless did not the candlelight flickering on the liana call forth deeper, stronger disciplines, values instilled long before." In Miss Didion's three novels, and especially in A Book of Common Prayer, we see what happens to people who vainly summon these deeper, stronger disciplines. They are people one step beyond the stage where rituals can reform life, but, for them, ritualism is still synonymous with living. Once the rituals cease, life stops—either through incarceration or through literal death. When Charlotte Bogart Douglas exhausts routine, she gets killed. Why not? There is nothing else for her to do.
What Miss Didion is exploring, here as throughout her works, is ritual as a means of survival. Through her descriptions of the rich shopping-bag ladies of California, she makes us see that those mundane habits we have grown accustomed to regarding as deadening can in fact be that which makes life possible. It is an inadequate defense for Miss Didion's pitiful heroines, but a rite, a ritual, a common prayer is worth having. In A Book of Common Prayer the case is extreme, but the lesson is universal.
Benjamin Stein, "Dinner in the Rain Forest," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1977; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), June 10, 1977, p. 678.
The theme of Joan Didion's famous collection of essays and muscular reportage, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, was that things fall apart. There were two very good reasons why the book worked. The first was that things in 1968 very obviously were falling apart, in America at least, and any new, young and accurate cultural diagnostician who said so was to be thanked; and the second was that Joan Didion made no attempt to disguise the extent to which she was falling apart in sympathy…. Joan Didion is back in California. But things go on falling apart, all over the world; and it is in Joan Didion's nature to try to make sense of this, to put some system in it….
Perhaps there is too much system in [A Book of Common Prayer]. The suffering in it is organized (in view of the title one might say litanized, though as a matter of fact the title doesn's seem all that appropriate) with such implacable firmness that one's imagination cannot move around in it at all. Part of the trouble is the chosen form, that of a first-person "testimony" sifting evidence and weighing probabilities with an explicit doubtfulness of its own capacity to come up with the truth of the matter…. In A Book of Common Prayer, it's as though [Didion] saw, in her mind, connections between the confused, revolutionary future and what one might call the rhythmic, natural chaos of womanhood, and felt unwilling to spell them out….
There is … a heavy throb of disillusionment in the verbal texture of the book, its patterns of call-signs and repetitions, which do, at odd moments, resemble the sotto-voce recitation of private and habitual prayers:
Tell Marin she was wrong. Tell
her that for me.
Goddam you all.
She remembers she bled.
Russell Davies, "On the Verge of Collapse," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 8, 1977, p. 821.