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“Play It As It Lays” by Joan Didion

This book from 1970 is very relevant still today, and not just to women. Though very much a West Coast book on the female condition of the late 60s in a drug culture ruled by men, the book is also, amoung other things, simply about a breakdown. Some may disagree, and that is a repsected stand point. The main character, Maria, could just be a nihilist, or a fatalist, but she is definitely no Christian or Buddhist. Agnostic is probably the best way to describe her. To be aethiest requires a responsibility and an involvement that Maria is either not capable of or does not think is worth the time.

This book is dark, sad, depressing, and just as much a study one one sex as the other. There are plastic personalities, phony sentiments, and a loose plot that I rather thought, at first, was just plain weak. But it was done on purpose by Joan Didion for a specific effect, and this was to give you a seconal, alcholic, obsessive compulsive look at the mind and emotions of Maria and her surrounding in 84 very short vignette chapters (some only a few lines long, the longest chapter being on average 4 pages).

Without further ado, below is the final “close-reading” paper I am turning in to my American Literature Since 1865 professor. The final reflection and critical analysis paper I will ever have to do for a University. I am graduating this Spring 2011. Thank you. I know. Ha Ha! Here you are.

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

 

Maria is a mess—and that is the best way to begin discussing Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays. The physical lay-out of the novel itself is an artistic (though tree-killing) visual spectacle which is also psychologically affecting; the space on the page with “nothing” printed and the short nature of the chapters (some filling barely a quarter of the page) support this psychosis Maria and the other characters have about being in a place “where nothing is.” A mental state, a Physical place. The reader is left with a feeling that Maria is floating through life, undefined except for; (a) the drugs and booze she puts into her system; and (b) the list of things she knows she doesn’t want to do (Didion pp. 52).

But what does she want to do? Is there any ambition? Does she aspire to anything or has she fatalistically resigned herself to a fate of random bumper cars; a frazzled, nihilistic gamble where anything that happens just happens and we should all just accept it? Through a vapid, mysterious plot line some of these questions are half-answered; then again, it was probably intended to feel this way because the narrative is basically told through Maria. Didion probably had specific intentions in telling the story with such an (arguably) light plot. Other concepts were at work and received the spot lot beyond the plot.

 Maria begins to paint a picture of her resignation and fatalism as early as page 3 in the chapter simply headed “Maria” where she ponders how two snakes which look the same have different numbers and strengths of poison glands (perhaps BZ and Maria, but you don’t know this until the final page). The idea of venom discussed so early can easily raise a red flag early on of the type of book it is likely to be, and does not disappoint as the cast of characters inject themselves with different vices and chemicals that could very well be “poisonous,” not to mention the hot venom which that spit at each other, void of respect and humility. Pretentiousness is also a good descriptor.

Maria tells us not so subtly that she has stopped racking her brain over reasons why things are, and just deals with what is unchangeable reality to her (whether true or not). “I am what I am” she says, “To look for ‘reasons’ is beside the point” (Didion pp. 3). This serves as only the preface for the focus of this close read, which is the very end of the story. By this point, after reading vignettes regarding control, depression, and misguided loves, the plot comes together into a sharper focus: in a world with unanswerable questions, sometimes all one may feel is a helplessness so deep that all they can do it “play it as it lays.” Very little is ever truly in someone’s complete control, so why struggle or have high expectations? It’s not a bright way to look at life, but it is how some see it. “What’s the matter?” Carter asks Maria on page 195 of the novel, “What do you want? I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what you want.” And Maria simply replies, “I don’t want anything.” Carter demands again: “Tell me.” Maria replies: “I just told you.” Carter proceeds to curse at her. She wants “nothing”; a state where something cannot be taken away because it is not there.

Throughout the novel there were these nods to the reader that she was not only without control in her own life, but for some reason did not really care either way. One could ask why she never simply ran away from all of the selfishness and phoniness, but the reality is that she did not choose to in the story. “Why” this was her choice can probably only be speculated on, however it is not hard to think that she perhaps perceived running as a way to take responsibility for herself and she did not want to be let down by attempting a new life only to find that control was still out of her reach. At least she knew what was coming when people made decisions for her and she did not have to think about it. She only had to float through it.

This brings us to the second excerpt which I consider connected, and this is the true end of the book; BZ’s suicide and the role which Maria played in it. The book cannot be understood if the reader does not reflect on these final chapters (Chapter 83 and 84). They represent the two different snakes that appear the same but have different parts “inside” (read: life philosophies). BZ has far too many Seconal pills and is going on to Maria in a ramble about life and the desert, and about “waking up one day and [not feeling] like playing anymore” (Didion pp.272). BZ was the other side of the coin “that is” Maria. He was a character that did not want to play anymore and it all became too much. BZ doesn’t understand why one would keep on “playing”—he did not see the point. Maria on the other had is saying “why not keep on playing.” Why end it? What does it matter? It will end soon enough, and like gambling; some days I will be up, some days I will be in the hole, but it can never be all wins or all loses can it? And if nothing else, Maria would say, hey, I’m entertained. I may not be happy about it, but there is something in nothing. Heavy thoughts.

It is possible that Maria may one day reach her limits and find herself in the same mindset as BZ, but it is equally arguable that they are two different people with two different expectations from life. BZ wanted more control and more out of life, and when he couldn’t get it and felt worn and old, he ended his life; Maria on the other hand has accepted her fate and the random butterfly affects of life. It’s still unclear however why she herself never considered ending her life if she truly never felt anything was really worth striving to achieve or to experience, but maybe she was simply too lazy. I do not feel she was afraid she would be missing out on anything, and I also feel that she would have the guts to carry out a suicide should she decide. So then why? There is simply something in the complex (or ultra-simple) philosophy of Maria that makes her want to continue to live and breathe every day. This reason may be her daughter, but I feel it is more than that (or less than that), but I know not the exact reason.

 The very last lines of the novel are in chapter 84:

One thing, in my defense, not that it matters: I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what “nothing” means, and keep on playing. Why, BZ would say. Why not, I say.

(Didion pp. 214)

Page 87, 89, 90, 91, 93 and 95 is just one of the many stretches of the novel where the author either tells us that “Maria said nothing” or Maria’s character actually tells another character “It’s nothing.” The word “nothing” is running rampant through the text. But it, like everything included in this piece, is intended to paint a picture. Maria does not have much to say, and while it can be argued that she is a total psychopath having a nervous breakdown, it is also possible to argue that she is content with the insanity around her and accepts it, therefore does not have much to say about it. That is what really concerns the people she surrounds herself with. Not all of their immoral actions, no, but the fact that she is not responding to them the way they think she should or the way they would respond. It is disconcerting.

Out there where nothing is, on the West Coast and in the desert and in Las Vegas, Maria has found a certain comfort and solace in knowing she has no control, and thus can almost relax while those around her struggle to find meanings and grab at the stars. She seems just fine driving fast down a highway and engaging in direct and indirect abuse from herself and others. Though this final quote is perhaps larger than is usually accepted, I felt it had to be included as it says so much and in all the right ways for how this book can be most accurately interpreted thematically, socially, psychologically, and poetically:

Modernity has promised Man many things, the most important of which is that with God dead, we are free to jettison the archaic Judeo-Christian morality which has held us in thrall lo these many years and can now do, essentially, whatever we wish.  This basic promise was finally and fully embraced during the 1960’s with Women’s Liberation, the Sexual Revolution, the rise of the Drug Culture, the rejection of the nuclear family… All of these different waves of social experimentation had a one thing in common, each was premised on the idea that individual freedom is the paramount value, more important than any responsibility owed to our fellow men.  Together they elevate the self above neighborhood, community, society and family.  They place the individual at the of his own universe, whole and sufficient unto himself, beholden to no one, dependent on no one.

Joan Didion’s novel, Play It As It Lays, though written in 1970, already recognized the horrific consequences of this monstrous ideology of selfishness.”

 (Judd)

Works Cited:

  1. Didion, Joan. Play It As It Lays. 1970. New York. FSG Classics.
  2. Judd, Orrin. Brothersjudd.com Review of “Play It As It Lays”

http://brothersjudd.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/reviews.detail/book_id/845/Play%20It%20As%20I.htm

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“On the Road” by Jack Kerouac

On the Road -- Jack Kerouac

On the Road -- Jack Kerouac

A close reading is where one focuses on a certain portion of the book–say a chapter, or a scene, or a paragraph–that they find resonates thematically and can be used as a major sign post for directions as one read through a novel or any work for that matter, including films. The following is not the only interpretation residing in “On the Road” because there are many things going on within this text. But here is a brief overview of what I found very significant and said a lot about the characters, the time, and the author. Enjoy.

 

There Will Never Be Enough Time: Dean Moriarty’s Beliefs

 

One has to die before they go to “heaven,” but why does this have to be true? Could it be possible to visit heaven before we die? On the Road is a book about identity and life; all its ups and downs; its malleable ebb and flow; the tasting it, feeling it, being it whenever possible. There is a quiet fear in most men and women—perhaps even more heightened during the time period presented in the book—where American youths were beginning to realize that death can come at any time, and when it does will we have experienced all we wanted to experience? In a very philosophical sense: within the phenomena of life on earth and consciousness, it just may be that the only meaning to be found in one’s time here is the meaning one gives it.

            I reference part two, chapter one to make this point, however will only highlight the strongest lines in the block quote below. I am close reading the jazz-like pages of 113 and 114 of the Penguin Classic Edition, 1991, where Dean and Sal are finally beginning their first real road trip and Dean is driving, swaying, chuckling, speeding up, slowing down, going on tangents, and generally pumping his every thought into the minds around him for digestion:

“All right now, children,” he said, rubbing his nose and bending down to fell the emergency and pulling cigarettes out of the compartment, and swaying back and forth as he did these things and drove… he slowed down the car for all of us to turn and look at the old jazzbo… trailing off and stopping altogether, and suddenly jumping the car back to seventy… This was the new and complete Dean, grown to maturity. Fury spat out of his eyes when he told of things he hated; great glows of joy replaced this when he suddenly got happy; every muscled twitched to live and go… [Dean] “Oh man, we must absolutely find the time…”

(p. 113, Penguin Classic Edition, 1991)

Dean continues to speed up and slow down, weave in and out of traffic, and all in all come off looking like a bi-polar addict into page 114 and beyond. His addiction however is not some pill or syringe, but rather the interaction with his environments and the people. If we are destined to live a life riddled with confusion, choices, and some unanswerable question, the least Dean can do is live and feel everything possible. He feels all should do this, but they can only find this state of mind when they are ready. That is when they shall find “it.” (I believe that this novel gets unjustly placed as exclusively a “beat generation” book and is thus subconsciously limited in what can be drawn from it. This is about life in a much bigger picture than a single generation’s interactions and influences with their particular social cultures and political trials.)

Another deconstruction of the quote from above can focus on the statement about having to find time; the time to tell tales; make admissions of aspirations and fears; time to live and live well. To live fully. The problem, as one would find throughout the novel, is that this way of life and this set of ideals are sometimes contrary to the expectations of others and societal norms. Not everyone reaches or respects or can even comprehend the attitudes and outlooks of Dean Moriarty. People will reach this plane, if at all, at different times in their lives and for different reasons. Sal continues to learn from Dean throughout the story, and comes to understand the inherent benefits and detractions which acting this way can have on one’s life. He cannot live like a mad dog and experience everything that life has to offer. By the end, it is proven that little can be held on to when one is trying to do everything and anything.

Lastly, the jazz influence and elements of this block quote must be reviewed; the very nature of both the long-block writing style of Jack Kerouac in this section and the way in which Dean is speaking and driving. Its metaphorical comparison to jazz and the free-flowing style of bop musicianship cannot be overstated. It is clearly the first and strongest indication in the book that not only is Dean a creature entirely his own, but Jack Kerouac is doing something very specific. Dean’s speed changes in the car mirror the tempo changes of a jazz tune; the same way his emotions are never masked—it’s always clear how he is feeling, just as the emotions can come through during an saxophone or piano or clarinet solo. There is anguish and lust and sorrow and excitement.

            Furthermore, on page 114:

… he roared into downtown Testament, looking in every direction and seeing everything in an arc of 180 degrees around his eye balls without moving his head. Bang, he found a parking spot in no time… he leapt out of the car… Furiously he hustled. It was a shaking of the head, up and down, sideways; jerky vigorous hands; quick walking, sitting, crossing the legs, uncrossing, getting up, rubbing the hands…

 

He is hungry and maniacal. These actions can be directly connected with the realities of finite time and mortality. There is only so much time in our days and only so much one can do in their lives. When there is cerebral clarity in an individual to understand these complex, fleeting concepts, what other reaction besides near madness and chemical imbalance could one expect from an individual? Let the vices and obsessions come! Made even more complicated by the expectations of others and the fears of our own limitations, it’s plain to see how enlightenment, regardless of one’s generation, can result in near metaphysical break-downs.

Even though the gang feared that “death with overtake us before heaven” they did all in their power to experience as much of Heaven as they could while they were still alive. (Nabou.com review)

Works Cited:

  1. Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. Penguin Book. New York. 1991
  2. Nabou.com Book Reviews. April 30, 2011. http://bookreviews.nabou.com/reviews/ontheroad.html

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“When the Dark Sun Shines” Out Now!

CLICK HERE to buy a copy of my novella. Thanks for supporting. Let me know what you think of it by contacting me through my Official Site. Kindle coming soon.

Screenplay in Progress for the Summer.

MH

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“When the Dark Sun Shines” Release Spring 2011

This is a simple update to let you know that one of the stories from the collection is being released early! As in this Spring 2011. It may still be a part of the collection later this Fall 2011.

The “When the Dark Sun Shines” synopsis can be found on the main site.

This title will be available for the Kindle in e-book form and of course in paperback right on Amazon.com.

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First Blog!

Hey everyone! This is Matthew Hughston and this is my first blog for my new site to advertise for my new book coming out in the Fall 2011.

Please check back often! Visit my Twitter, friend the facebook fan page, and go to the official site of the book for more contact information, scheduled appearances, and exclusive excerpts from the book over the coming months.

This blog spot is intended to give you the behind-the-scenes of it all, as I hunt for publishers, continue editing, create art work, advertise, promote via word of mouth, answer your questions, and share my thoughts on books I might be reading. Be part of my brain.

More details on the way.

MH

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