Tag Archives: Joan Didion

We had a nice time in Reno

Run River, by Joan Didion

Run River opens with a death, then backtracks to show the wasted lives that led to it. It’s a lonely and melancholic book; a tale of a declining American aristocracy told in coldly lucid prose.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

Lily heard the shot at seventeen minutes to one. She knew the time precisely because, without looking out the window into the dark where the shot reverberated, she continued fastening the clasp on the diamond wrist watch Everett had given her two years before on their seventeenth anniversary, looked at it on her wrist for a long time, and then, sitting on the edge of the bed, began winding it.

In most novels a gunshot is a call to action. Characters spring to life. They scream; run towards or away from the shot; grab a gun themselves; hide; call for help. They react. Lily hears a shot and takes the time to wind her watch.

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Once the watch is wound Lily checks the bedside table for her husband’s gun. She’s not surprised to find it missing. She’s not surprised when she heads outside to find that her husband has murdered her lover, Channing. She’s a little upset because she doesn’t think it was necessary, but it’s not an emotional scene. Lily and Everett aren’t emotional people, or if they are they don’t know how to express what they feel. Perhaps if they did Channing wouldn’t be dead.

That all happens in 1959. The book then jumps back to 1938, to Lily and Everett’s early days as a couple and onward to their marriage and life together. All the years leading up to that night and to Channing’s corpse.

In 1938 Lily is a student, born to privilege and a certain wealth. Her ancestors were among the early settlers of the West. She’s not happy at college and when Everett shows interest in her during a break she’s happy to return it. He’s from the same background as she is, the same historic stock. He’s the default option.

They marry, but Lily is reluctant to make a show of it so it happens in Reno without their families. They go to live on Everett’s ranch with his father and sister and she gives him two children. It’s the life she was bred for but she has no aptitude for it. She makes invitation cards for parties hardly anyone attends. She doesn’t mind. She only organised the parties because she thought she should.

Everett is a simple man living the life he was always meant to – the life his father and grandfather and so on led. The 1930s aren’t a great time to be a rancher though and it’s not clear Everett’s that good at being one anyway. He’s not the man his ancestors were. Nor is Lily the kind of wife they would have wanted.

These people drift on monied but pointless. The war comes and in what should be a warning sign Everett feels no great need to visit or call home even when he can. He likes being away, he likes the undemanding company of other men. The war gives him a purpose, but wars don’t last and the ranch still waits for him.

Lily doesn’t find any purpose. The days of the old rancher society are fading and she’s idled into her life. She took the path of least resistance and it’s led nowhere in particular.

Everett’s sister, Martha, is another major character and fares no better than Lily and Everett. We know early on that she doesn’t make it to 1959. Martha’s a vulnerable and unhappy woman. She falls in love with Channing, years before he becomes Lily’s lover. He’s of the new California, brimming with schemes to get rich that never quite come off. He doesn’t marry her. Martha lives in limbo, caught between the expectations of her class and her love of a man who is never quite brave or bold enough to be worth the devotion she gives to him.

Martha doesn’t consider Lily good enough for Everett and criticises her for her infidelities, but nothing is resolved. These characters pass noiselessly through their own lives, coexisting and occasionally colliding but somehow never quite communicating. Everett doesn’t know how to say what he feels, and Lily would rather not:

The reconciliation made her quite as uncomfortable as the scene downstairs had; things said out loud had for her an aura of danger so volatile that it could be controlled only in that dark province inhabited by those who share beds.

Snatching at what had seemed for a moment a chance to steer the conversation away from the particular and into the realm of topics so impersonal and so unweighted that they could be safely talked about.

In Greek myth the dead inhabit Hades, a shadow-realm where shades of the once-vibrant living wander without passion or pleasure. Food tastes of ashes. All passion is past. Those who loved each other in life recognise each other but only memories of feelings stir.

Sacramento should be a long way from Hades, but here it isn’t. It’s not a parallel Didion draws but it struck me that Lily and Everett had somehow abdicated their own lives and created their own little sunwashed Hades.

As ever with Didion the prose is magnificent. These two quotes come from a rare moment of grace when Lily and Everett go with Martha and Channing for a few days’ vacation on Lake Tahoe:

In the shining clarity of that afternoon in the mountains, the air so clear and sharp and the horizons clean and distant, it had seemed to Everett for a while that they could have again what he had wanted them to have, could lie in bed and laugh, neither accusing the other of anything.

All that evening, he had pretended with her, had played her game because that was the way he wanted it too, and later they swam in the lake, the water so clear that with only the moonlight and the handful of lights strung out on the dock he could make out rocks thirty feet below the surface, so cold that swimming was like grappling with dry ice.

In a sense this is a novel of people sufficiently privileged as to be able to create their own problems, as opposed to most who find the world creates problems enough for them already. Despite that their lives are still tragic. They’re still with us the Lilys and Everetts. Children born to a past that’s already made their choices for them unless they have the strength of character to break away from everything that made them, and how many of us can do that?

Late in the book Lily reflects of Everett and Channing both that “they seemed afflicted with memory.” So they are. They’re born to expectations they can’t live up to; heirs to kingdoms they’re not fit to rule. It’s 1959, America is on the eve of the ‘60s (Run River was written in ’63) and the world is changing. Lily and Martha and Everett and Channing and all of them are leftovers from history and while their forebears wrote America’s story the narrative has now moved on.

Other reviews

Didion’s never a hard sell, but it was Emma’s review at Book Around the Corner here and Jacqui’s at Jacqui Wine’s Journal here that persuaded me to read this. Thanks as ever to both.

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Filed under California, Didion, Joan, US fiction

She drove to the beach, but there was oil scum on the sand and a red tide in the flaccid surf and mounds of kelp at the waterline.

Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion

When I was preparing to write this piece, I discovered that Play it as it Lays is in Time Magazine’s list of top 100 English language novels published since 1923 (when Time was founded apparently). It’s sandwiched between A Passage to India and Portnoy’s Complaint, because to Time’s absolute credit they don’t rate the top 100 in any attempted order of excellence, but just alphabetically by title.

My end of year list is a bit humbler than that, but it’ll probably make that too. Here’s how Play opens:

WHAT MAKES IAGO EVIL? some people ask. I never ask.

Another example, one which springs to mind because Mrs. Burstein saw a pygmy rattler in the artichoke garden this morning and has been intractable since: I never ask about snakes. Why should Shalimar attract kraits. Why should a coral snake need two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none. Where is the Darwinian logic there. You might ask that. I never would, not any more. I recall an incident reported not long ago in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner: two honeymooners, natives of Detroit, found dead in their Scout camper near Boca Raton, a coral snake still coiled in the thermal blanket. Why? Unless you are prepared to take the long view, there is no satisfactory “answer” to such questions.

The narrator there is Maria, a Hollywood actress whose career is on indefinite hold. Maria doesn’t believe in answers any more, but even so she has to give them. She’s in some kind of psychiatric institution being questioned by people trying to understand, though understand what exactly isn’t made clear yet. In a sense it doesn’t matter, because we already know they can’t understand.

NOTHING APPLIES, I print with the magnetized IBM pencil. What does apply, they ask later, as if the word “nothing” were ambiguous, open to interpretation, a questionable fragment of an Icelandic rune. There are only certain facts, I say, trying again to be an agreeable player of the game. Certain facts, certain things that happened.

PlayItAsItLays

The first section of Play then is Maria, recounting the facts. There’s then a page giving a perspective from one of Maria’s friends (“She was always a very selfish girl, it was first last and always Maria”) and another from her ex-husband (“Maria has difficulty talking to people with whom she is not sleeping”), and then 84 short chapters from a third person perspective. Didion said once that she wanted “to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all”. She succeeded.

Maria’s ex-husband is a film director, a successful one. They had a daughter together, Kate, who is mentally and possibly physically handicapped and in a long-term treatment facility. Maria lives for Kate, but Kate’s doctors and nurses would prefer Maria didn’t visit, they think it only makes Kate worse.

Maria isn’t working currently, so she goes driving on the freeway. It’s the only thing that gives her any purpose, radio on and no destination in mind. She eats boiled eggs, cracked on the steering wheel and eaten while driving, and drinks coke at filling stations. In the mornings she dresses fast to make sure she’s on the freeway by 10am, once driving she’s unafraid, totally absorbed; she’s in motion, going nowhere.

If I have a mental image of this book it’s of a scene that never actually happens in it; of Maria driving fast down a desert road, radio playing, a rattlesnake uncoiling as she hurtles past it heading into light and nothingness.

This then is a study of a hollow life, one in which things happen but where any attempt to impose causation on them is meaningless. Maria drinks, fucks, in one particularly difficult to read section has an (illegal) abortion. She is driven by fear rather than hope. Fear of losing her looks (not that she takes any pride in them, but as a model-turned-actress they’re her business), fear of not being able to keep it together any more, fear of her own irrelevance. She’s started sleeping into the afternoon, and she knows that’s not a good sign.

Maria sometimes meets up with her ex, but when they get together they just have the same stale old arguments (brilliantly captured by Didion – “Whatever he began by saying he would end by saying nothing. He would say something and she would say something and before either of them knew it they would be playing out a dialogue so familiar that it drained the imagination, blocked the will, allowed them to drop words and whole sentences and still arrive at the cold conclusion.”)

If it weren’t reductionist I’d say that this is a brilliant portrait of someone mired in clinical depression. That’s just giving Maria’s situation a name though, making it tidy. Perhaps rather it’s the novel itself that’s depressed, a statement straight out of emptiness. It’s not one to read when you’re feeling fragile.

Images of snakes permeate the book. At one point Maria tells her ex about a man who went into the desert to try to speak to god, but was bitten by a snake and died. Her ex asks what the punch line is, but there isn’t one. It’s easy to draw significance from snakes: biblical; sexual; all that poison and temptation, but Maria expressly denies the very concept of significance. Maria of course is a character, she focuses on snakes because Didion the writer makes her do so. For me as a reader however that creates a tension, because while Didion is obviously quite aware of how the various potentially symbolic elements in the book can be read (snakes, sex and death; eggs, fertility; gambling, randomness; and so on), the narrative directly undercuts the symbolism.

As a reader I can’t help but search for meaning in a text. I note that besides other empty people snakes seem to be the only life in Maria’s utterly artificial world of anonymous air-conditioned motel rooms and Hollywood parties. I can start seeing them as phallic yet impotent motifs of a poisoned life in which the only love is for a handicapped girl who may not even know who Maria is. All of that is of course there, but it’s perhaps again too easy, creating a story where really there’s just some things that happen. I’ve taken a long time to write about this novel because I find it hard to hold onto, the images of it remain vivid and powerful but the sense of it slips between my fingers. I’m left with nothing.

Naturally this being Didion the prose is tight, effective and frequently beautiful. Lines like “my mother’s yearnings suffused our life like nerve gas” or “bodies gleaming, unlined, as if they had an arrangement with mortality” stand out, but every page has something quotable. I came across one blog review here which simply features a sequence of Chandlerian excerpts from the text. You should check it out, because they do more to sing this novel’s praises than I ever could.

This is an alienated book. Maria is hollowed out, empty save in her love for her daughter Kate. The world around her reflects her own disaffection. I’m going to end with one final extended quote, which for me captured something of the awful sterility at the heart of this effortlessly readable yet still difficult to read novel:

“Let’s fuck,” the actor said from the doorway.

“You mean right here.”

“Not here, in the bed.” He seemed annoyed.

She shook her head.

“Then do it here,” he said. “Do it with the Coke bottle.”

When they finally did it they were on the bed and at the moment before he came he reached under the pillow and pulled out an amyl nitrite popper and broke it under his nose, breathed in rapidly, and closed his eyes.

“Don’t move,” he said. “I said don’t move.”

Maria did not move.

“Terrific,” he said then. His eyes were still closed.

Maria said nothing.

“Wake me up in three hours,” he said. “With your tongue.”

After he had gone to sleep she got dressed very quietly and walked out of the house. She was in the driveway before she remembered that she had no car. The keys were in his Ferrari and she took it, hesitating when she came out to the main canyon road, turning then not toward Beverly Hills but toward the Valley, and the freeway. It was dawn before she reached Vegas and, because she stopped in Vegas to buy cigarettes, eight o’clock before she reached Tonopah. She was not sure what she had meant to do in Tonopah. There was something about seeing her mother’s and father’s graves, but her mother and father were not buried in Tonopah. They were buried in Silver Wells, or what had been Silver Wells. In any case she was stopped for speeding outside Tonopah and when the highway patrolman saw the silver dress and the bare feet and the Ferrari registered to someone else, he checked California to see if the car had been reported stolen, and it had.

While preparing to write this up, I discovered a blog devoted to the book here, which features among other things a summary, a guide to the locations, a road map showing the drives Maria takes along the freeways and more. Here‘s a very different take on the book, a highly negative contemporary review from the 8 August 1970 issue of the New Yorker.

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Filed under California, Didion, Joan, US fiction