Reading Joan Didion in the Midst of Depression
Philipa Snow Reads Play It As It Lays and Finds the Right Kind of Feeling
Late last year, while passing through a depressive period, it seemed an opportune time to read Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays. There were odd vibrations, at that time, within most of my moods. I could tell that I was appearing a little crazy by the way that people looked at me nervously, and by the way that men, strange men, seemed more than usually interested. I assume this was because they sensed in me some latent desire for high-risk behavior. (Discovered after the fact, written in pen on the inside of a box of medicine: “A latent desire for high-risk behavior.”) In any case, I left the city for a week in order to give myself the chance to write for something other than money, and my partner stayed behind to do exactly the same.
This was Christmas; though its being Christmas meant, if I am honest, nearly nothing. That winter, the rain never stopped. The news was rarely happy. The season had no discernible cheer or goodwill.
Sometimes a book is the right book for some kind of feeling. I could not tell you most of what happened to me in December that year, but I can tell you verbatim the things that Didion’s heroine vows she will “never do.” (“Walk through the sands of Caesar’s alone after midnight, ball at a party, do S&M unless she wanted to, borrow furs from Abe Lipsey, deal. Carry a Yorkshire in Beverley Hills.”) I read Play It As It Lays in a single sitting while traveling back to my family’s home in the country, meaning that I didn’t read it so much as absorb it. I don’t think it matters, as it’s far more gesture than novel. It has a bare-bones bleakness that does not require much of a narrative.
The book, as you no doubt know, is the story of a 31-year-old divorcee, Mariah Wyeth, who is having a nervous breakdown and who owns a banana-yellow Corvette. It is also about Joan Didion: who was, then, a 30ish-year-old living under the threat of divorce with a yellow Corvette. I needn’t point out that she also had a nervous disposition. In the picture on my original order, the book is a different edition: that one calls itself “the truth about women as objects,” while my copy professes to be the story of one woman, both “burnt-out” and “beautiful.”
I don’t know that Play It As It Lays conveys much truth about women or women as objects, so much as it tells us about one singular woman, Joan Didion. This is not a universal story—what it does convey, however, is a fairly universal feeling in a year as exceptionally dark as the last one has been, and the current one is now. “The ultimate princess fantasy,” spat Pauline Kael in reviewing the novel, “is to be so glamorously sensitive and beautiful that you have to be taken care of . . . you see the truth, and so you suffer more than ordinary people and can’t function.” It’s, yes, girly; Shalimar, a Guerlain perfume, is invoked on page one. (The writer Cat Marnell, the beauty world’s own lovely and burned-out Maria Wyeth, writes: “Whenever I am feeling like I am starting to go crazy, I spritz on loads of Shalimar. It’s just so spicy and loony and gorgeous.”) As in Didion’s nonfiction, it is important to register what particular people are wearing and drinking, and which particular jewelry rattles around on their delicate wrists. “Allene Walsh has more dildoes around her house than anybody I ever knew,” one character says, offhand. ”Look at my new ring.”
People drink Pernod. The Levis jackets of teenage boys are noted. Maria goes to a party “wearing a silver vinyl dress she had bought to make herself feel better,” and the dress does not do any good. Nothing does anyone any good. In Play It As It Lays, as in life, people mostly feel aimless. As in life, there is abortion and suicide, and there are parties. There are no visible politics. After I read it, I felt an emptiness deep down in my gut that couldn’t have been more perfect for visiting home—or, I guess, “home,” as I have not lived there for ten years, and mostly tell myself that I would never want to again. “From my father,” says Maria Wyeth, “I inherited an optimism which did not leave me until recently.” From my father, I inherited a coastal hometown about whose virtues I have never been overly optimistic.
“What makes Iago evil?” Play It As It Lays begins. “Some people ask. I never ask.” Mariah Wyeth, like Joan Didion, often does not ask; as she writes on her psychiatric assessment, nothing applies, and so the exercise of asking is pointless. “Nothing matters, Didion writes. What one hears is, ‘Only what I have to tell you matters,’” Barbara Grizzutti Harrison complains, in her essay Only Disconnect. “And, for Didion, only surfaces matter. Didion is like a latter-day Scarlett O’Hara: she will think about whatever it is she thinks about tomorrow when she dabbles her toes in her pool.”
What Didion does, Grizzutti Harrison goes on to explain, is to parcel up the little observations and the minor evil happenings in day-to-day life and then use them to ratchet up dread. In Play It As It Lays, this has occurred by the end of the first chapter: “Now I lie in the sun and play solitaire and listen to the sea (the sea is down the cliff but I am not allowed to swim, only on Sundays when we are accompanied) and watch a hummingbird. I try not to think of dead things and plumbing. I try not to hear the air conditioner in that bedroom in Encino.” Maria goes accompanied to swim in the ocean because she lives in a mental institution. We, of course, are still left thinking about the dead things and the plumbing.
One can look for dark coincidences everywhere. One racks them up. There were things about the place that I grew up in that I did not care to question, either: somebody I saw out walking, late at night and alone, who was holding a Samurai sword; a crime scene, two roads down; the neighborhood talk that a man had hung himself from a tree in the garden in front of the house. I find no record of this suicide in the news: I believe in it anyway. There was a killer of women who worked the town for a short while, cutting the hair from women’s heads on public transport and placing a hank in the palms of the girl or girls that he murdered. As a younger man in Italy, the killer had “harassed those who rejected him with phone calls in which he would play a soundtrack to Profondo Rosso, a Giallo film about a fictional serial killer that used to play a melody before every murder.” I did not know this until recently; I grew up to love Giallo cinema anyway.
“One can look for dark coincidences everywhere. One racks them up.”
As it turns out, Maria believes because of a dream she has that the plumbing inside her house is blocked up with “hacked pieces of human flesh.” As it turns out, in the local murder case, a victim “had been bludgeoned to death with a hammer, and her breasts, which had been severed, were placed beside her head.” (Here is the truth about women as objects.) Once they’d apprehended the man who killed those women, they called him “The Hair In Hand Killer.” There is not always, I’m sorry to tell you, inventiveness. There is not often much poetry. Life does not provide us with a great many hummingbirds.
On Christmas Eve, I walked three miles to look at my favorite building on the seafront. I had no idea what else to do with myself. The place is called San Remo Towers, even though it is in England, and in spite of the fact that the sun rarely shines there. It looks as if it belongs in Morocco. The architect—a man whose optimism we can be sure of—meant to bring the style of Los Angeles over to Britain. A few years earlier, he had been the recipient of a prize in Soviet Russia. The prize was withdrawn without warning; this made the tower block, San Remo, this architect’s greatest legacy.
In December, it is especially obvious that San Remo Towers is not in Los Angeles. It is especially obvious that there is no Spanish or Moroccan or Los Angelean weather in sight; the sea, being grey, English sea, was especially choppy. There was a storm that the news had absurdly named “Barbara.” Thomas Mann lived on San Remo Drive in California, where he met with Susan Sontag; Cher and Madonna have both lived in the San Remo apartment building in New York. Our San Remo is different: it lacks the glamour of a place where somebodies converge. This past year, the flat in the penthouse ended up on the market and I returned, two or three times, to look at the listing. The current occupiers have filled their house with statues of life-sized horses. The décor is what might be called nouveau riche; which is fine by me, since I’m not even riche to begin with.
Another thing that the listing status says about San Remo Towers is that it’s “a piece of exotic 1930s fantasy.” It calls the area “seemly.” In the eye of the architect, as a beholder, it seemed possible for some unknown reason that a greyish English beachside town could be, assuming it tried hard enough, L.A. This is a seemly idea, in the sense of “decent.” It has an air of striving, which is sometimes even better for the constitution than the air near the sea in general.
On my walk back to the house, I dropped into a second-hand bookshop and bought a book called—truthfully, if not succinctly—The ‘I Was a Teenage Juvenile Delinquent Rock’N’Roll Horror Beach Party’ Movie Book: A Complete Guide to the Teen Exploitation Film, 1954-1969, which made me remember that Maria Wyeth had starred in a biker exploitation film called Angel Beach. In it, Didion explains,
she played a girl who was raped by the members of a motorcycle gang. Maria had seen it twice, once at a studio preview and a second time by herself, at a drive-in in Culver City, and neither time did she have any sense that the girl on the screen was herself. “I look at you and I know that . . . what happened just didn’t mean anything,” the girl on the screen would say, and “There’s a lot more to living than just kicks, I see that now, kicks are nowhere.” Carter’s original cut ended with a shot of the motorcycle gang, as if they represented some reality not fully apprehended by the girl Maria played, but the cut released by the studio ended with a long dolly shot of Maria strolling across a campus. Maria preferred the studio’s cut. In fact, she liked watching the picture: the girl on the screen seemed to have a definite knack for controlling her own destiny.
I think of myself as the kind of girl (or “girl”) who has a definite knack for controlling her destiny, even if I still need kicks now and then. A little later that day, I met up with a long-term friend who asked me seriously whether I really intended to go through life not having children, and whether I might not regret it. This felt not unlike being asked if I’d always want both of my arms: the answer seemed obvious. “There are only certain facts, I say, trying again to be an agreeable player of the game.” Nothing, as Maria Wyeth insists, applies. Different people need different things. This is fine. It has always struck me as odd to say that a woman’s “in trouble” to mean she is pregnant, when there are so many kinds of trouble a girl can get into if only she tries.
Play It As It Lays is based on a single real-life scene that Didion watched play out in Vegas, which suggested to her a woman—a “girl”—who had run into trouble, or run out of options: “A young woman with long hair and a short white halter walks through the casino at the Riviera in Las Vegas at one in the morning. She crosses the casino alone and picks up a house telephone. I watch her because I have heard her paged, and recognize her name: she is a minor actress I see around Los Angeles from time to time, in places like Jax and once in a gynecologist’s office in the Beverly Hills Clinic, but have never met. I know nothing about her. Who is paging her? Why is she here to be paged? How exactly did she come to this?”
How exactly did any of us come to this? “I was born in Reno, Nevada,” Maria tells us, “and moved nine years later to Silver Wells, Nev., pop. then 28, now 0. We moved down to Silver Wells because my father lost the Reno house in a private game and happened to remember that he owned this town, Silver Wells. He had bought it or won it or maybe his father left it to him, I’m not sure which and it doesn’t matter to you.” There is no longer a Silver Wells, Maria says—”It’s in the middle of a missile range.” Silver Wells is a place without context, being a place without form and a town with no townspeople. The town around San Remo Towers was, at one time, a drying-out spot for a number of out-of-town rehab facilities: there are thought to still be 60 operational facilities based in the area itself. It surprises me that I dream sometimes about owning the penthouse in San Remo Towers, since this would mean moving back home: but then dreams, by which I mean desires, are rarely about exactly the things you imagined you’d want.
“It has always struck me as odd to say that a woman’s ‘in trouble’ to mean she is pregnant, when there are so many kinds of trouble a girl can get into if only she tries.”
Nightmares are the same. I was not, that Christmas, certain that I wasn’t pregnant. There had been no question of our keeping the baby—this was not a thing that either of us wanted. I got lucky. Maria, who does not ever see a reason not to keep playing, even when her hand is bad, does not. Maria has an abortion. There were no lines more relatable to me in the novel than those where she is trying to induce her period by everyday witchcraft. “Although the heat had not yet broken,” Didion explains, “she began that week to sleep inside, between white sheets, hoping dimly that the white sheets would effect some charm, that she would wake in the morning and find them stained with blood. She did this in the same spirit that she had, a month before, thrown a full box of Tampax into the garbage: to be without Tampax was to insure bleeding, to sleep naked between white sheets was to guarantee staining. To give the charm every opportunity she changed the immaculate sheets every morning. She wore white crépe pyjamas and no underwear to a party.”
“The book needed an active moment,” Didion would later explain. “A moment at which things changed for Maria, a moment in which—this was very, very important—Maria was center stage for a number of pages. Not at a party reacting to somebody else. Not just thinking about her lot in life, either. A long section in which she was the main player. The abortion was a narrative strategy.”
“You have to be a special kind of depressive to read this book more than once,” says the writer Alice Bolin. “Especially more than once back to back.”
After my second consecutive reading of Lays that Christmas, I turned to the film adaptation; which, having been scripted by Didion and John Gregory Dunne, proves faithful, at least in its horrid malaise. Some of the lines are familiar—”Helene’s in bed, Helene’s depressed. Helene has these very copious menstruations”—and some are unfamiliar: “existentially,” for instance, “I’m getting a hamburger.” Most of all, there are the familiar symbols: freeways and rattlesnakes, high-stakes casino games, mazes; the box-ticking tests of a mental institution; the abortionist’s steel-lidded flip-bin and drain. Here, Maria Wyeth is played by Tuesday Weld—who, when she says “I’m not too crazy about people,” makes me think of all of the times that I’ve said something similar. (You can be not too crazy about other people but still too crazy, you know?)
In this adaptation, Weld is a walking suicide with honey-blonde hair and a turtleneck, and with the smart mouth and sad eyes and the slow, mooning, languor of the classic Didion heroine. She does not ever look un-chic. She cannot, because doing so would be more a betrayal than even the scrape-job. Poor Maria Wyeth wants to be regressed by a hypnotist—not back to a previous life, because she does not care about living, but back to being a fetus in the womb. It’s a way she can make herself feel guilty about the abortion. It’s also a way to imagine things differently, so that she can guess at the way things might have been had they played out with a hand that was better than this one.
Tuesday Weld, I’ve read, was Kubrick’s very first choice to play Lolita. “I didn’t have to play it,” she later said. “I was Lolita.” She also turned down Rosemary’s Baby and Bonnie and Clyde—“you think I want a success?” she spat. So here she is, playing a failure. On the cover of my copy of the novel, Maria Wyeth is blonde, and looks like a nail salon advertisement, and someone has written the number 10 on her forehead in thick black pen. On the cover of the “truth about women as objects” edition, the woman is Tuesday Weld. Actually, what’s on the cover is a photograph of a photograph of Tuesday Weld, an image of an object where the object is an image of an object. From outside the frame, a woman’s hand draws a tear on the actress’ face in pink lipstick. “NOW,” the second subtitle proclaims, “AN OUTSPOKEN FILM.”
What the film does best is the scene in which BZ, Maria’s one true, nihilistic friend, commits suicide using pills while she’s lying beside him in bed. “You and I,” he tells her, “we know something. We’ve been out there, where nothing is.” She does not scream or telephone for help, because screaming or telephoning for help, she understands, would be the unkindest thing under the circumstances. Everything between them is pure understanding; she holds him until there is no him except for his body to hold.
“I might as well lay it on the line,” Maria says. “I have trouble with as it was. I mean, it leads nowhere.” In the novel, between “as it was” and “I mean,” there’s a line break. The line break yawns and yawns; in a book full of white space, it still looks expansive. You know what it means: you read the break as if it’s a line saying: “here, I feel I have to explain myself.”
I had trouble with “as it was,” the problem being in part that I also knew it led nowhere. I left my hometown because I did not feel and could not see myself feeling connected—to the 15-year-old girls who looked like 40-year-old adult performers, the penny arcades, the pier-end theatre. The single “alternative” bar. I mean, whatever works—whatever turns you on; different people, as I said, need different things. It did not work for me. It turned me off with a deadening thump. I moved to the city as soon as it seemed feasible for me to move to the city, and pretended not to feel disillusioned once I realized I did not feel any more sense of belonging there than I had in the first instance.
What the city offers me, now, is traffic: both pure, human traffic and deadlocked vehicular traffic. The crush and rush of trains; the dread of barely-sustainable finances. There is no ocean. I find it hard to say, looking back, what’s so wrong with a penny arcade. Maria Wyeth has no connection to any particular place, or to anyone, which is why her mind is “a blank tape, imprinted daily with snatches of things overheard, fragments of dealers’ patter, the beginnings of jokes and odd lines of song lyrics”—lonely people, people without context, tend towards grabbing at snippets of other lives. Maybe this is why Didion proved so observant. She reads L.A. the way that the rest of us might read a newspaper; one feels as if she as if she is reading the place for something to do. “She will think about whatever it is she thinks about tomorrow when she dabbles her toes in her pool.”
“The L.A. in Play It wasn’t the L.A. that existed in the popular imagination of the time,” Lily Anouk writes at Vanity Fair, “a sunny land of innocent, adolescent pleasures, Surfin’ U.S.A., Eden before the fall. It’s shadow L.A., jaded L.A., and it’s hell on earth, or, L.A. being L.A., hell in paradise. It’s the L.A. of plastic lemons and silver medallions and masseurs who want to be screenwriters. Didion intended, I think, to write a hate letter to L.A.; it’s a love letter, though, in spite of itself.”
It is telling, to me and to Anouk, that Didion wanted Sam Peckinpah—“bloody . . . wasted, insane and indestructibly pure” Sam Peckinpah—to direct the adaptation of her novel. Nostalgia is bloody and mad, and most often it’s pure even if it’s a waste of our efforts. “I think that’s the way the whole thing began,” she told The Paris Review (about Run, River; but, indirectly, about Play It As It Lays too). “There’s a lot of landscape that I never would have described if I hadn’t been homesick. If I hadn’t wanted to remember. The impulse was nostalgia. It’s not an uncommon impulse among writers.”
“You can throw a novel into focus with one overheard line,” Didion has said. “If you don’t ever hear the right overheard line, then you’re lost forever in that novel.” Within that Christmas week at home, during which I saw very few people, I found a note in my Levis’ back pocket that said: “Marching orders; come back.” It was not in my handwriting, or in a hand that I recognised. This was, I thought at the time, fairly freaky.
I later passed a girl on the street on my way to the station who said to her friend, of their friend, that “all he does is use menopausal women.” I got on the train and another girl said, while yawning: “Have you told him that you’re seeing somebody else yet?” Cruelty abounds for the eavesdropper, which is why it’s no surprise it abounded for Didion, or that it does for Maria.
Here is the truth about women as objects: that sometimes, their objecthood runs dry and out by the time they are 40, and then they can do nothing other than cease to exist. In March, I turned twenty-nine. Didion, writing Play It As It Lays, was thirty or so and had seen one good thing—the halternecked Caesar’s casino girl—and had overheard yet one more: “Michelle Phillips told the best stories in town,” Eve Babitz recalls in the Vanity Fair piece. “I remember her once lying down on the floor and telling that amazing story about Tamar Hodel. [Hodel, then 26, decided to kill herself after a love affair ended badly. She asked Phillips, then 17, to help. Phillips, believing it her duty as a friend, agreed. Hodel swallowed a bottle of Seconal. Phillips fell asleep beside her in bed. Fortunately, other friends came home in time to call an ambulance.] I guess Joan was listening.”
“Here is the truth about women as objects: that sometimes, their objecthood runs dry and out by the time they are 40, and then they can do nothing other than cease to exist.”
I guess she was. I hardly blame her for it, as almost all writers are bloodsuckers. They are tenacious as beachside mosquitos (I might have said “we.” I do not know, and I mean this, why I didn’t say “we”), though what Joan Didion wanted to be when she grew up was not a writer at all, but an actress. “I didn’t realize that it’s the same impulse,” she once said. “It’s make-believe. It’s performance. The only difference being that a writer can do it all alone.”
That winter, I did a great many things all alone; some of which happened to be a performance, given the fact that loneliness itself is often performative. Driving the freeways, Maria in Play It As It Lays performs her disconnection from the rest of humanity with aplomb. At the end of the movie adaptation, Weld looks straight into the camera and asks us, the audience, “Why not?” She believes that “Why?” and “Why not?” are equally facile, insoluble questions. That “nothing applies.”
This is true; another true thing is that her very last move is to smile.