The True Fictions of Joan Didion
Revisiting 'Miami' and 'Play It As It Lays'
On the 45th anniversary of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, Nathan Deuel reexamines that novel alongside her eponymous non-fiction portrait of Miami.
I first read Miami as a junior at Brown, in a class about the Cuban-American experience. I hated growing up in South Florida, feeling as I did that the place lacked history, or in any case I had never been given an adequate guide to make its history matter as much as the older, grander history up north or across the ocean.
In Miami‘s early pages, Didion roaming my farcically nouveau home town, throwing down facts and scenes, anchoring all her storytelling in how, for folks down there, Bay of Pigs is not ancient history, nor are people as yet un-pissed about a not-that-old event or two in the Caribbean. In fact, as she reports, some remain so upset at Kennedy and Khrushchev that they still find it necessary in 1980 or 1985 or 1987, the year the book was published, to attempt to assassinate each other, to throw wine in someone’s face at a gala, to grow hoarse screaming during a protest, and to attend an all-night vigil at a statue marking the 24th anniversary of a failed invasion by CIA-trained warriors: “The women, in silk dresses and high-heeled sandals, dabbed at their eyes behind dark glasses,” Didion writes. “‘Es triste,’ one woman murmured, again and again, to no one in particular.”
Yet it wasn’t to no one in particular, this murmuring. That Cuban-American woman I hadn’t previously been equipped to notice or take seriously was doing so in front of a tiny, brilliant lady who, when I was 22, opened my eyes as if for the first time, giving my city’s subtle and difficult recent history a new and enchanting shape.
The mere information she harvested was a kind of revelation. “During the drought the city of Coral Gables continued, as it had every night since 1924, to empty and refill its Venetian Pool with fresh unchlorinated water, 820,000 gallons a day,” she wrote. This was where I’d learned to swim. “There were rains so hard that windshield wipers stopped working and cars got swamped and stalled on I-95… A certain liquidity suffused everything about the place. Causeways and bridges and even Brickell Avenue did not stay put but rose and fell, allowing the masts of ships to glide among the marble and glass facades of the unleased office buildings. The buildings themselves seemed to swim free against the sky: there had grown up in Miami during the recent money years an architecture which appeared to have slipped its moorings, a not inappropriate style for a terrain with only a provisional claim on being land at all.”
I was exhilarated by these sentences, by Didion’s fresh-seeming and bold method of close observation, by her odd ability to harvest the poetry of detail and at the same time engage in high-level cultural translation. What I wasn’t old enough quite yet to understand was that much of the reporting had been undertaken for a series of stories she wrote for The New York Review of Books. And yet I could see how she was steadily proving herself a shrewd guide as much as an honest one. “In this mood Miami seemed not a city at all but a tale, a romance of the tropics, a kind of waking dream in which any possibility could and would be accommodated.”
I was maybe most in love with her mix of confidence and doubt. Of the artist Christo’s wrapping some islands off the shore of Miami in pink material, something I’d seen in photographs at my dentist but never entirely understood was real, she wrote, “All had agreed. It seemed that the pink had kept changing color, fading and reemerging with the movement of the water and the clouds and the sun and the night lights. It seemed that this period when the pink was in the water had for many people exactly defined, as the backlit islands and the fluorescent water and the voices at the table were that night defining for me, Miami.”
It had been tough growing up down there, this indefinable place, where history wasn’t discussed, where the ink was still not wet, or worse yet, nobody had yet bothered to write any of it down. (I thought.) What little I did know or at least was made to understand was that if you mentioned Cuba or Venezuela or Salvador or Chile in the wrong room, tempers flared, friendships ended, situations might sour forever. Growing up, friend and parents and teachers were always on edge: Some were ashamed about whether they’d fled too soon, others were embarrassed by the vast quantity of money they’d smuggled out, and many more were upset they hadn’t managed to spirit away enough, or any at all. “There was no reason to know about Cuban history because history was what immigrants were fleeing,” Didion muses at one point.
Yet that wasn’t entirely right; the group of Caucasians ostensibly in power in Miami had also been loathe to take anything but their own white story seriously. Clans were formed and maintained, and whether those murmuring women in sandals preferred to keep company only with their own, or not, there were certain ugly structural problems. My father’s parents, for instance, had been among the first couples to live in University of Miami’s co-ed dorms. But they’d also been members of at least one club that discouraged or even tacitly forbade—even while I attended an event there as a young man—members who were African-American or Jewish.
I learned early on not to ask too many questions, of myself or others, and the result was that I desperately wanted to do my own fleeing—from Miami. By the time I left, I hadn’t even begun learning how to talk about the fact my mom had been born in Chile or that my sister and I couldn’t ever seem to dress well enough not to attract the wrong kind attention, for instance, at the Coral Gables golf course. We simply chewed our fried shrimp and stared out the window. With Miami, Didion gave me an idea of how I might go home, and this time I’d bring a notebook.
* * * *
Play It As It Lays offers a less richly historic but no less important exercise—a darker, more personal lens into how we can or cannot maintain the stories we do or do not tell about ourselves.
This is a novel. Central figure Maria has been in a couple feature films. She is married to a star director. They have a young daughter and a house in Beverly Hills and there’s another baby on the way and the director is shooting in the desert. There’s this part of the novel that is about luck, and how meeting a good spouse is about odds, and how we all attempt to balance our long game against the apparent reality of any one situation. “I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?” Maria asks.
On the very first page, our anti-hero is doing work similar to what we might expect of Didion herself: gathering information large and small, this time from a newspaper: “I recall an incident reported not long ago in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner,” Maria tells us. “Two honeymooners, natives of Detroit, found dead in their Scout camper near Boca Raton, a coral snake still coiled in their thermal blanket. Why? Unless you are prepared to take the long view, there is no satisfactory ‘answer’ to such questions.”
The game, the rules, the questions—as the novel unfolds, they keep shifting. Eventually, Maria is all alone, driving, because that’s the only thing that makes sense, her only power. “Sometimes the freeway ran out, in a scrap metal yard in San Pedro or on the main street of Palmdale or out somewhere no place at all where the flawless burning concrete just stopped.”
Los Angeles is a character, but not in the way the city of Miami is so centrally under review in that nonfiction book. Play It As It Lays is about people, in love and out. In a college flophouse, my future wife and I read the book, taking turns, learning about how people fight in a young relationship and how such things might have no clear beginning or middle and maybe they’d never end—maybe there was an irrevocable sense that what was happening now had already happened. In real life Kelly and I were trying to grow up together. On the pages we read, we became haunted by the slow, grinding horror of a fight about 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 same conclusion.”
What can you do? In the same way Miami, a quarter century after a trauma, might find itself rehashing the same arguments over and over, so too could a married couple arrive at a version of themselves that left no possibility of moving on. “She wanted to tell him she was sorry, but saying she was sorry did not seem entirely adequate, and in any case what she was sorry about seemed at once too deep and too evanescent for any words she knew, seemed vastly more complicated than the immediate fact that it was perhaps better left unraveled.”
It’s a slim novel, but Play It As It Lays contains so many warnings, among them the awesome dangers that lurk in a solitary life, once you’ve opened yourself up to the promise of a long love affair—and worse, how, when you’ve introduced the wild card of children, the potential pain grows exponentially, because of the unspeakable perils that lurk in each roll of the dice: “the four year-olds in the abandoned refrigerator, the tea party with Purex, the infant in the driveway, rattlesnake in the playpen.”
The director is baffled by Maria, who has become disgusted by him and his lack of fear. There are drugs and abuse and empty echoing rooms in Beverly Hills, Vegas, Silver Wells. These bleak monsters speak the language of power but are sent to the breaking point by triviality and deceit. At the heart of any human darkness, Didion seems to be arguing, there are people who are children of human beings, who themselves are either dead or alive, and still living, we either fight or flee, give up or not. We’re all a set of choices, Maria suggests. We all get that same teetering feeling of being on the edge, of clinging to facts both big and small.
Way out in the desert, a woman is sweeping sand off a concrete patio. “You ever make a decision?” she asks Maria, who is more or less dead to the world by this point. “I made my decision in ’61 at a meeting in Barstow and I never shed one tear since.” The woman sweeps and the wind blows the sand back in.
“No,” Maria said, “I never did that.”
* * * *
After this hazy notion has arrived and stayed for good, of Didion as an icon, we might forget the specific power of any individual title or moment in her stories: a small patio in the desert, a high-heeled sandal at a Miami vigil, the signal to an eager reader that you might make or your own life stories as important or intelligent.
We forget, perhaps, but can easily be reminded, that this formidably dark and instructive work she’s done gives us both an electric feeling and a terror—a desire to know that you can tell a story this good but a fear that if you do, you might scare the hell out of all of us.
It’s impossible not to worry over the kind of truths Joan Didion seems able to find. Maybe it’s as simple as this: Make a story out of a city but if you want to get at the dark heart of what lies between us, put it in a novel.