Duly Quoted

"A library is a hospital for the mind."

In the whole world there was not as much sedation as there was instantaneous peril.

Book: Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion

I really, really liked this novel. It reads like one of those ‘crazy-person-memoirs’ I’m so addicted to, and I don’t doubt it’s a rather personal example of Didion’s fiction. The protagonist is definitely one of those quintessential “sad girls” all over pop culture these days (think Cassie in Skins), but Didion is careful not to glamorize her misery, which I really, really appreciate. And her writing is beautiful.


Why? Unless you are prepared to take the long view, there is no satisfactory “answer” to such questions.
Just so. I am what I am. To look for “reasons” is beside the point. But because the pursuit of seasons is their business here, they ask me questions. Maria, yes or no: I see a cock in this inkblot. Maria, yes or no: a large number of people are guilty of bad sexual conduct, I believe my sins are unpardonable, I have been disappointed in love. How could I answer? How could it apply? 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.
They will misread the facts, invent connections, will extrapolate reasons where none exist, but I told you, that is their business here.

She dressed every morning with a greater sense of purpose than she had felt in some time…, for it was essential (to pause was to throw herself into unspeakable peril) that she be on the freeway by ten o’clock. Not somewhere on Hollywood Boulevard, not on her way to the freeway, but actually on the freeway. If she was not she lost the day’s rhythm, its precariously imposed momentum. Once she was on the freeway and had maneuvered her way to a fast lane she turned on the radio at high volume and she drove.

Why was she crying, he wanted to know. Because he made her so happy, she said, and for that moment believed it.

The woman walked in small mincing steps and kept raising her hand to shield her eyes from the vacant sunlight. As if in trance Maria watched the woman, for it seemed to her then that she was watching the dead still center of the world, the quintessential intersection of nothing.

When she was not actually talking to him now she found it hard to keep him distinct from everyone else, everyone with whom she had ever slept or almost slept or refused to sleep or wanted to sleep. It had seemed this past month as if they were all one, that her life had been a single sexual encounter, one dreamed fuck, no beginnings or endings, no point beyond itself.

The stillness and clarity of the air seemed to rob everything of its perspective, seemed to alter all perception of depth, and Maria drove as carefully as if she were reconnoitering an atmosphere without gravity. Taco Bells jumped out at her.

In the whole world there was not as much sedation as there was instantaneous peril.

“I’m not living here, I’m just staying here.”

Going to New York had not occurred to her but in the instant’s confusion of running into Carter on the street in Beverly Hills the idea simultaneously materialized and assumed a real plausibility. It was something people did when they did not know what else to do, they went to New York for a few days.

“I didn’t mean to be that way,” she said after a while.
“You never mean to be any way.”
It was always that way when he came by but sometimes later, after he had left, the spectre of his joyless face would reach her, talk about heart’s needle, would flash across her hapless consciousness all the images of the family they might have been…

That afternoon Maria had a small accident with the Corvette, received a call from the bank about her over-drawn account, and learned from the drugstore that the doctor would no longer renew her barbiturate prescriptions. In a way she was relieved.

In the kitchen she danced by herself and felt a little dizzy but still good. She liked his not knowing her. She did not much like him but she liked his not knowing her.

She did not decide to stay in Vegas: she only failed to leave.

“What’s the matter,” Carter would ask when he saw her istting in the dark at two or three in the morning staring out at the dry wash. “What do you want. I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what you want.”
“I don’t want anything.”
“Tell me.”
“I just told you.”
“Fuck it then. Fuck it and fuck you. I’m up to here with you. I’ve had it. I’ve had it with the circles under your eyes and the veins showing on your arms and the lines starting on your face and your fucking menopausal depression—“
“Don’t say that word to me.”
“Menopause. Old. You’re going to get old.”
“You talk crazy any more and I’ll leave.”
“Leave. For Christ’s sake leave.”
“She would not take her eyes from the dry wash. “All right.”
“Don’t,” he would then say. “Don’t.”
“Why do you say those things. Why do you fight.”
He would sit on the bed and put his head in his hands. “To find out you’re alive.”

My father advised me that life itself was a crap game: it was one of the two lessons I learned as a child. The other was that overturning a rock was apt to reveal a rattle-snake. As lessons go those two seem to hold up, but not to apply.


Filed under: Joan Didion,

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