Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Between Books, and after a Re-reading of "Play It As It Lays".

My Chandler summer has come to an end. I am between books, having just finished "Farewell, My Lovely" and a re-reading of Joan Didion's 1970 novel "Play It As It Lays".I had not read the Didion for more than 20 years, and I wondered what time had done to it-

After reading it again, I think time has improved it. It is a wisp of a book that can be read in an evening. It is spare and ironic and pitiless as it tells the story of a minor Hollywood actress, already too old at thirty-one, whose only currency in the film world is her marriage to a working director. Maria Wyeth, the actress, is passive. Painful things happen to her because she is too listless to get out of their way. When she gets pregnant, and not by her husband, it is her husband who arranges the abortion. After a meaningless one night stand with an actor, Maria steals the actor's pricey car and drives away in it. Her husband cleans this up too, for her failures are beginning to threaten him.

For the real story of Hollywood is failure, not success. Here is Maria, worrying about meeting her agent-

"Only people in trouble came unannounced to see their agents.If Freddy Chaikin thought she carried trouble with her he would avoid her, because trouble was something no one in the city liked to be near. Failure, illness, fear, they were seen as infectious, contagious blights on glossy plants. It seemed to Maria that even the receptionist was avoiding her eyes,fearing contamination".

Of course Maria's husband once more intervenes. He calls his friends asking them to give her roles. But there is only so much he can do for someone who is no longer a fresh, new face. At a meeting about a possible role, Maria finds she is not being considered for the lead. She would be playing the lead's teacher.

This novel is forty years old. No one in it has a cellphone or a computer, but this does not make it less modern. Women still grow old too early and most of us are doomed to be minor. Remember what Robert Frost wrote in his poem "Provide, Provide"-

"No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard".

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